Media Release : November 28, 2013 at Hazelmere Golf Course, Surrey, B.C.

Thank you all for attending this media conference.  At this time I would like to introduce our presenters and family who will be speaking today.  My name is Greg Sewell and seated to my left is my wife Fran.  Next to her is Pamela Smith, and next to me are Al and Debora Nortman.  Fran and I are parents of Lauren Sewell and Pamela is the mother of Dallas Smith.  Both Lauren and Dallas were killed on August 13th, 2012 in a small plane crash west of Peachland.  Associated TSB Report A12PO136 was issued yesterday, and I will be speaking to it on behalf of our families. I have left printed copies of my presentation at the back of the room, in order to allow you to listen closely to my presentation without needing to take notes.

Al and Debora are parents of Joel Nortman, who was killed along with his instructor, in a small plane crash near Harrison Lake on July 5th, 2011.  The associated TSB Report A11PO106 was finally issued just 3 weeks ago, and Al will be speaking to it on behalf of his family following my presentation.  You will learn that there is an interesting tie-in between these 2 separate fatal plane crashes.

So let me begin with our presentation and I will hand it over to Al upon completion.  Please withhold any questions until after we have both finished with our presentations.

Just over 15 months ago, on August 13th, 2012, we received the most dreaded news any parent could receive.  Our precious 24 year-old daughter Lauren had been involved in a small private plane crash while returning from Penticton with her boyfriend Dallas.  They were to attend her Mom’s birthday dinner after spending two days in the Okanagan.  When she didn’t respond to my calls and texts to her cell phone (as it became obvious they were going to be late),  I had a terrible feeling that something had happened  to them.  I turned on the TV 6 o’clock news only to see “breaking news” of a small plane crash west of Kelowna, and my heart sunk.  Over the next hour, our middle daughter Robyn made frantic calls to Penticton Airport, local hospitals and the RCMP to ascertain if this was their plane.   All the time we were shielding our worst fears from Fran, who was visiting with her brother Ted in the back yard, as he had just driven in from Edmonton for her birthday and the start of his annual holiday.  Finally, by around 7:00pm we received confirmation that this was indeed their plane, and that they had been airlifted to Kelowna General Hospital.  I will never forget breaking this terrible news to Fran.  In the midst of a happy birthday celebration, we were about to realize that our lives would never be the same!

In shock, we quickly gathered up a few personal items and piled into our car headed for Kelowna, all the while praying that somehow our daughter could be OK.  On arriving at KGH just before midnight, we sadly learned that Dallas had perished upon impact.  We were then escorted to the ICU where our precious Lauren lay unconscious, connected to  various tubes and a ventilator.  She appeared remarkably unhurt, with only a couple of cuts to her cheek and chin that had been stitched – and she was warm!  We so prayed that she would be able to heal.  However, our hopes were short-lived, as the trauma doctor very shortly showed us a CT scan of her brain.  I will never forget his opening words, “This is the worst possible news that any parent could receive.  Your daughter has sustained an unsurvivable brain injury and she will not make it.”

After giving us a few minutes to absorb this horrific news, he asked if we would consider donating her organs.  No words can describe how terrible it is to learn in one moment that your daughter is brain dead, and in the next moment be asked to donate her organs.  We were devastated.    However, two years prior, we had experienced the loss of a close friend who died while waiting for a double-lung transplant.  Somehow, that loss gave us the strength to consent to donating Lauren’s organs.  Two days later, after extensive donor/recipient tissue matching, Lauren was able to give her generous last gift – saving the lives of six people, and restoring sight to two others.

Meanwhile, back in Coquitlam, Pamela was enduring her own nightmare, with the RCMP arriving  at her door to advise that  her only child Dallas had been killed; and this, just two months after she had lost her partner Billy to cancer.

I think that I have said all I want to say about the last few days of our daughter’s and Dallas’ lives, as gruesome and tragic as they are.   We cannot bring them back – we can only honour their memories, and take whatever measures we can to prevent such future tragedies from happening to other families.

This brings me to the TSB Report No. A12PO136, which was finally issued to the public yesterday.   Some of you will have had a chance to read it over already, and if not, I have left copies at the back of the room.  Additional copies can be obtained from the TSB website.   After reading all 18 pages of the report, it is easily concluded that this was a classic case of pilot inexperience and error.  However, we are not here today to specifically assign blame and pass judgment.  Instead, we are here to make the public aware of the circumstances that led up to this tragedy; to point out the pitfalls of  this industry; to identify the players and regulators involved; to share our experiences and frustrations;  and finally, to offer recommendations and solutions  and seek relevant legal reforms so that other families will not have to endure the same horrors that our families have experienced as a result of these tragedies.

  1. Circumstances Leading to this Accident:

It is our firm belief that this tragic accident was both PREVENTABLE and SURVIVABLE. It is very clear from the TSB Report that a number of factors contributed to this accident, many of which stemmed from the pilot’s inexperience or failure to follow standard aviation practices and regulations, including:

  1. High Temperature (Hot)

The flight departed Penticton Airport at approximately 2:30 PM in extreme heat (32’C).   Flight school students are taught, as page 7 of the TSB Report states, that the combination of high temperature and high elevation can drastically reduce the aerodynamic and engine performance of an airplane.

  1. Weight and Balance (Heavy)

The pilot did not carry out any weight and balance calculations, and in fact the TSB investigation determined that the plane was overloaded by approximately 150 pounds at take-off from Penticton airport.  The passengers were seated in a configuration where the two heavier men were both seated along the right hand side of the plane.

  1. Elevation (High)

Penticton airport is located in a valley, flanked to the east and west by mountains.  Pilot signage posted at the airport states “Due to high terrain surrounding the airport, it is recommended that pilots proceeding east or west attain an altitude of 5,000 feet ASL minimum before leaving the circuit”.   The elevation at the crash scene at Brenda Mines is approximately 4600 feet, so it is evident that the plane  failed to achieve the minimum required elevation of 5000 feet before heading into mountainous terrain.

The three foregoing conditions known as the 3 H’s (Hot, Heavy and High) are basic fundamentals of all flight instruction, and pilots should be instinctively aware of these at all times.  In addition to these conditions, the TSB report also noted the following irregularities:

  1. Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) require each flight to be entered into a journey log upon completion. The pilot was not in the habit of following this requirement – failing to log at least the last four flights in the aircraft, as noted in the TSB Report.   In addition, there were no notes re mechanical problems in previous flights, which would have allowed service technicians to recognize and rectify recurring issues. Page 9 of the TSB report details repairs to the right engine just 5 flight hours before the accident, yet there is no mention in the logbook of previous defects or maintenance being carried out. The TSB has concluded that a key factor in the crash was the reduced rate of climb attributed to reduced power in the right engine – the very same engine that had been recently worked on – with no defects found!
  2. The plane’s engines were equipped with after-market turbochargers, which, had they been activated, would have likely provided sufficient boost capability to clear the trees into which the plane collided. According to the TSB Report, “it was the pilot’s practice to operate the engines without using the turbochargers to maintain manifold pressure”,  although we suspect she had not learned to operate them or was not aware of their existence.

Our family visited the crash scene at Brenda Mine on our way home from Kelowna General Hospital on August 15th, 2012.  The plane’s fuselage (with the seating configuration intact) and other parts were loaded on to a flat- bed truck.  After seeing the condition of my daughter in hospital, the condition of the passenger compartment, and in speaking with the Kelowna coroner, there is NO doubt in my mind that had  this plane been equipped  with  shoulder restraints, that Lauren in particular and likely Dallas as well, would have survived this crash.   This became even more unbearable to us upon learning that a retro-fit shoulder harness kit has been available since early 1995!   The manufacturers of this vintage 48 year old plane,  Piper Aircraft Corp, on January 18th, 1995 issued Service Bulletin No. 980 to plane owners of various models including the PA-30 Twin Comanche, advising of the availability of shoulder harness kits to be retro-fitted.   In their bulletin, Piper clearly stated that they considered such retrofitting to be COMPLIANCE MANDATORY.

We find it deplorable that the owners did not carry out due diligence when purchasing this plane in 2009 for use by their student children, to ensure that it was equipped with modern safety provisions to protect all occupants in the event of a crash.   Rather, they relied on a “grandfathering” provision in CARs that allows older aircraft manufactured before December 12th, 1986 to be flown with only lap-belts provided, as was the case with the accident aircraft. I will speak to this issue later in this presentation.

  1. Pitfalls of the Private Plane Industry:

We  believe that it is important for the public to understand the differences between private and commercial aircraft operation.  The vast majority of us have only flown commercially, and understand the safety provisions and procedures which are drilled into us prior to each takeoff.   Safety and maintenance are heavily regulated, and are paramount to this industry’s reputation.   The private plane industry on the other hand, although regulated by Transport Canada, relies much more so on the individual capability of the pilot.  Safety standards and  operating procedures  are not as uniform as in a commercial operation,  and pilot experience and training are not as scrutinized as in the commercial industry.  Unfortunately, my daughter did not realize these vital differences, as she had only previously flown commercially.   This was her first flight in a private plane, and she placed all her faith (and life) in the hands of the pilot, who she had befriended only six months earlier.

In reading the TSB report, it is clear that this pilot made poor decisions that had fatal consequences to her passengers.  We believe that this pilot exhibited a casual attitude toward flying, and question whether this is a direct result of inexperience, poor training, or both.  We also question why this industry is not more regulated when it comes to allowing pilots with limited experience to be permitted to carry passengers.

  1. Regulators:

Transport Canada is responsible for the issuance of both pilot and airplane licensing in this country, and for setting the industry standards, as set out in the Canadian Aviation Regulations (or CARs).  As such, ensuring the safety of the flying public should be at the forefront of their mandate, and promotion of the aviation industry and accommodating its associated lobbyist groups should be secondary.  In addition, when accidents do occur and TSB reports are prepared and filed with Transport Canada, it should be incumbent on them to carefully review the observations and recommendations of the TSB, and to enact relevant amendments to their laws as they pertain to public safety.   It is in this vein that we find the allowance of grandfathering clauses pertaining to the waiving of shoulder restraints unacceptable.  I have researched numerous TSB reports dating back over 20 years, that contain references to statements such as “if shoulder harnesses had been available and worn by the passengers,  the severity of the injuries may have been reduced or the injuries prevented”.  Once again, such a reference can be found in our TSB report under Findings as to Risk, stating “there is an increased risk of injury to occupants if the aircraft is not equipped with shoulder harnesses”.  Why hasn’t Transport Canada seen fit to require shoulder harnesses in all private aircraft, and how many more innocent passengers must die or be seriously maimed?

In order to legislate corrective measures to be carried out on private aircraft, Transport Canada must issue an Airworthiness Directive (AD).  When the Piper Aircraft Corp. issued Service Bulletin NO. 980 back on January  18, 1995,  advising of the availability of shoulder harness kits, which they considered  “compliance mandatory”, it would have been a simple task for Transport Canada to issue a corresponding AD, thus ensuring the increased safety of passengers in these type of planes.   What is particularly disturbing in reading our TSB report, is that Transport Canada had issued 17 AD’s over the years specific to this very plane, yet chose to ignore the opportunity to make this Service Bulletin an AD!  In my opinion, our daughter’s life would have been saved had Transport Canada seen fit to make this Service Bulletin an 18th AD.

In addition, Transport Canada requires the owners of private aircraft to carry liability insurance covering risks of injury to, or death of, passengers in the amount of $300,000 per passenger, and a minimum of $1,000,000 covering risks of public liability.  However, as you will learn from my next topic, only a very small portion of this amount is payable to grieving parents in British Columbia in the event of a fatal plane crash involving a son or daughter.

  1. Family Compensation Act:

Most of us in this province have never had occasion to experience the loss of a loved one or family member through tragic circumstances such as we have.  When something like this happens, you are horrified and overcome with immense grief, and soon come to the realization that life will never be the same.   We typically expect justice will be served, and that compensation of our loss will ultimately be available to help us cope with our sorrow.  However, this is shockingly either not available or thwarted under the current laws in British Columbia.

Wrongful death in BC is governed by the Family Compensation Act, which was developed from the UK’s Fatal Accidents Act of 1846 – and predates BC’s entry into Confederation in 1870!  Under this law, grief is not an allowable basis on which to claim recovery for the loss of a family member, and compensation is limited to the reimbursement of “reasonable funeral expenses”.  Therefore, obtaining any form of justice is thwarted, and, in order to potentially recover funeral costs, a grieving parent must take legal action against the wrongdoer, which normally would involve engaging the services of a lawyer.  I have received legal advice that such lawsuits rarely go to trial, as the insurance companies are only too happy to propose a settlement on the maximum basis of reimbursement of reasonable funeral costs.  If one refuses settlement, pursues trial, and eventually wins his case for wrongful death, the judge is limited in his award to reimbursement of reasonable funeral expenses by the aforementioned Family Compensation Act.  The defendant’s lawyers can now argue to the judge that the plaintiff was offered this same award as a settlement before going to trial.  They will argue that a trial and associated defence costs could have been avoided, and the judge will be compelled to rule that the plaintiff is now responsible to reimburse the defence for all their legal costs!  And this is called JUSTICE?

My point in bringing this to your attention today is to demonstrate the frustrations that are inherent in our legal system in this province when a wrongful death occurs.  I am actively seeking reform to this archaic Family Compensation Act, so that other parents in the future will not have to experience this level of frustration when dealing with the grief of losing a child.  BC is the only province in all of Canada that does not compensate for grief, whereas Alberta, for example, provides $75,000 in compensation  to parents who have lost a child to wrongful death.  These efforts to achieve reformation to this Act would not benefit us (as legislation would not be retroactive), but will help others in the future.

  1. Solutions, Recommendations and Reforms:

The TSB report and this presentation have exposed a number of mistakes and oversights that have culminated in the tragic loss of our children’s lives.  Sadly, we cannot bring them back, but we can gain some level of comfort, if our ongoing efforts toward legal reform can be achieved.  To this end, we are proposing the following recommendations and solutions:

  1. That Transport Canada scrap the grandfathering provision, and require all private aircraft to be provided with shoulder restraints for all seats.  Many plane owners will argue that this is not practical in older planes, even though such planes manufactured prior to the 1986 or 1978 exemption dates will ultimately be phased out due to age.  Therefore, in order to provide increased passenger safety, where it can be demonstrated that retro-fitting with shoulder restraints is impractical, I propose that all occupants be required to wear approved safety helmets, and that stickers be clearly attached to the planes’ doors advising that since the subject plane is not equipped with shoulder restraints the wearing of helmets during flight is a mandatory requirement of Transport Canada.
  2. That Transport Canada develop and legislate a graduated licensing program for new pilots, similar to that which governs automobile licensing in BC and other provinces. Such a program would place severe restrictions on new pilots to achieve a certain level of training and experience before they would be permitted to carry passengers.
  3. That pilot training programs be expanded to significantly improve on training for mountainous terrain conditions, and that Transport Canada impose a corresponding endorsement requirement for pilots who fly in these locations. It is our understanding that such programs are currently in place in New Zealand , where mountainous terrain is abundant.
  4. That the Province of British Columbia Ministry of Justice, reform the Family Compensation Act to bring it into line with other provinces in Canada – ideally Alberta’s.

In conclusion, I am calling on our elected federal and provincial representatives, specifically Russ Hiebert and Gordon Hogg, to provide all necessary assistance to help achieve the foregoing reforms to their respective laws.  The public deserves increased protection against tragic accidents and the resulting grief that must be borne by those left behind.  Lauren and Dallas’ memories will live on forever in our hearts, and achieving these recommended reforms would be a lasting legacy in their honour.

Thank you for listening to my presentation.  I will now turn it over to Al Nortman who will present his TSB report on the tragic death of his son Joel in July, 2011.