Five years ago, my cousin Lauren Sewell died in a small airplane crash.
Some accidents like these are just that: purely accidental, purely tragedies, purely blameless. But the surviving family members who do the work to understand what went wrong will tell you that these true accidents number very few. And it is a sad truth that real people, not crash dummies, are too often treated like guinea pigs. Perhaps not consciously, but by not imposing critical safety regulations, by ignoring the common causes lurking behind multiple tragedies, through their own inaction, safety regulators are making a choice. And this is a choice that ends up sacrificing lives.
I first want to say a few words about Lauren. Although we were not very close since we lived far apart all of our lives (she in Vancouver, I in Edmonton), I saw her every summer growing up when we came out west to visit and spend some time at our shared cabin. I was six years younger than her and I remember always admiring her. She was the person I looked up to in my family and thought “I want to be like her.” You remember thinking that about your older cousins or older siblings when you were young? She was so cool to me: she had this beautiful blonde hair and an easy happiness about her, and we both loved horses, so I could kind of imagine her as a “future me.” It’s the silly sort of thing you do as a kid with your role models, but I think it was good for a shy kid like me to have an outgoing girl like Lauren to imagine myself as.
I can’t remember what exactly made me interested in horses in the first place, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because of Lauren’s influence. She encouraged me and I remember receiving a horse grooming kit from her for my birthday one year and it was just my favourite thing. I remember treating it like delicate jewellery: I wanted each brush perfectly clean and in its perfect place in the carrying caddy it came in. It helped me envision a future where I could own and be responsible for a beautiful creature like a horse and I felt so bolstered by the fact that someone thought I could do a big thing like that. Although I always loved animals, Lauren’s influence and support grew that love even bigger and now I am lucky enough to study animals for a living. So I just want to say thank you to Lauren, for making that mark on my life and believing in me the way you did.
In the same loving and giving way I saw her live her life, Lauren continued to give after her death, donating her organs to those in need. I know people have a tendency to elevate those that have died to “sainthood” and ignore their shortcomings after they’re gone, but I think the honest truth is that there are just a lot of good people in the world and whenever we lose one it is sad. Most people I know have good qualities that outweigh their shortcomings and Lauren was no different. A really lovely human being that the world is less without.
Lauren’s father, my uncle Greg Sewell, has spent the last five years understanding the circumstances of the crash and researching the current regulations for small aircraft safety. The upshot of his hard work is one crushing fact: Lauren could have lived. This was not a blameless, unpreventable tragedy. Small aircraft are not required to have shoulder restraints, nor are passengers required (or even recommended) to wear a helmet. When you really think about this, it is abhorrent. Children must wear helmets simply to ride a bicycle around the block. The number of cars on the road lacking shoulder restraints today is restricted to a tiny number of restored antiques. This is not normal for what we consider to be the safe transport of human beings. On top of that, there are several other safety concerns with current small aircraft regulations, including issues with flying in mountainous areas and the pilot licensing procedure.
I have been thinking about writing on this subject for a long time, or at least doing something to spread Lauren’s story and help bring about some justice and some positive change to save lives that can be saved and that surely will be lost if something is not done. My uncle has been working hard to try to bring about change in the legislation governing small aircraft safety in Canada and to this end, launched the Small Aircraft Safety Reform project in 2015. You can read here the seven safety reforms he has been advocating for to help save lives when it comes to small aircraft use. After five years of struggling to have these important concerns heard and addressed, finally in June of this year Transport Canada and the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) are launching a 3-year General Aviation Safety Campaign.
The most important thing now is to spread the word. Please, if you know anyone who is involved in operating small aircraft, be a part of this effort to educate pilots and owners: share the seven safety reforms and the resources of the General Aviation Safety Campaign. In 2015 alone, several more small aircraft accidents claimed the lives of former Transport Minister Jean Lapierre and members of his family as well as former federal Cabinet Minister and Alberta Premier Jim Prentice and several of his friends. This issue has more widespread effects than you would think, and it does not discriminate its victims. Thank you for reading.