Honorable Robert L. Sumwalt

Remarks of Robert Sumwalt,
Board Member
National Transportation Safety Board
International Society of Air Safety Investigators
Mid Atlantic Regional Chapter (MARC)
May 3, 2012
Washington, DC

Thank you, Ron (Schleede).

I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to speak tonight.

I'd like to update you on what the NTSB has been up to since Vice Chairman Hart spoke at last year's MARC dinner, and what we're planning to do in the coming months.

But first people sometimes ask me how I got into aviation. And, the truth is, I got into aviation by accident.

When I was 17 years old, I heard on my car radio that there had been a plane crash on approach to my hometown airport in Columbia, SC. I decided to go see if I could find the crash. As I approached the crash site, I saw the coroner and decided to tuck in close to him. As he walked towards the accident site, 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. I occasionally returned to the accident site. I would try to understand what was going on in the cockpit of that aircraft as they approached Columbia Metro on a 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 appreciation of accident investigation and a passion for working to prevent accidents.

So, what's going on within in the NTSB these days?

Let's start with the people side. In the last year, NTSB has seen the retirements of Bob Benzon and Bob MacIntosh.

Likewise, on June 1, Tom Haueter will retire after 28 years with the NTSB.

As you all know, these gentlemen have given so much in terms of their investigative skills, knowledge, leadership, and mentorship to so many at the Board. Although their departures are a loss to the agency, we are happy they are finally taking some well-deserved time off.

Last June, the Board unveiled an updated Most Wanted List (MWL). Previously we had nearly two dozen focus areas on the list. As you can imagine, with that many issue areas, the list becomes unwieldy. How do you focus on that many different areas? So, we reengineered it. We now only have ten items on the list. We want the list to be relevant. We want it to reflect those areas that affect the highest risk factor in transportation safety or warrant special attention. I think you will see the list changing and being more dynamic in years to come.

So, now, look what we have: Six of the ten items have direct tentacles into aviation:

General aviation safety - This was a totally new issue area. And, why was it added? GA continues to have the highest aviation accident rates within civil aviation: about 6 times higher than small commuter and air taxi operations and over 40 times higher than larger transport category operations. When we have numbers like that, they are screaming at us, saying, "This is an area ripe for improvement."

Pilot and controller professionalism - Another new issue area. As someone who flew for a living for three decades, I can say the vast majority of flights in this country are operated with the highest degree of professionalism. But, unfortunately, we have seen a disturbing number of accidents where a lack of professionalism has raised its ugly head. I am hopeful that we can soon remove this item from the MWL. I know many organizations have been working on increasing professionalism, including ALPA.

Runway safety - Runway safety, in some form, has been on the MWL since the inception of the list. In recent years, we broadened this area from just runway incursions, to incorporate excursions and runway confusion, such as attempting to take off or land on the wrong runway or on taxiways.

Safety Management Systems - This is a recommendation for SMS in all modes. Just a few months ago, we recommended the rail industry incorporate SMS.

Recorders - With appropriate protections on their use and data disclosure, the NTSB wants improved recorders that could be used for safety-related purposes.

Human fatigue - As we all know, fatigue continues to be a huge issue across all modes.

Teen driver safety - Teen drivers represent less than 7 percent of the driving population but have accounted for more than 13 percent of drivers involved in all deadly crashes. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers - more than cancer, more than drugs, more than guns. Last year, nearly 6000 people died in a crash where the driver was 15 to 20 years old.

Addressing alcohol-impaired driving - Every 48 minutes, someone dies in a crash involving an alcohol-impaired driver. Last year, more than 10,000 people died nationwide due to drunk driving, accounting for one-third of all highway deaths.

Bus occupant safety - Adequate standards for roof strength, window glazing, and occupant protection must be developed and implemented.

Motorcycle safety - Although motorcycles represent only 3 percent of the vehicles on our nation's roads, they account for 13 percent of highway deaths. In 2010, 4500 motorcyclist died in traffic accidents. That's, on average, 12 motorcyclists killed every day.

We are holding an increased number of non-accident specific hearings, symposia, and forums, on a number of safety-related topics:

Shortly after last year's MARC dinner, we held a forum on truck and bus safety.

In September, there was a forum on aircraft fuselage structural integrity.

That was followed by a board meeting discussing the NTSB's role in international investigations. As a follow-on, the NTSB will be integrating its International Investigations Conference into ISASI's 43rd Annual Seminar this August in Baltimore. More on that in a minute.

In December, we held a forum on the oversight of public aircraft operations.

In January, there was a hearing on air race and air show safety.

And, in March, we held a forum attentive driving: countermeasures to distraction.

This, in addition to the 15 board meetings that we've held on aviation, rail, pipeline, marine, and highway accidents in the past year.

Two weeks from now, we'll hold a forum on impaired driving.

On May 22, we'll have a board meeting to discuss a safety study on experimental amateur built aircraft. As you probably know, these aircraft log less than 5 percent of GA flight time, but are involved in approximately 26 percent of fatal GA accidents in the U.S.

This summer, we are conducting a forum on GA safety issues, and a few weeks later, one on GA search and rescue.

I'm really pleased to say that NTSB board members will play a big role at this year's ISASI conference. Since I've been at the Board, I've wished NTSB would have a greater presence at ISASI conference, and this year all five board members will be there and each will lead panels on a range of topics. It should be interesting and we look forward to it.

So, even though we are experiencing a remarkable period of fewer major aviation accidents, we are trying to "get ahead of the curve" by looking at significant safety issues even in the absence of a particular accident.

And, fortunately, while our domestic major accidents are down, as the State of Manufacture for many aircraft and components, we are as busy as ever on the international front.

Last year, our investigators launched on 20 international accidents to act as accredited representatives or otherwise support foreign-led investigations. Additionally, there were 216 foreign accidents on which our investigators were non-traveling accredited reps.

So, we are staying busy.

As I wrap it up, I want to emphasize that the work you do as professional air safety investigators is so important. I know that because I have an unusual perspective.

In 1976, my parents survived a fiery CFIT accident in the Virginia mountains. About a year after the accident I visited the crash site and dug out of the ground a piece of the wreckage. I keep it in my office to remind me of how behind every accident, there are loved ones who depend on us to get it right.

Then on a Friday night in 1981, I returned home from my first week of airline training. As soon as I walked in the door and saw my wife, I knew something bad had happened. My best friend died that afternoon in a plane crash.

In 1994, my brother-in-law was a passenger in the USAir 1016 accident in Charlotte - an accident that claimed 37 lives.

What drives me each and every day, and what I suspect drives you, is the knowledge that our work is important. It does matter. It does make a difference, and it does keep people from dying in airplane crashes.

As someone who has been there, I can tell you that the families and friends of victims count on us to get it right.

Thank you.

Keep up the good work, and May God Bless our great Nation.