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A plane crash in Alaska is raising questions about aviation safety in the state

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Eugene "Buzzy" Peltola Jr., who was married to Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola, died this week after a small airplane he was piloting crashed in the western part of the state. Alaskan members of Congress and family members have been involved in plane accidents before. The state lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to aviation safety. Alaska Public Media's Liz Ruskin has more.

LIZ RUSKIN, BYLINE: Eugene Peltola Jr. was alone in a Piper Super Cub that crashed on departure from a moose hunting camp near the Yukon River. He died before a rescue aircraft arrived.

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JENNIFER HOMENDY: It's a very remote, mountainous location. That's all the information I can provide at this time.

RUSKIN: National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy gave a preliminary briefing on Wednesday. She said the cause of the crash is still unknown, and NTSB is investigating it. For Alaskans, a crash like this triggers grim memories.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was killed in a plane crash in the state he long represented.

RUSKIN: That was in 2010. Stevens' wife, Ann, died in a 1978 plane crash. And in 1972, a plane carrying Alaska's then-Congressman Nick Begich and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs disappeared and is presumed to have crashed. It's not just politicians. Alaskans have to fly a lot. Many don't live on the state's minuscule road system. According to the Air Safety Institute, Alaska's fatality rate per hours flown in small private aircraft used to be twice as high as elsewhere. Despite a dramatic improvement since 2016, it's still higher than the national average. Same for small commercial aircraft.

COLLEEN MONDOR: We die a little bit at a time - one here, two there, three there.

RUSKIN: That's Colleen Mondor, a Fairbanks pilot and aviation writer with encyclopedic knowledge of Alaska's plane accidents. She thinks it's too easy for people to dismiss Alaska plane crashes because each one has only a few fatalities.

MONDOR: Every now and again, there's a big one, a midair that breaks through to international news. But mostly we die like this, one or two or three at a time. It just gets lost.

RUSKIN: She's sick of seeing the cause shrugged off as Alaska's bad weather.

MONDOR: It's not the weather, OK? It's not that, oh, my God, that weather was so bad. It's what was the information provided on the weather?

RUSKIN: The real problem, she and other aviation experts say, is that Alaska hasn't had enough safety infrastructure like paved runways, statewide communications coverage and - one of the most critical - weather reporting equipment. In Alaska, the FAA and the National Weather Service manage about 140 automated weather stations that provide crucial information to pilots. Tom George, Alaska manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, says that's not nearly enough.

TOM GEORGE: We'd have to get about 180 more stations in Alaska to have the same average density that the rest of the country enjoys.

RUSKIN: In an emailed statement, the FAA said that in recent years they've added new weather stations and that improving aviation safety in Alaska is one of their top priorities. In July, the U.S. House passed an FAA reform bill that would, among other things, call for more weather equipment to be deployed in Alaska. It's pending a vote in the Senate.

For NPR News, I'm Liz Ruskin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

AKPM Liz Ruskin