Honorable Deborah Hersman, NTSB Board Member

Remarks of Honorable Deborah A.P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board
At The
21st International Women in Aviation Conference
Orlando, Florida
February 27, 2010

Inspiring Service and Professionalism

Thank you, and good morning.  It felt a little like the opening ceremony for the Olympics.  It was great to see the international presence. 

Peggy you are right.  Aviation is indeed a small world, but its power to serve humanity is immense.   Recently we saw this in Haiti.  Within hours of the devastating earthquake, airplanes were bringing in hundreds of volunteers, equipment and essential supplies to assist in the recovery. 

Being part of a greater cause manifests itself in traumatic events, like this earthquake; and how we respond says much about who we are individually and collectively. 

Throughout history, women have never hesitated to respond.  A good example of this is during World War II, when they were called to fill positions vacated by men serving in the armed forces.  Ironically, during this period, while the government was actively promoting the concept of Rosie the Riveter, society still viewed the workplace as a ‘man’s world – and women as a liability that required special handling. 

I’d like to share with you some excerpts from the “1943 Guide to Hiring Women,” which appeared in the July 1943 issue of Mass Transportation.  These tips capture society’s view, at that time, of how to get the most efficiency out of women employees:

Well, although these “tips” might make us laugh today, they were taken seriously at the time.  Thankfully, that didn’t stop women from stepping up to serve their fellow citizens. 

Women may have been seen as second string, but the job they did was anything but.  A shining example of this are the brave women who pioneered the art of service during WWII – the Women Airforce Service Pilots (the WASPs).  These female pilots numbered in the thousands and flew over 60-million miles in the U.S., freeing up male pilots for combat service.  

Guess who designed the WASP emblem, Fifinella, who was the kind-hearted sister of the prank playing gremlin, and as the dainty winged sprite, was supposed to help the WASP’s out of tight situations?  None other than Walt Disney!

These WASPS were the gold standard for professionalism.  During a two year period, these women delivered over twelve thousand aircraft – ferrying 50% of the combat aircraft within the U.S. from factories to ports and military training bases, even towing targets for live, anti-aircraft artillery practice.  They flew 78 different types of aircraft; even some their male counterparts feared flying. 

When the male ferry pilots began racking up a significant accident rate on the P-39 pursuit plane, giving it the nickname, “the flying coffin,” Lt. General W.H. Tunner called in the WASPs.  He noted that their male counterparts were not flying the airplane “according to specifications,” but that the women pilots, “paid attention in class, and they read the characteristics of the plane they were to fly before they flew it.”  After the WASPs took delivery of these high-speed airplanes, the General reported a reduced accident rate – and no more complaints from the men. 

Dora Strother, one of the organization’s earliest members, exemplifies the WASP’s commitment to professionalism.  When the B-29 (the largest long-range bomber ever built) was rushed through production to get it to the front lines, the plane developed a dangerous reputation after the death of Boeing’s chief test pilot.  So, to prove the airplane safe, Colonel Paul Tibbits called in the WASPs, and Dora Strother did just that. 

In a training flight, before she was even checked out on the airplane, Dora experienced a fire in the #3 engine.  Without waiting for instructions, Dora directed the flight engineer to feather the #3 engine and pull the fire extinguisher.  According to Col. Tibbits, Dora Strother did everything by the book – the gold standard of professionalism.

For many of the WASPs, service to country provided a new-found sense of purpose. Cornelia Fort, one of the earliest WASP pilots, wrote:  “We are beginning to prove that women can be trusted to deliver airplanes safely and serve the country which is our country, too.  I have yet to have a feeling which approaches in satisfaction that of having delivered an airplane for the United States Army.” 

Service to their country was dangerous and thankless, and it claimed 38 of their lives, including Cornelia Fort’s.  Sadly, because these women were not considered to be in military service, their bodies were sent home – at their family’s expense, without traditional military honors, no U.S. flag adorning their coffins.  

Yes – the job was dangerous and thankless.  Cornelia Fort and 37 others weren’t looking for accolades or praise; they were just doing their jobs.  These examples are certainly humbling and inspiring, but opportunities to serve towards something bigger than yourself still exist today.  Thank you to the ten percent of attendees here who are serving in the military today.  

As Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I am fortunate to lead an amazing group of talented women (and men) dedicated to real-life service every day – whether at the accident site, in the materials laboratory or conducting research in their specialty area.

At the Safety Board, we focus on lessons learned; recognizing that very often we can achieve improvements as a consequence of adversity.  As you enter the doors of our Training Center in Ashburn, VA, you’ll see the quote, “From tragedy we draw knowledge to improve the safety of us all.” 

The opportunity to participate in achieving this goal is a privilege, and I know that the women serving at the Safety Board – some of them here today – take pride in this mission too.

Perhaps your real life service opportunity is at the Safety Board too?  Or perhaps with the FAA or another federal agency?  Public service can be rewarding.  I’d highly recommend it.  Or maybe you’ve already found an opportunity to serve right where you are:  in the cockpit, the cabin, the air traffic control tower, the maintenance hangar, the dispatch center, the engineering office, or in the board room.  Each of you provides a service to the travelling public – and is a link in the chain of aviation safety. 

As the Polish poet Stanislaw Lec wrote, “The weakest link in the chain is the strongest.  It can break the chain.”   We must be mindful to never undervalue the role that each of us – each of you – have in the safety chain.  It matters not just what you do each day on the job, but how well you do it.

How important is professionalism to transportation safety?  Like those early pilots, adherence to standards, personal discipline, and attention to detail is center stage and can’t be stressed enough.  Through its investigations, the Safety Board has found that professionalism – or rather, the lack of it ---causes accidents.

For example, in 2004, a Pinnacle Airlines Bombardier regional jet crashed on a Part 91 repositioning flight. The probable cause was, in part, ‘the pilots’ “unprofessional behavior, deviation from standard operating procedures, and poor airmanship, which resulted in an in-flight emergency from which they were unable to recover.”  

Incredibly, the following week, a Jetstream turboprop crashed on approach into Kirksville, Missouri, claiming 13 lives.  One of the causes cited in the final report was the pilots’ unprofessional behavior. 

In 2006, in Lexington, KY, the crew on a Comair regional jet took off from the wrong runway, killing 49 people. The Board concluded that non-adherence to regulations, company procedures, and checklist discipline set the stage for the accident.

And in the Colgan Air accident last year near Buffalo, NY, the pilots’ failure to effectively manage the flight, monitor airspeed and adhere to sterile cockpit procedures contributed to the accident.

As these accidents demonstrate, professionalism matters, following procedures matters, how you spend your off duty time matters.  People are counting on you to do the right thing every time, and for many of you, lives of others depend on this. Tragically, when we don’t make this a priority, the lessons learned are written in blood.

It’s been said that professionalism is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.  It’s not enough for only some of us to act professionally, or to act professionally only part of the time.  Safety demands that we all do it – and that we all do it, all of the time.  We cannot be the weak link, or the chain will break.  The travelling public places their trust in us.  And through our commitment to professionalism and to safety, we can be examples for others.

This isn’t complicated and it’s not magical.  But it is hard.  It’s about discipline, personal integrity, perseverance, and raising the bar on professional ethics in the aviation industry – not just today, but tomorrow and the day after, too.  It might be as simple as thinking about the WASPs, and doing things by the book like Dora Strother did.  It means being the strongest link in the safety chain.  And doing what’s right, even when no one is watching.

We see many examples of this every day…

This is real-life service to the American public.

You know, many people think that in today’s highly automated aviation system human beings are becoming optional, almost obsolete.  The recent Northwest Flight 188 incident near Minneapolis – where two, highly experienced aviators overflew their destination by more than 100-miles while focused on their laptops – dispels this myth.  Even highly automated airplanes need intent and purpose.

So, I challenge each of you here today to leave this conference with a renewed sense of pride, a renewed sense of purpose and a renewed commitment to aviation safety.  

You perform real-life service every day – when you commit to your work, to the task at hand, by leading by example, and being the strongest link for those who put their trust in you each time they board an airplane. 

I’ll leave you with a quote from U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, who made these comments after his organization had experienced some missteps involving nuclear weapons. “We collectively need to back a little bit toward something called compliance.  We must do the right thing and do the right thing right.  That’s about as simple as it gets.”

Thank you for your service, your commitment and your attention.  Keep doing the right thing right and stay safe!