Keynote Address of Robert L. Sumwalt, III
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
South Carolina Aviation Association
Hall of Fame Banquet
Myrtle Beach, SC
February 11, 2010
Thank you. Good evening. It is wonderful to be back in the Palmetto State. So, thank you for giving me a good excuse to leave 30 inches of snow in Washington.
I sincerely want to thank you for honoring me by inducting me into the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame. This is truly an honor and one that I will deeply cherish. And, as I look over the names of those who have preceded me, I am truly humbled
As this group well knows, South Carolina has a long and rich history in aviation.
In 1942, members of 17th Bombardment Group moved from the Pacific Northwest to South Carolina. They came here to train for what became the famous mission of the Doolittle Raiders.
And, recently there was another notable aviation-related move from the Pacific Northwest to South Carolina – one that, figuratively speaking, was a bombshell to the Puget Sound area. I’m, of course, referring to Boeing’s monumental decision - for the first time in Boeing’s history – to assemble aircraft outside of the Puget Sound area.
Indeed, the Palmetto State has been - and continues to be - a leader in aviation.
Is it a coincidence that a geographically small state can boast that four astronauts were South Carolinians, including the current NASA Administrator and one who has walked on the moon?
Or, that the first African American pilot for the United States Aerial Demonstration Team, the Thunderbirds, is a South Carolina native? Or that three South Carolinians have received the FAA’s Charles Taylor Master Mechanics Award?
I don’t think that is a coincidence.
From South Carolina’s aviation roots, we have grown Tuskegee Airmen, world renowned precision aerobatic and air race pilots, distinguished aviation war veterans, and pilots who have volunteered to fly children to Shrine Hospitals.
And, I don’t think it is a coincidence that in a state with such a rich and an illustrious aviation history, that 32 years ago people came together to form an association with the mission of actively promoting and encouraging aviation and airport development. That group, obviously, is the South Carolina Aviation Association.
But, an association is void without dedicated professionals who volunteer time and attention to carry out the mission. And, most notably, those people are the very people in this room. They are the ones who are not necessarily in the SC Aviation Hall of Fame, but, they are everyday people who work tirelessly for the better good of aviation in this state.
Quite simply, you are the leaders in South Carolina aviation. You do it, not for the recognition, but because it is a noble cause.
I salute you and your efforts.
In this room, we have airport engineers, planners, and contractors. We have airport managers and members of airport commissions. We have aircraft operators, maintainers, and vendors and suppliers. We all have differing backgrounds, but we have a common desire to promote aviation in South Carolina.
For me, my interests have always centered around safety. It has been my passion.
Sometimes people ask me how I got into aviation. And, I say “I got into aviation by accident.” It’s a true, but serendipitous story. When I was 17 years old, I heard on my car radio that there had been a plane crash on approach to Columbia Metropolitan Airport. I decided to go see if I could find it. As I approached the crash sight, I saw the coroner and decided to tuck in close to him. As he talked towards the accident sight, I stayed close to him. And as the law enforcement officers raised the yellow tape for him, I slipped in with him. And, don’t ask me how this happened, but on the way home, I drove by the airport and stopped in to Miller Aviation and signed up for flying lessons.
So, yes, I sort of got into aviation by accident.
As I progressed through my pilot certificates and ratings, I would think of that accident. Sometimes I would return to the accident sight. I would try to understand what was going on in the cockpit of that aircraft as they approached Columbia Metro on low overcast day.
And, while at USC, instead of studying whatever I was supposed to be studying, I would spend countless hours sitting on the floor of the USC Government Documents Library, reading NTSB accident reports.
So, although perhaps I got in to aviation “by accident,” so to speak, I truly had a lifetime fascination with accident investigation and working to prevent accidents.
Speaking of aircraft accidents, I have a rather unusual airmail collection the 1920’s and early 30’s. What makes my collection unusual is that this airmail often didn’t make it to its destination because it was in a plane crash.
In 1931 a Fokker F-10A operated by Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA) crashed in Kansas, killing all onboard including famed Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne. The nation was stunned. No attempt was made to secure the accident site, and souvenir hunters carted away anything that could be carried by hand, including the propellers and fuselage.
It’s probably fair to say the investigation was botched and overshadowed by the public perception of secrecy, incompetence, and conspiracy.
In response, in Air Commerce Act was amended to require that reports on probable causes of fatal aircraft crashes be made public.
In 1935, a DC-2 crashed in Missouri, claiming five lives including a US Senator. Public debate and criticism over the cause of the crash demonstrated the need for an independent investigative body.
Although it has been through various iterations since then that accident laid the basic foundation for what today is the NTSB.
I will have to say that working at the NTSB is very rewarding. I am proud to be the first South Carolinian to serve on the Board.
I do feel that our work is very important, and I do believe it saves lives.
My wife told me once, “Robert, you’re perfect for this job. After all, all you do it sit around and criticize people.” Well, there may be some truth to that, but we at the Safety Board don’t criticize without reason. We call it the way we see it and we don’t pull any punches. When transportation accidents happen, it is our job to conduct an honest, objective, timely and unbiased investigation.
And, sometimes what we say makes people uncomfortable.
Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the Colgan Air accident at Buffalo that claimed 50 lives. I will discuss that accident tomorrow morning when I speak.
One of the things that resonates from that accident is lack of professionalism. The captain has the responsibility to set the tone for a flight, and unfortunately, the tone that he set ended on a sour note.
I look forward to discussing this accident with you tomorrow morning.
In closing, thank you again for honoring me. I am proud to be a part of South Carolina aviation and keep up the great work that you are doing.