Greg Sewell

Plane-tragedy similarities ‘fall on deaf ears’: victims’ parents

"It would be nice if we were the last ones to go through this. We won't be."

The parents of three victims killed in two separate plane crashes are joining forces to pressure Transport Canada into legislating reforms they say would likely have prevented the deaths of their children – had they been enacted when first recommended.

“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 the crash,” Greg Sewell, the father of victim Lauren Sewell, said during a news conference Thursday morning in South Surrey.

“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?”

Lauren Sewell & Dallas SmithLauren Sewell, 24, and Dallas Smith, 30 – who attended school on the Semiahmoo Peninsula and started dating less than six months before the crash – died after the Piper Twin Comanche they were passengers in crashed into a wooded area just west of Kelowna on Aug. 13, 2012.

Smith, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, died on impact. Sewell, who had been seated immediately behind the pilot, died two days later from what doctors told her parents was an “unsurvivable brain injury.”

According to a Transportation Safety Board report released Wednesday, all four on board suffered severe head injuries in the crash.

As contributing factors, the report names a reduced rate of climb related to atmospheric conditions, reduced visibility due to forest-fire smoke in the area, the craft being overweight at take-off, reduced power in the right engine and a decision not to use available turbochargers.

Findings include that “the safety of passengers could have been improved if the aircraft had been equipped with shoulder harnesses to complement the available lap belts.”

Sewell’s father noted the report suggests many of the factors can also be linked to pilot inexperience.

For Al Nortman, that is a key link between the crash and one 2½ years ago that killed his son, Joel, that can’t be ignored.

Joel died July 5, 2011 during a training exercise near Harrison Hot Springs. Nortman, a Vancouver resident, told reporters that the primary instructor for the pilot of the ill-fated Piper Comanche was the same instructor who died alongside his son.

Nortman said that despite that link, he doesn’t blame the instructor. That lies with the school his son trained at and, more so, to Transport Canada, he said, “for the lack of rules and regulations.”

The TSB report notes that the pilot of the Piper that crashed last year did not calculate weight and balance for the flight, and had relatively little experience or the organizational support that a pilot flying for a commercial operator would have.

“It’s high-time that Transport Canada start paying attention here,” Nortman said.

Pilots traversing mountainous terrain should be required to earn an endorsement in the skill, he said.

Sewell noted Transport Canada has received “dozens” of TSB reports in the last 20 years that highlight the increased risk of injury associated with a lack of shoulder harnesses in such aircraft.

“This recommendation has gone unnoticed,” he said. “It seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The safety of the passengers should be paramount.”

In addition to calling for TC to rectify that gap, Sewell said he is proposing – for situations where retro-fitting is impractical – that occupants of such craft be required to wear approved safety helmets; that the federal agency develop and legislate a graduated licensing program for new pilots; that pilot programs be expanded to improve training for mountainous terrain conditions; and for local politicians to push for changes to the Family Compensation Act.

Regarding the latter, Sewell said B.C. is the only province that does not compensate families for grief in the event of a wrongful death.

Smith’s mother, Pamela, said she has no plans to launch civil action. And while she, too, hopes recommendations in the TSB report will be acted on, she isn’t holding her breath.

“It would be nice if we were the last ones to go through this,” Smith said. “We won’t be.”

The TSB report does note that following the crash, NAV Canada and Transport Canada issued a warning on recommended altitudes when departing the Okanagan Valley; as well, a new sign has been installed at the Penticton Airport advising pilots to climb to 5,000 feet prior to turning west or east when leaving the Okanagan Valley.

Transport Canada officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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