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Crashes in Alaska brought safety steps for tourism flights

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This photo, posted Sunday, on the Twitter page of the National Transportation Safety Board, shows the wreckage of a sightseeing plane that crashed in remote, mountainous terrain about 25 miles from Ketchikan in southeast Alaska on Thursday, June 25. (National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

JUNEAU, Alaska » A federal agency installed weather cameras and took other steps in Alaska in recent years to aid the safety of sightseeing planes like the one that crashed last week and killed all nine people aboard, officials said.

The locations of the webcams include Misty Fjords National Monument in southeast Alaska, where the plane operated by Promech Air crashed on a cliff above a lake.

The cause of the crash has not been determined and an investigation was continuing.

The safety measures were implemented after two sightseeing planes crashed within a month in 2007, killing 10 people and raising concerns about Federal Aviation Administration oversight of the Alaska air tour industry and pilot training to deal with weather conditions.

In the eight years prior to 2007, there were five fatal air tour crashes in Alaska, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said by email.

“A lot of people down south think we’re just a bunch of reckless cowboys up here who don’t care about safety, which couldn’t be further from the facts,” said Kevin Roof of Taquan Air, which operated a Misty Fjords flightseeing plane that crashed in 2007.

He welcomed the steps that have been taken to make aviation in Alaska safer.

The weather cameras have “made a huge difference in making a go or no-go decision,” Roof said about flights, noting the company no longer has to send a scout to check the weather on questionable days.

The webcams provide glimpses of near-current conditions, with images updated every 10 minutes, according to the FAA. The images can be compared with the view on a clear day.

Officials with Alaska aviation safety groups say strides have been made to improve flight safety in general in a state notoriously treacherous for pilots — many times because of weather.

All air tour operators with more than one pilot must now put their pilots through the training program, Gregor said.

Among other things, the FAA created a computer program that gives pilots a visual display of the route to and from Misty Fjords, and air tour companies can program in different weather scenarios so pilots can see what they might encounter and know when they should turn around for safety reasons, he said.

Every region of the nation’s largest state has its own unique weather systems and patterns.

Ketchikan, like most of southeast Alaska is in a rainforest, where subtle temperature changes in the high-moisture content can make clouds suddenly appear or disappear.

Weather continuously shifts in mountainous southeast Alaska, making for different conditions in a small geographic area. It can be beautiful in Misty Fjords National Monument but horrible just a few miles away in Ketchikan.

Officials have not released any details about the weather at the site of the crash last week. The eight passengers on the plane were on an excursion offered through Holland America Line. The pilot also was killed.

Holland America has suspended flightseeing tours operated by Promech, cruise line spokeswoman Sally Andrews said by email.

No decision has been made on the length of the suspension, she wrote.

Andrews said Holland America will continue offering flightseeing excursions in Ketchikan and other Alaska ports but has offered guests a chance to cancel any currently booked flightseeing excursion this week with a full refund.

Associated Press reporter Mark Thiessen contributed to this report from Anchorage, Alaska.

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