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Near collision on Tongass
by Patrick Jirschele


December 30, 2004

I just read the letter that Shelly Tradel wrote. She lives about 500 feet down the beach from me and called me right after the near collision happened. She was upset and rightfully so. Just about anyone who lives on the water and uses the Tongass Narrows regularly has at least one harrowing story of a close encounter with a floatplane.

First I would like to point out that nautically Shelly had the right of way. As far as her boat handling ability, I have seen her tie that boat to an unprotected dock in weather that would make ninety percent of the fair-weather summertime six-pack license holders soil their pants. She is quite capable. A fiberglass boat does not offer the impact resistance of an automobile. If they did survive the crash, it is not likely they would survive being pitched into the water in a high current area. Shelly's surmisal of three dead is not the hysterics of an upset mother but a pretty accurate picture that doesn't include the souls on the aircraft.

If the near accident wasn't Shelly's fault it must be the pilot's fault. Well, yes and no.

Lake Hood Seaport, which is part of Ted Stevens International Airport, is said to be the largest and busiest floatplane base in the world. At least that is what they say. lists an average of 190 aircraft operations a day. They also have a control tower. They list migratory birds and floating debris on the lake as obstacles.

Photo courtesy Federal Aviation Administration
Larger Photo

Ketchikan Harbor Seaplane Base has an average of 241 operations per day and no control tower. They list boat traffic, debris in the harbor and various air taxi operations in the harbor as obstacles. It is interesting where they show the waterway; right where the cruise ships anchor. I have been told by the FAA that, as a courtesy, pilots contact the airport tower.

If the information on is correct, Ketchikan is bigger, has more operations per day, and more obstacles than the largest and busiest floatplane base in the world, Lake Hood. Go figure. Besides more air traffic, Ketchikan has something else Lake Hood doesn't have. Boats. That's right, cruise ships, sail boats, kayaks, fishing boats, lighters, skiffs, tour boats, tug boats, barges, row boats, ferries, and anything that floats in what may be the busiest stretch of waterway for six or eight hundred miles. I called Lake Hood operations and asked how they control the boat traffic on the lake. The person I talked to acted like I was nuts. They don't allow boats on the waterway. That would be just plain stupid. Yes it is.

So whose fault is this near tragedy? There is plenty of blame to go around.

The United States Coast Guard is responsible for the safety of the waterway. Last spring I had a similar experience. I found myself playing chicken with a Beaver. I laid in the bottom of the skiff and when the plane cleared the boat, I could have touched its' floats if I stood up. When I called the Coast Guard safety office I was told that once the plane is an inch off the water, it is none of their concern. It is the Coast Guards fault for passing the buck.

The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for the safety of aviation. After we lived on Pennock for about a year, we started having floatplanes fly uncomfortably close to the house for the tourists. I started calling the FAA with some regularity. They were quick with excuses and generally seemed to be the appointed cheerleaders for the air taxi industry. The last time I called I got angry and said they wouldn't "do anything till they were picking bodies out of the Narrows". That was about the time a couple of planes had a mid air collision (probably the most underreported aircraft accident in aviation history). It is the FAA's fault for cheerleading and not regulating.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough is responsible for the overall health of the local economy and population. You can't live here and not know there is a problem in the Narrows. The sudden growth of the tourist industry has made soup of boats and planes of all sorts mixing in close proximity in the Narrows. There are no rules regulating where airplanes can be. If you own waterfront property you can park a floatplane and have an airport. It is time to search for a solution. What ever the solution is, it is sure to upset someone. Face it, pissing off a local businessman because you acted is a lot easier to live with than burying a six-year-old because you didn't act. Elected official or unelected official, someone in the Borough has to take the responsibility.

Ultimately it is the pilot's fault. Well pal, you are the master of your plane. It is too bad that while the bureaucrats are pointing fingers and passing the buck, you have to make a living. There was a lot of luck in the air that day. Maybe this will serve as a warning and someone will get off their butt and solve the problem. Don't hold your breath. It is too bad you have to practice your craft under these conditions.

Patrick Jirschele
Pennock Island
Ketchikan, AK - USA


Related Viewpoint:

Near fatality on Tongass Narrows by Shelly Tradel - Pennock Island - AK - USA




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