As safety investigators work to determine what caused the fatal plane crash at North Spirit Lake, pilots and aviation experts are speaking out about the unique challenges posed by flying into remote northern communities. They say problems can be caused by limited information on weather and pilot fatigue.
Virgil Moshansky, a former Alberta justice who presided over a public inquiry into a 1989 Dryden air crash that claimed 24 lives, said many northern pilots push the limits.
"Exhaustion is a problem," Moshansky noted. "They defy weather often, in order to get the job done."
He added pilots sometimes have to fly when they shouldn't because they need to make a living, and make money for the companies that employ them.
Moshansky said airlines should have tighter regulations around hours for pilots, as well as safety checks.
Approaches difficult at northern airports
Wasaya Airways provides scheduled service into many remote northern communities, including North Spirit Lake.
Jason Young, the airline's director of operations, said getting accurate information on weather and approaches is difficult at many northern airports.
"You have to extract a lot of data from limited data, from the weather maps that are provided," he said.
Young said the crash at North Spirit Lake caused Wasaya to take a second look at safety measures put in place at the airstrip.
He said North Spirit is one of the few airstrips in the north where GPS co-ordinates aren't available for pilots to line up and approach a runway.
Improve navigation technology
The head of Nishnawbe Aski Nation said navigation technology has to be improved, and remote communities need localized weather reports, beacons at air strips, and other safeguards. Grand Chief Stan Beardy said it's not acceptable that flying conditions are less safe in the North.
"Those are just standard safety measures that are found anywhere in Canada," Beardy said. "All we're saying here is that ... [regardless of ] what ... went wrong in that airplane crash … these are things that have to be looked at. They may not exist at this point in time."
He noted problems came to light with previous accidents in the north, but nothing changed.
Young agrees that pilots flying in the far north face different challenges when using remote airstrips.
When up-to-date weather conditions are difficult to get, pilots are forced to make a sometimes precarious judgment call.
"We call it missing," Young said. "When you do an approach [and] can't see the ground, the pilots will miss. They'll essentially just take off again and opt not to land."