Robert L. Sumwalt, Vice Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
September 14, 2006
Thank you Senator DeMint, Congressman Wilson, Secretary Cino, and Secretary Designate Peters. My fellow Board Members -- Chairman Rosenker, Member Hersman, Member Higgins, Agency Administrators and Directors, Congressional staff, my colleagues, family, friends and future friends. Thank you all for being here today. I am truly humbled and grateful that you would take time out of your busy schedules to be here today.
Somewhere in the confirmation process someone asked me, “Robert, why do you want to be on the National Transportation Safety Board?”
It is certainly a fair question and one that I could answer with one word – passion.
Senator DeMint mentioned the passion – I know it is there but I have never worried too much about where it came from or why it is there. I just know it is there. It gets me up in the morning and it keeps me going into the day.
Truly, I believe the work we are doing does save lives. And that, in itself, is exciting.
I have long admired the NTSB, its noble mission and its dedicated people. After all, it is the world’s preeminent transportation safety and accident investigation agency.
I’ve followed the work of the Board for a long time. Recently I revealed to a writer for The Washington Post that I have vivid college memories of sitting on the floor of the Government Documents Library at the University of South Carolina, going through and reading NTSB accident reports. As I read those reports I was fascinated by the work of this agency.
That admiration and respect continued as I worked with the NTSB on a few investigations as a party member. As someone who was actively working on the front lines to improve aviation safety, I viewed the Safety Board as a place where I could further channel that passion to really make a positive difference in the transportation safety business.
As Senator DeMint pointed out, our transportation system is vital to our nation’s economy and well-being. And although this system generally performs well, when transportation accidents do occur, it is imperative that we be able to reassure the American public that the Government is conducting thorough, timely, honest, competent, and unbiased investigations.
Since 1967, the NTSB has fulfilled that role.
Through the tireless efforts of dedicated NTSB employees, many potential accidents have been prevented, lives saved and countless injuries reduced. And as I witnessed firsthand two weeks ago in Lexington, Kentucky, the board has an important role of assisting the families of victims of aviation accidents.
During my Senate confirmation hearing, I testified that if confirmed I would work diligently to ensure that the NTSB maintains its well-earned status as the world’s preeminent transportation safety and accident investigation agency.
These aren’t just words that I said to the Senate so that I could sound good. As I mentioned to you, I have followed the NTSB for a long time. I genuinely care for this agency and want to ensure that we preserve our status and continually improve.
I also told the Senate that I looked forward to the opportunity to work in a professional and collegial fashion with my fellow Board Members and with dedicated NTSB staff and as we work together to enhance transportation safety.
Each of the Board Members have literally welcomed me with open arms - I have gotten a big “welcome aboard” hug from each of them - including from Chairman Rosenker.
As it relates to our professional staff, let me make this point. I have been touted – not by my own press, by the way - as someone who is an expert in aviation safety and accident investigation.
While I do have a fair amount of aviation experience, I acknowledge that those on our staff also have quite a bit of aviation experience.
And while is true that I have written extensively on aircraft accidents and accident investigation, and while it is true that I have worked on a few accidents as a party member, and while I am familiar with the accident investigation process, let me say that the real expert in accident investigation isn’t me.
They are the NTSB staff members here in this room, or in the Regional Offices, or perhaps upstairs in the lab right now, or maybe even out in a field or alongside a railroad track conducting an investigation.
Those are the experts. And frankly, they’ve been doing just fine for a long time, and my hat is off to them.
In Lexington accident there was a taxi test that was going to be performed. I told someone that I needed to go on that test. I really, really felt that I needed to be there to witness what those pilots may have seen as they taxied out that fateful morning.
But, then I had a revelation. I don’t have to perform the actual investigation. That’s why we have competent, well-trained staff. Maybe in a former life that would have been my role. But my role is different now. My role now is to let you do your investigation and then, along with my fellow Board Members, deliberate it once it goes to board meeting.
My commitment to you is that when an item comes before me for board action, I will study the issues so that I can ask intelligent questions and clearly understand what we are dealing with.
Another commitment is that although I do have a strong aviation background, I will not limit my interest or attention to just aviation matters. I strongly believe that the traveling public deserves and is entitled to safe transportation, regardless of the transportation mode that they chose.
I look forward to expanding my knowledge to other modes – literally getting out and riding the rails and waterways.
Now, let me briefly give you my overall thoughts and philosophy on accident investigation. Anyone who has taken my human factors course at the University of Southern California Aviation Safety Program will tell you that that I strongly believe that we should not focus exclusively on the obvious human error.
It is one thing to say a person committed an error. It is quite another to try to understand all of the factors that may have influenced that error. Where was the rest of the system that should have prevented a simple error from being catastrophic?
The purpose of an NTSB investigation is to prevent accidents. If we focus solely on errors of front line operators, then we may miss valuable prevention opportunities because systemic flaws may remain undetected and thus, uncorrected.
If we are really interested in improving safety, then we must look at the entire system, not just focus solely on the front line personnel.
“The discovery of the human error should be considered as the starting point of the investigation, not the ending point.”
I framed this magazine and hung it outside of my office to serve as an icon to remind us all of the importance of going beyond simply stating that someone committed an error. We need to answer why the error was made.
As we draw towards conclusion, let me say a few things about today’s ceremony. Someone said to me, “Robert, today is about you.”
This truly is not about me.
What today is about is acknowledging the wisdom displayed by Congress when they established an independent Safety Board to investigate accidents and improve transportation safety.
Today is about recognizing a 40 year-old agency that has a very noble and important mission – one of improving safety, preventing accidents, saving lives, and reducing injuries.
Today is about recognizing the NTSB’s professional staff and stating that through their strong technical knowledge and skill, many complex accidents have been solved.
And today is about the process whereby the President of the United States appoints five board members to serve on this board with the advice and consent of the US Senate – so that the Board can deliberate staff’s findings, determine probable cause, and most importantly, issue safety recommendations to prevent the accident from ever happening again.
I am very proud and honored to have been selected to serve our nation. And I think that is what this is all about – serving. I recently read something about government service, and I’ll share a quote from it:
“Public service is one of the highest callings in the land. You have the opportunity to make a positive impact on families, communities, states, and sometimes the world.”
I truly believe this statement applies so well to the work of the Board.
When my term expires, I hope we can look back and say, “you know, we - Board Members, professional staff, industry, labor, government – we all worked together and we did make a positive impact.”
Come to think of it, I think that explains where the passion comes from. Ever since getting involved in the safety business some 20 years ago, I’d had a burning desire to simply take this business and make it just a little better than I found it.
I want to thank President Bush for the confidence he has placed in me through this appointment.
I’d also like to thank the great people at the White House and the Senate for all of their assistance as we worked through the nomination and confirmation process.
And Senator DeMint and Congressman Wilson, I especially thank you and your staff for all of your support.
Finally, I want to recognize the contribution my family has made towards helping me reach this goal. Anne and Mackenzie, thank you for your strong support. We are all in this together and I’m sure it doesn’t come without sacrifice on your end.
Mom and Dad, thank you for all that you have done.
To each of you, thank you. Thank you for coming and thank you for being here.
Safe travels and may God Bless America!