Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Is this the day we might burn up, Bob?
Within my first few weeks here in AK, I've jumped on a couple opportunities to do fieldwork with some folks who have a lot of experience working out here. Much of the work out in Alaska's bush requires helicopters or small planes because there are few roads. So, one of the first things I was asked to do was to take a small aircraft safety class over at the Fairbanks office of the Bureau of Land Management. Early on a Wednesday morning I pile into a sleepy classroom with a couple dozen folks who are about to start the summer field season for the park service or the university.
Our instructor is a stringy old guy who starts the class by telling us about all of the crashes--he calls them unanticipated landings--he's survived and how. He reminded me of my high school health teacher who showed us videos of don't-drink-and-drive stories like "Blood on the Highway" and "The Last Prom" to scare the crap out of us.
A lot of people have asked me why aircraft crash so often in the Arctic. My basic understanding is that the reasons are a combination of poor weather conditions, sparse weather monitoring, and the aircrafts in question. The lower part of the atmosphere (troposphere) is thin in the Arctic and the result is that clouds are very low and it's difficult to climb the mountinous topography in low clouds. Many Alaskan towns are coastal and subject to a cloudy maritime climate. Few weather stations exist relative to the vast area of the state, so weather prediction has little skill. And finally, people fly around in really old aircraft. If you are trying to summit a 3000 meter snowy mountain with a 2500 m cloud base in a helicopter built during the Korean war, you are in trouble. It's difficult to visually separate the clouds from the snow and easy for a pilot to get disoriented.
The basic advice we got in this class was "don't wear synthetic fiber clothing while flying in small aircraft. If you crash, you will have fuel on you and then you will catch on fire and your clothes will melt onto your skin. So wear all cotton or a Nomax fireproof flight suit. Second wear a plastic impact-proof flight helmet which can sustain even multiple contacts with a spinning rotar on the helo. The class was interesting/terrifying. My soon-to-be fieldwork companion, Bob, asked me if I learned anything. "Oh and by the way, we don't have any of that safety gear...hee hee ha hoo hoo (hysterical laughter)"...
Posted by jc at 9:54 PM