South Surrey father Greg Sewell is a member of a newly-formed task force that is to monitor the success of a just-launched aviation-safety campaign – a campaign based on the tragic circumstances that killed his daughter five years ago. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Daughter’s memory ‘could save countless lives’

South Surrey father says small-aircraft safety campaign is ‘a good start’

The father of a young woman killed five years ago in a small-plane crash in the Okanagan says the launch last week of an aviation-safety campaign inspired by the circumstances of the tragedy is “a good start… promising.”

After advocating for regulatory changes for years – and even though this announcement hasn’t quelled that drive – Greg Sewell said he is hopeful the education effort will save lives.

“It wasn’t what I was pushing for,” the South Surrey resident said Monday. “Then I realized, education is the way to go… as opposed to legislation at this time, to have a better impact on safety reform.

“If you regulate, a lot of (private pilots) aren’t listening anyway.”

The three-year campaign was announced in Kelowna on June 24, at the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association’s 2017 Convention and Trade Show.

According to information on COPA’s website, it is “aimed at educating pilots, passengers and the general public on key areas related to safety in general aviation.”

Sewell said he was advised of the campaign in February, during a meeting in Vancouver with Transport Canada officials, and was invited at that time to be part of a task force to track its progress.

Exactly how it will work has not been finalized, but its intent is to set a baseline “so we can see, are they getting it?” Sewell said. “If they are, maybe there’s no need to regulate.”

Sewell and his wife Fran have been pushing for changes since their daughter Lauren died after the private Piper Twin Comanche she was travelling in with her boyfriend Dallas Smith crashed at the Brenda Mines site near Kelowna on Aug. 13, 2012.

Smith – who was also raised on the Semiahmoo Peninsula – died on impact; Lauren, 24, suffered an unsurvivable head injury and died the next day.

The coroner told the Sewells that Lauren would have likely survived had she been wearing a shoulder harness; in a report issued in 2014, it was recommended such planes be retrofitted.

The following August, Sewell launched a website (www.smallaircraftsafetyreform.com) calling on Transport Canada to act on repeated recommendations from the Transportation Safety Board and the Coroners Service, and mandate that such crafts manufactured prior to July 1978 be retrofitted.

That same month, Transport Canada officials said the change was “not practical” and would endanger passengers.

“Most of these aircraft structures are not robust enough to support shoulder restraints in the event of a crash,” a senior communications advisor told Peace Arch News by email at the time.

The harnesses are mandated only in small aircraft (with nine passenger seats or less) manufactured after Dec. 12, 1986., but have been recommended for older aircraft repeatedly over the past two decades in both TSB and coroners’ reports

Sewell said he believes a strongly worded email that he sent to Minister of Transport Marc Garneau in May 2016 – criticizing the ministry’s inaction – was key in driving the latest announcement.

“I just ripped him a new one, because he was totally dismissive” of an earlier email regarding proposed changes around shoulder harnesses, Sewell said.

Of seven suggested reforms, six “could’ve saved (Lauren’s) life, had action been taken.”

In presenting his case to Transport Canada officials in February, Sewell said he set side-by-side photos of his father and Lauren – both at the same age – to drive home his point.

“He came back safe,” Sewell said of his father, who flew multiple bombing missions during the Second World War.

“My daughter goes up for the first time in her life, in a small private plane, and never makes it back. Him giving his life to the service and her counting on government to have the proper safeguards in place.

“If you’re going to fly by the seat of your pants, then don’t be taking innocent passengers. That’s what happened to my daughter.”

Sewell was in Kelowna for the June 24 announcement, and told PAN he could sense his daughter’s approval.

“I find it ironic that this national campaign would be launched so close to where the accident occurred, and felt her spiritual presence during the announcement telling me, ‘good work, Dad. You never quit’,” he said.

Monday, Sewell noted that COPA president Bernard Gervais privately acknowledged the potential impact of the campaign – “at the end of this campaign, her memory will have saved countless lives.”