Ted Stevens, Alaskan to the end

By Felix Salmon
August 10, 2010
Ted Stevens has died at age 86, and the news is getting a lot of play this afternoon because of the very Alaskan cause of death: a plane crash. Stevens reportedly had a premonition that he would die in such a manner, and at the same time was instrumental in keeping the regulations concerning flying in Alaska as light as possible.

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Ted Stevens has died at age 86, and the news is getting a lot of play this afternoon because of the very Alaskan cause of death: a plane crash. Stevens reportedly had a premonition that he would die in such a manner, and at the same time was instrumental in keeping the regulations concerning flying in Alaska as light as possible.

The site of the crash — the small town of Aleknagik — is unreachable by road from Anchorage or from anywhere else, really, unless you’re driving from Dillingham. Alaska has precious few roads, and most of the state can be reached only by small planes, which are by their nature pretty dangerous things. But if you’re going to do the whole Alaska thing — and Stevens has been called the “Alaskan of the Century” — then you’re going to have to come to terms with the danger and make peace with the fact that you might end up in a crash.

In other words, this crash is not a sign that there was any irony in Stevens’s opposition to flight-safety rules in Alaska, and nor is it a sign that such rules need to be introduced or tightened up. It’s just symptomatic of what the NYT calls “a fate that is not unknown to many in Alaska”. A free country is one in which informed individuals can and should be allowed to take life-threatening risks, including smoking and drinking and driving cars. In Alaska, many people regularly take the risks associated with flying in small planes, largely because without those risks, much life in the state would become unlivable.

Stevens was a great defender and proponent of the Alaskan way of life. It’s not for everybody. Indeed, Alaska has the smallest population of any of the 50 states*, with a population roughly a quarter that of Brooklyn. Those who do choose to live and settle in Alaska are a pretty unique and special breed, and the risks they take are very different to those familiar to most of the rest of us. That’s part of being Alaskan.

It’s tragic that a plane crash has killed Senator Stevens. But it’s also something he was well aware could happen any day, and in a weird way it’s a fitting way for this individualist to go. He certainly wouldn’t have wanted any government meddling to constrain his ability to die this way.

Update: Apologies if there are difficulties commenting on this post. Working on it. And I’m informed that Alaska is not the least populous state, Wyoming is. But they’re not far apart.

Update 2: James Fallows is, predictably, the go-to guy on this subject.

10 comments

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“A free country is one in which informed individuals can and should be allowed to take life-threatening risks . . . .” That is a very eccentric definition.

Posted by Charles1111 | Report as abusive

Alaska is the fourth-least populous state, ahead of Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota.

Also, the mandatory registration on this web site is terrible. That form crashed ten times before I got it to go through. Yikes.

Posted by Name13579 | Report as abusive

Um, I have to disagree with your characterization of small planes as “pretty dangerous things.” While not having as good a safety record as airliners, they are arguably as safe as autos (depending on how you want to measure safe). They are certainly less forgiving of error than autos, however.

But I strongly agree with your implication that you have to be different to live in Alaska. In particular, you have to love the outdoors and wilderness in a way that the vast majority of us in the CONUS can never understand and appreciate.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Felix, this is a thoughtful and original take, perhaps inspired because you just happened to be back from Alaska when this tragedy happened. It’s a very interesting way to give the later Senator–and his worldview–their due.

Posted by EconWatcher | Report as abusive

“pretty unique” – grr. you’re either unique or you’re not. just like you’re either dead or you’re not.

Posted by Worsel | Report as abusive

Felix, this is a thoughtful and original take, perhaps inspired because you just happened to be back from Alaska when this tragedy happened. It’s an interesting way to give the late Senator–and his worldview–their due.

Posted by EconWatcher | Report as abusive

Worsel – Schroedinger would have something to say about “you’re either dead or you’re not”.

Posted by nicfulton | Report as abusive

Ted’s wife also died years ago in a plane crash. The Alaskan way to leave this world indeed.

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive

Besides the weather, the distance, the number of single-engine aircraft with many private pilots, the scarcity of open fields and roads for emergency landings, the mountains, and the lack of air traffic control, I don’t know what the big deal is about Alaska flying.

Posted by dsucher | Report as abusive

Can you please back up your claim that small aircraft “which are by their nature pretty dangerous things”?

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive