On Flying Alaska: Reflections, reminders, and responsibility

K2 Aviation provides transportation to and from the Sheldon Mountain House and Chalet via Ruth Glacier. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

In the wake of a fatal plane crash involving a well-respected flightseeing company, would-be passengers should be aware of their role in small-plane safety while flying in Alaska.

Last November I climbed aboard a small airplane on the tarmac of Talkeetna’s small airstrip, bound for Denali’s Sheldon Amphitheatre and a few days of winter adventuring. It was cold enough that my fingers burned grabbing the metal doorway to steady myself on the narrow steps leading to my seat. My breath, and that of my companions, hung in the air while the pilot made final preparations for our hourlong flight. 

“Jesus,” I thought to myself, “If something happens, we’re screwed.” 

I shivered slightly in my down jacket and turned my attention to the safety features of our tiny little aircraft as explained by the pilot. I recall craning my neck to the location of “survival equipment” stashed in the back of the plane; one, because I’m always that person who actually listens to safety briefings; and two, because I’d never made a winter flight in an area as desolate as Denali National Park. I’d be lying if I denied my nervousness. 

Ultimately, all went well, the day was blue sky beautiful, and everything from take-off to glacier landing went without even the slightest hitch. By the time I returned to civilization 24 hours later, nerves had been replaced by a sense of wonder that aircraft can and do fly around Alaska all year, creating similar experiences for legions of people, including the excited flightseeing population. 

But on August 4, 2018 something went wrong. Horribly wrong. A plane from the very company that had safely transported me up and back from the icy reaches of Denali careened into the summit of a neighboring peak, killing four passengers and a respected pilot. It’s not yet known what happened, FAA investigators, the National Park Service, and the company haven’t yet pieced together the moving parts; and it’s possible we’ll never know. The plane, and its souls, will remain on Thunder Mountain’s rugged, trecherous terrain. 

But, as with many sorrow-filled events, there are realizations and reflections. Mine come with knowing that I have probably flown that very aircraft, on that route. I also know the risks; living and working in the environment I do, my days are filled with them. It is also important to note that I trust the company, K2 Aviation, unequivocally.

Passengers who fly in small planes often believe they have little control over their environment, and, to a certain extent, they are right. But passengers and air carriers do have responsibilities to each other in what the FAA calls a “Circle of Safety,” established after a startling number of aircraft incidents in the 1990s. The Circle of Safety places the passenger within the connection, having rights, assessing risk, and taking to heart responsibilities for the miles they are about to cover with a carrier they trust. 

Heady, isn’t it, to realize we passengers assume a level of responsibility whenever we climb into a plane? And now more than ever I want Alaska visitors to realize it, too. 

Flying is an integral part of Alaska’s allure, mystery, and adventure. We shouldn’t stop doing it, and I hope to heaven no one decides not to fly in the wake of this recent tragedy. But we owe it to the people who now rest upon Thunder Mountain to learn what we can and adapt where we must. 

Wheels up for the Circle of Safety and passenger rights and responsibilities while flying Alaska. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

The Circle of Safety

Passengers have the RIGHT to: 

Know location and use of survival equipment, emergency locator transmitter (ELT), fire extinguisher, flota- tion devices and oxygen

•Understand the operation and know the location of the emergency exits

•Know how to work the seatbelt

•Ask whether the aircraft is equipped with instruments for flying at night and in clouds. Be assured the pilot is trained to fly using those instrument

•Know if the aircraft weight and balance has been calculated

•Be apprised of and understand the weather forecast

•View the pilot’s license, rating and training currency

•Know if a flight plan has been filed

Passengers have the RESPONSIBILITY to: 

•Pay attention during the safety briefing

•Tell the pilot that you can fly at another time if the weather is questionable

•Accept any decision to delay or cancel a flight

•Heed established load limits for the airplane

•Be alert to pilot fatigue and that pilots have flight and duty time limitations

•Wear clothing that’s appropriate for the season

•Do not ask the pilot to fly below 500 feet

•Remember that pilots can make mistakes; if you have a question, ask it


Posted in Flightseeing, Health and Safety and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for these critical reminders and, in the true sense of the word, encouragements Erin. Most people never think about things like the weight and balance of the plane they are in, yet how many small planes, including under commercial operation, have been brought down in Alaska by overloading? And if they do have questions, they may not feel that it is their place to speak up. You hit the nail on the head with this blog post My Friend – well done.

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