Aircraft Accidents and Recognition

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt

Before there were a bevy of health gurus, there was Jack LaLanne. Jack, who died in 2011 at the age of 93, spent his lifetime spreading the values of exercise and good nutrition for thirty-four years on his show, The Jack LaLanne Show, where he not only helped those of all walks of life to better, healthier living, he was a living example of what he professed – the man had even skipped dessert since 1929. He performed 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes in 1950; on his seventieth birthday, while shackled and handcuffed, he pulled 70 rowboats, with a man in each, across Long Beach Harbor, CA. In short, he ‘walked the walk and talked the talk’. He was the health expert for many decades and never equaled.

This kind of dedication is what is known as being “qualified for the job”. Jack did not get elected health expert, he lived it; he showed by example that his insight worked; acknowledged by the international community as the model. And for his lifetime achievements he received recognition.

On the topic of aviation safety, there is no lack of contributors. It has taken me time to realize that though others who promote aviation safety may be in conflict with some of my views, they have spearheaded much needed conversation to the front, conversation that benefits all in aviation. I sometimes need to be reminded that I did not get into writing about aviation safety to just promote my arguments or sell a book. I – we – do what is necessary to increase safety – period.

Aviation safety is not a popular topic; it is, though, one of the most important subjects affecting, not just our industry, but civilization. Like points on a compass, investigator theories can veer off in different directions so dissimilar, one wonders if they are speaking to the same event. I have sat in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) staff meetings where I had to check my notes to make sure I was in the right room, that we were discussing the same accident/incident. That is why leaders are so important to advancing safety; a person who not only grabs the microphone but can challenge the others who line up against him or her to do what is right.

When I worked on NTSB major accidents and subsequent hearings, (then) Member John Goglia’s seat was to the Chairman/Chairwoman’s immediate left. Of the five Board Members, he always appeared cool and collective; he was in his element. His aviation experience as a Board Member was unmatched. His aviation maintenance knowledge was unlimited. There are or were not many NTSB politically appointed Board Members who deserved their place at the table more than John Goglia.

The single reason I was hired into the NTSB was because former Member (FM) Goglia used his influence to guarantee an aircraft mechanic, experienced in the maintenance field as he was, be hired into the NTSB and work on the major accident Go-Team. Prior to FM Goglia’s push for the position I would soon occupy, aircraft maintenance was – and possibly is again – investigated by engineers with no industry experience. FM Goglia recognized that investigations into maintenance issues had to be done right; the investigator had to understand every aspect of aircraft maintenance for a Part 121 commercial airline, Part 135 ten-or-more perspective and have a healthy understanding of Part 145 Repair Stations. In other words, to know the conditions mechanics worked under, problems they faced and even problems they created. FM Goglia knew the best way to fix problems was to be able to identify them, address them and determine a way to make sure they did not reoccur.

It was more than the raising of the investigative bar that FM Goglia brought to the NTSB; it was his tenacity. He understood an inarguable fact: that to make effective changes – post-investigation – solutions had to be properly communicated to all those who would affect change, including how the FAA interpreted NTSB recommendations. Employing common sense, FM Goglia would speak with FAA management about how to word recommendations so that the transition from recommendations to FAA regulation, policy and guidance would be flawless.

He also was there to guide anyone who wanted to benefit from his experience. FM Goglia, knowing that I had no one who could show me the ropes in maintenance accident investigation, was always a phone call away with advice – especially when on-site – and his office door was always open. He would go off script; his methods did not always appeal to management at the Board, but then he was not there for management; he was there for the investigators, those at the site. They were the ones who needed the benefit of his experience.

Lately FM Goglia has been sharing his experience at his website: with a look into past accidents. He continues to make the industry safer.

Former Member Goglia was one of few Board Members, present and past, that I knew of that could draw from personal experience and bring that to the table. Another is Chairman Robert Sumwalt. 

I never worked with Chairman Robert Sumwalt; I have seen him on social media updating the industry about the latest news of an investigation. I have known other Chairpersons in the past, but none stood on the front line as often as Chairman Sumwalt has. He did not stand on ceremony. In my career, indeed my lifetime, I cannot remember an NTSB Chairman – and very few Members – who has championed the NTSB or taken a more active role in spreading, not only the NTSB’s successes in all five modes, but infused his experience as a pilot into the discussion.

And that is what makes the difference: Experience. To ‘separate the chaff’, remove media sensationalism and rationalize the investigation. Chairman Sumwalt’s experience streamlined the Operations side of an investigation, a major part of any investigation that needed a practiced eye. That is what pilots need for safety to be improved, especially in the Part 121 world. Part 135 nine-or-less operations are far different than Part 121; crew scheduling, fatigue, recovery flights, flying Part 91, all the important factors taken for granted by the less experienced in a major accident investigation, play vital roles in safety; they and other factors are the difference between determining cause and best guesses.

As per his NTSB website bio, Chairman Sumwalt was a pilot for 24 years with Piedmont and US Airways. During this time, he experienced mergers, equipment changes, thousands of hours of training, long days, conflicting schedules and every hurdle a line pilot could deal with, all factors that affect the safety of the flight crew, passengers and the aircraft. At US Airways, he served on the Flight Operational Quality Assurance monitoring team, which assured procedures and policies were followed by both pilot and management. Experience – Experience – Experience!

After leaving US Airways, he ventured into management at a Fortune 500 company; chaired the Airline Pilot Association’s Human Factors and Training Group and acted as a consultant to the National Aeronautics and Space Association’s Aviation Safety Reporting System program. It was his choice to step out of the left seat and pursue other safety avenues that make him stand out as an investigator and a Board Member. Not just that he was a commercial pilot, but that he broadened his effect for all aviation.

I felt the most influence Chairman Sumwalt had was his role as Chairman for the NTSB. He used his position and social media to keep the aviation community informed about the latest news of NTSB investigations. It was this function that he served aviation most notably; he took the NTSB out of the meeting room and broadcast their investigations for all to see, not just in Aviation, but Rail, Highway, Marine and Pipeline, as well.

Somehow, it is hard to imagine that Robert Sumwalt, upon his pending retirement, will simply fade into aviation history. I do not foresee him pulling a ‘Jack LaLanne’ and strong arming a B737 across a ramp on his birthday, but like John Goglia, it is expected that Robert Sumwalt will find new ways to improve aviation safety. And that is good – that is real good – because aviation needs him, needs both of them, desperately. These two aviation professionals, from opposite sides of the aviation ‘tracks’ – Operations and Airworthiness – deserve recognition for their continuing contributions, leadership and drive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *