Wings Magazine

No passing the buck – pilots are in charge and responsible

In an industry first, Winnipeg Justice Holly Beard last week found commercial pilot Mark Tayfel guilty on four counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm, one count of criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of an aircraft.

November 8, 2007  By Rob Seaman

In an industry first, Winnipeg Justice Holly Beard last week found
commercial pilot Mark Tayfel guilty on four counts of criminal
negligence causing bodily harm, one count of criminal negligence
causing death and dangerous operation of an aircraft. This ruling has
set the aviation industry on both the commercial and recreational side
abuzz with comments and opinions abounding. Read the news report here.

For those not familiar with the incident, five years ago, Tayfel was
PIC on a charter flight with six passengers. He was flying from a
fishing lodge to Winnipeg when his Piper Navajo Chieftain ran out of
According to the TSB report, his first approach was high and resulted
in an overshoot. During his go -around he did not notify the tower of
his low fuel status and eventually both engines quit. At that point he
set up for landing on a street. During this, he bounced off a truck, a
bus and hit a van before coming to stop. While initially everyone
survived the crash landing, a few months later one of the passengers
passed away as a result of his injuries.
During the trial, his defence argued that Tayfel was a victim of
corporate pressure to perform and that such pressure is common on young
pilots in such roles today. The judge disagreed and found him guilty.
This topic was hot water-cooler chat last week and this. It has fuelled
the ongoing debate about training and the rush to fill empty cockpit
seats. With the surge in aviation all over, there have been many claims
– especially more recently than five years ago when this happened –
that companies are driving pilots to take risks, cut corners and keep
to schedules regardless of all else. There are also those who hold the
view that training is being cut in order to get bums in the seats
Pressure to perform aside, the simple fact remains that folks in the
pointy end of an aircraft are the ones tasked with making decisions.
The “company” is not in the cockpit and I for one cannot think of one
aviation operation that would wish to endanger its passengers, staff or
corporate assets just to make a flight on time. My experience here has
been that professional pilots will always side with safety first and
not take chances. And from my perspective, you do not get into an
argument when safety or lives are in question. You make a decision that
sides with the best interests of all concerned and stick with it.
Should a pilot end up in a disagreement with an employer over such
things, there are ways and means to resolve the issue later without
risking lives. And should the disagreement be unresolved internally,
there are other venues up to and including changing jobs. As we all
know there are plenty of empty seats looking for qualified crew today.
I do not imagine a potential employer would ever discount a candidate
because they left their previous role over safe operational concerns.
One other question that came up in conversation about this incident was
will or should it change the way pilots are trained? The simple answer
here is no.
Every pilot learns first and foremost to figure the length of a flight
and fuel requirements including the required reserves. They also learn
to plan alternative airports to allow for changes that could affect
their ability to complete a flight as originally conceived. This has
and always will be a basic to all forms of flying. The regulations and
training protocols are clear – so there is no need for change. If the
practice is followed correctly – regardless if you are a recreational
flyer or commercial jockey – then all will go as it should.
When you come right down to it, there are really only three reasons
that an aircraft will have issues with fuel.  The first is simple – the
pilot did not make sure there was enough when the flight started for
the intended trip. In the second – the flight changed for some reason –
weather, personal issues or such – and the pilot could not make the
planned arrival point and therefore had to search out the alternatives.
And the third – mechanical issues caused the aircraft to lose its fuel
load somehow.
In the first two cases, it is the pilot who is in the position to make
the decisions. Not the company and not the passenger. The pilot is the
person in charge, the captain of the ship – and he or she is on site
and in charge of making the decisions that will affect everything. You
cannot blame someone else for making you do something that you had the
ultimate control over. And as we all know, life is full of decisions.
You alone must live by those. And if these decisions will have
influence over others in your trust – then you better be responsible
enough to make good ones and be accountable at the end of the day.
In my opinion, the judge sent a strong message. Tayfel made a series of
bad decisions that ultimately cost a life. The company may have
pressured him but in the end it was his decision to make and action to
take. The company did not forcibly make him fly without sufficient fuel
or ignore the options for a safe landing when it became an issue. He
alone did this and was being paid for his expertise. It is only fair he
live with the results.

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