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Remarks at the Oath of Office ceremony
Earl F. Weener, PhD
Washington, DC

Acknowledge presenters

I want to begin by thanking Chairman Hersman for her willingness to be the Master of Ceremony for this event.  As Chairman, she has numerous duties beyond that of Member of the Board.  She is essentially the CEO of the Safety Board. The position of Chairman is a Presidential Appointment above and beyond that of Board Member.  I am very pleased to be working with her and the other Members.

I am also pleased and honored by Don Bateman’s enthusiastic support and participation over more than two decades of safety activities.  Don has demonstrated a lifelong passion for safety.  He is best known for the development of the Ground Proximity Warning System, GPWS.  His constant refinement of that system has resulted in the enhanced GPWS.  Not to rest on a remarkable career of safety system development, Don has continued with systems to address runway safety, stabilized approach monitoring systems and others.  Don is the consummate inventor.

To Carl Vogt, thank you for your comments about the NTSB and the roles of the Members of the Safety Board.  Your insights from the perspective of the Board Chairman are invaluable, especially for a new Member such as myself.  I also want to acknowledge your support as the Chairman of the Flight Safety Foundation Board of Governors during the time of several of the major safety initiatives that the global aviation industry has accomplished through the auspices of the Foundation.

Lastly, I want to acknowledge the contributions of Bob Vandel to several safety initiatives that we have worked together.  I have known Bob for more than 20 years and have found him to be a willing accomplice on the CFIT Task Force, the Approach and Landing Accident Reduction activity, the Ground Accident Prevention Program and the Runway Safety Initiative, just to name the major ones.  I must also point out that he suggested last summer that I should pursue becoming a Member of the NTSB. 

Now to the family members that are here today.  I especially want to thank my wife, Linda, for her constant and consistent support and encouragement.  Although he he passed away last December, I want to acknowledge my Father for passing along his attitude toward challenges which can be summed up as ‘give it a try’.  I must thank my Mother, Marcia, for support and encouragement, and occasionally an outright ‘push’.  Our daughter has Julia has been excited about and interested in the process to a Presidential appointment to the Board.  Our son Jeff and daughter-in-law Katrina have been very supportive, in spite of Linda and I having to move from being nearby in Oregon to the other side of the country.  And to Megan and Robert, thank you for allowing Grandma and Grandpa to be a much further away.  However, we look forward to your long summer visits with us.  I’ll restate our promise to try to be back in Oregon to celebrate both of your birthdays together in May.  Finally, I am honored to have here today, from New Hampshire, my sister Janice and her husband Craig (Dr Poole and Dr Poole), from South Africa part time and Michigan part time, my brother Ron and his wife Barbara, from Michigan, my brother Alan, and from Washington State, my sister Mary and her husband Tom.  The one missing brother, Carl, has a son being married tomorrow so his absence is completely understandable. 

Journey to Member

Much of my professional career has focused on aviation safety.  Very early on, as a General Aviation flight instructor, I realized that in teaching someone to fly more effort must be spent on developing good safety judgment than on developing the manual control skills necessary to physically fly an airplane.  I learned aviation safety from the perspective of a major airframe manufacturer in private sector.  I also learned safety from perspective of a non-profit, international flight safety organization.  Now, I am eager to learn multi-modal safety from the perspective of the public sector.

As I said earlier, it was Bob Vandel who initially suggested to me that I pursue the NTSB Member position.  John Lauber provided the initial explanation of the process to a Presidential Appointment to the Board, and John encouraged me to pursue, what he characterized as, the ‘best job in Washington’.  Carl Vogt provided sage advice and counsel that included that I also should be aware of the political aspects of the process.

Specific messages about safety

In the mid 80’s I took a four year assignment as manager of engineering and technical government affairs in Washington DC.  For an engineer, that was a real education.  The assignment gave me a much better awareness of all the players involved in making a difference in aviation safety.  I had to understand the roles of not only the airframe and equipment manufacturers, but that of the airlines, the pilots, the regulators, and accident investigators.  I learned that everybody in the industry loses with an accident and conversely, everybody gains with genuine safety improvements.  I also saw the value of setting an agenda of safety issues based on accident data, and making that agenda known throughout the industry.  With the support of the Boeing Company, we took aviation safety public.  Driven by accident data, we concentrated on two major areas:  Controlled Flight into Terrain, CFIT – the category which at that time had the most fatalities, and Approach and Landing accidents, which had the greatest number of accidents.  The public pursuit of cooperation on safety issues got the Company the “Most Gutsy Award” from Industry Week Magazine that year. 

The Flight Safety Foundation provided the place where organizations which were otherwise competitors in the marketplace could get together to address common safety issues.  The CFIT Task Force was formed in the early 90’s through the auspices of the Flight Safety Foundation and at its peak, involved almost three hundred individuals from all parts of the world, all working pro bono, so to speak.  This was followed by the inclusion of an approach and landing accidents focus, and this lead to the development of the ALAR Toolkit, which addresses both categories of accidents.  These programs have had a very positive effect on the major killer accident type and the most frequent accident type.

Ground accidents in the commercial aviation industry fall into a somewhat neglected category because the number of casualties in any single event is usually small, and the damage is often below the levels required to be reported.  However, this form of accident makes it up in terms of quantity.  Thousands of people are injured each year and billions of dollars are spent globally on repairing the equipment and healing the injured.  There are analogs to this in other modes of transportation, and these deserve more attention.

More recently, the Runway Safety Initiative was formed.  This initiative looked at the accident data for three categories of accidents: runway incursions, runway confusion, and runway excursions.  Based on the data, the focus turned to excursions; meaning going off the side or the end of the runway.  Compared to runway incursions, the historical focus, excursions occur forty or more times more often and have resulted in approximately four times the number of fatalities over the past decade.  This international industry initiative, lead by the Flight Safety Foundation, has resulted in the development of another toolkit, a runway excursion risk reduction toolkit.  The NTSB participated with the Flight Safety Foundation in this endeavor.

It is significant to note that the farsighted FSF leadership saw value in these initiatives for the industry, for their members and for the Foundation, and Carl Vogt was an essential participant in the Foundation leadership.

Data to prevent accidents comes from understanding accidents.  An NTSB medallion with the NTSB eagle on one side has on the other side the quotation “From Tragedy We Draw Knowledge to Improve safety for Us All”.

Industry has moved from the old ‘fly-crash-fix’ paradigm and is moving from a reactive focus to one of managing safety in proactive sense.  This means that an organization should manage safety as an essential business parameter, just like revenue, expenses, plant and physical resources.  Safety can be managed and the accident rate will in the long term largely reflect the emphasis put on its management.

I have spoken much about aviation safety.  It is the safest mode of mass transportation, with the possible exception of elevators.  When one looks at the broader transportation safety data, its apparent that highway safety has the greatest potential payoff of any transportation mode.  It has the greatest exposure simply by numbers of operators & vehicles.  While annual aviation fatalities are measured in hundreds, highway fatalities are measured in tens of thousands.  The historical focus has been on crashworthiness via restraint systems and energy absorption in design.  Work on prevention has the potential for a very substantial payoff.  As has been pointed out by Chairman Hersman, distracted driving is a major issue.  That includes texting while driving, cell phone use while driving, and operating devices such as navigation systems while underway.  Distracted driving is not limited to automobiles.  There are examples in aviation, marine vessel operations, and rail operations as well.

In my tenure at the Safety Board, I also plan on applying my marine experience to the benefit of the Board.  As you may have noticed in some of the pictures displayed on the monitors, Linda and I lived aboard a steel hull trawler for more than four years.  We traveled much of the coastal US, the Great Lakes and the river systems down to the Gulf of Mexico, and the west coast of the US from Mexico to Alaska.

Much of what the public hears about the NTSB is the result of the publicity surrounding accidents.  Perhaps the more effective, but often unseen, is the Boards role of safety advocacy and accident prevention.  The charter of the NTSB is to prevent accidents by understanding the cause of the accidents it investigates.  Prevention is tough because it requires a constant and consistent focus.  With prevention, there is what I call the Safety paradox: When your emphasis and effort at preventing accidents becomes successful, the apparent need for all that emphasis and effort goes away, and the cycle will likely begin all over again.  It is often tougher to fix via the human than to fix via technology.

Many of you may find this hard to believe since I am an engineer, but I want to wrap this up with a bit of poetry.  This poem was written by a frequently encountered author, Joseph Malins.  The work is entitled The Ambulance Down In The Valley

End message

My experience so far confirms that being a Member of the NTSB is both challenging and satisfying, and is, as John Lauber told me early on, the best job in Washington.  It is challenging to learn the details of other modes of transportation such as marine, rail, highway and pipeline.  It is satisfying in that we really can make a difference in the safety of the travelling public.

I want to again say thank you to all who came here today.  All of you have taken time out of busy schedules, and some have traveled long distances to join me in this installation.  I sincerely appreciate your expressions of support for me and for the role of the NTSB in the safety of the travelling public.

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The Ambulance Down In The Valley
By Joseph Malins, 1895

T’was a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
      Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
      A duke and full many a peasant.
The people said something would have to be done,
      But their projects did not at all tally.
Some said “Put a fence round the edge of the cliff,”
      Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”

The lament of the crowd was profound and was loud,
      As their hearts overflowed with their pity:
But the cry for the ambulance carried the day
      As it spread through the neighboring city.
A collection was made, to accumulate aid,
      And the dwellers in highway and alley
Gave dollars or cents – not to furnish a fence –
      But an ambulance down in the valley.

For the cliff is all right if you’re careful,” they said:
      “And if folks ever slip and are dropping,
It isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
      As the shock down below – when they’re stopping.
So for years (we have heard) as these mishaps occurred,
      Quick forth would the rescuers sally,
To pick up the victims who fell from the cliff
      With the ambulance down in the valley.

Said one, as his plea, “It’s a marvel to me
      That you’d give so much greater attention
To repairing results than to curing the cause:
      You had much better aim at prevention.
For the mischief, of course, should be stopped at its source.
      Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally,
It is far better sense to rely on a fence
      Than an ambulance down in the valley.”

“He is wrong in his head,” the majority said;
      “He would end all our earnest endeavor.
He’s a man who would shirk this responsible work
But we will support it forever.
Aren’t we picking up all, just as fast as they fall?
      And giving them care liberally?
A superfluous fence is of no consequence
      If the ambulance works in the valley.”