Earlier this week, I came across a very compelling story out of Canada. The headline: “Fly At Your Own Risk: Why is Transport Canada moving toward self-regulation for the country’s airlines?”
I find that my mind keeps going back to reporter Carol Shaben’s story, featured in The Walrus magazine. So, I’ve decided to write a bit about it here, not just because the topic itself is worthwhile. But also because the reporting really shines.
This is journalism that matters. And it’s done the good ol’ fashioned way; with lots of digging and relevant interviews. To top it all off, Shaben is an excellent writer.
Perhaps you think you don’t care about some aviation story out of Canada. And maybe you really don’t. Still, here’s my little challenge for you: Read the first few paragraphs of Shaben’s story. And see if you really want to stop reading.
The beginning of Shaben’s story begins below, followed by a link to the rest of the story.
Fly At Your Own Risk
Why is Transport Canada moving toward self-regulation for the country’s airlines?
by Carol Shaben
photographs by Eamon Mac Mahon
in a small ballroom at the Best Western Hotel near Vancouver’s airport, Kirsten Stevens, a tattooed single mother of three, rises to take the podium, her hands trembling. Dressed casually in black cords and an emerald green shirt, the forty-two-year-old resident of Campbell River, BC, known as the Widow to many in attendance, stands out from the suit-clad presenters who preceded her. Petite — just five feet three and 115 pounds — with a barely tamed bob of cinnamon-coloured hair and brown eyes, she surveys the audience from behind stylish cat’s-eye glasses.
“This is going to be my first time telling this story,” she says, clearing her throat and glancing at the sheets clutched in her hands. “Four years ago, I could not have conceived of speaking at an aviation leadership forum. Four years ago, I was a housewife with two children and a newborn baby. In just under two weeks, it will be the fourth anniversary of the day I became a widow — the day the picket fence blew down.”
On February 28, 2005, Stevens’ husband, Dave, a professional logger, and four others were en route from Campbell River to a camp near Knight Inlet on BC’s rugged west coast when their De Havilland dhc-2 Beaver float plane plunged into the water just six minutes after takeoff. Two days later, Dave’s body, buoyed by the survival jacket Kirsten had bought him years before, washed up on Quadra Island, five kilometres from where the plane had taken off. His was the only body ever recovered. The autopsy showed that he had escaped the aircraft largely unharmed, only to succumb to severe hypothermia and drown while awaiting a rescue that never came. A resident of Quadra Island heard cries for help but couldn’t see their source. It had taken four hours for the office of the air carrier (which has since shut down) to alert search and rescue teams, even though staff knew the plane was missing within twenty minutes of takeoff.
Dave’s death opened a chasm of what-ifs for Stevens. “What if the aircraft was perfectly maintained?” she asks her audience. “What if aircraft were always tracked? What if there had been no delay in notifying authorities of the missing aircraft? Could the accident have been prevented? Could all five men have been rescued? Could they have rescued the only man wearing a life jacket — my husband? Could we have celebrated a successful emergency water landing like the one on the Hudson River, instead of mourning the losses of five families? Ten children left without their fathers?”
After a three-day search failed to turn up any trace of the downed plane or the victims, government authorities handed the matter over to the rcmp, which classified it as a missing persons case. A month later, all official searches were completely shut down. Stevens expected that a government agency would investigate the deaths of her husband and the four others as workplace fatalities, but none did. Pooling their meagre resources, the families recovered the wreckage and, later, the plane’s engine. Stevens also appealed in vain to a wide and varied list of authorities: the federal minister of transport, infrastructure, and communities; BC’s minister of transportation and infrastructure; Canada’s Transportation Safety Board; the federal minister of labour; the provincial ministry of labour and citizens’ services; the provincial ombudsman of justice; her provincial mla; her federal MP; several BC senators; the standing committee on transport and communications; and BC’s Workers’ Compensation Board. Eventually, the families hired a private investigative firm, which found that the plane’s floats were “leakers” long overdue for reskinning, that there were non-conforming parts on the aircraft, and that the plane was due for a major overhaul. The firm also speculated that the airline had not carried out mandatory 100-hour inspections of the plane’s engine.
The only official report Stevens received came from BC’s chief coroner’s office — more than four years after the crash. The account, she says, was riddled with inaccuracies and omissions and failed to provide her or the other victims’ families with any sense of closure. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada — the independent agency mandated to investigate crashes for cause and contributing factors — did not follow up, claiming there was nothing new to be learned. (Nor, says Stevens, is there any reference to the accident on the tsb’s website, which lists only two passenger deaths by air taxi in 2005, the year of her husband’s crash.) In a discussion with the coroner, Stevens learned that Bill Yearwood, the board’s Pacific Region manager for aviation, had submitted a preliminary report on the accident, which she obtained by submitting an access to information request. In Yearwood’s account, the tsb’s inspection showed no evidence of problems with the aircraft’s engine, performance, or maintenance. Instead, it indicated that poor weather and the pilot’s qualifications and experience may have been factors — an outcome Stevens refers to as “blaming the dead guy.”
When she realized her husband’s death might have been prevented, Stevens began reading everything she could about the aviation industry: Canadian aeronautics regulations, the Aeronautics Act, crash investigation reports, civil aviation studies and recommendations, and books with titles like Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents; Black Box: Why Air Safety Is No Accident; and Flying Blind, Flying Safe. She also joined AvCanada, Canada’s busiest aviation employment website and discussion forum, where she discovered that many aviation professionals shared her concerns about the lack of oversight of Canada’s commercial air carriers.
Then she got vocal. Fuelled by coffee and menthol cigarettes, she worked six hours a day out of a dimly lit den at the back of her three-storey house, not far from where her husband died. She wrote letters to unions and government officials, and launched QuestForJustice.ca and a blog called dhc2 Widow’s Space, both dedicated to aviation safety. She initiated a petition to Stephen Harper’s office, asking for a public inquiry into her husband’s accident and the air taxi industry in Canada. Slowly, others in the air safety community started paying attention.
Her mission has since… (read full story here)