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Remarks at the Bombardier Stand Down, Wichita, KS
Earl F. Weener, PhD
Wichita, KS

Thank Bombardier – it says a lot about your corporate culture that you invest in this stand down year in and year out.  You view your role not just as a producer of planes, trains and other equipment, but as a full participant in the aviation safety community.  And I’m certain that these stand downs are directly responsible for saving lives and making the industry stronger.

I also want to thank the FAA not just for taking part in the stand down, but for all the work they do to make aviation safe and efficient.  Although our two agencies are tasked with different responsibilities, we share the same goals and work as partners. And most of all, thank you for inviting me here to spend a few minutes sharing my thoughts on the state of the industry and what we can focus on to continue strengthening aviation in the future.

I am brand-new to the National Transportation Safety Board – in fact, this is one of my very first speeches as a board member.  But it’s fair to say that I’m not new to the aviation industry or the complex challenges we face.

I received my private license in 1966 and my commercial pilot’s license and instrument rating in 1967. My Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees are all in Aerospace Engineering; I’ve served as a General Aviation flight instructor and Part 135 pilot; and I spent almost a quarter century working for Boeing to make commercial jet transports safer and more functional for pilots.  My engineering experience includes development of the crew interface on the Boeing 757/767 airplanes, which incorporated the first glass flight deck in commercial transports.

I spent the past decade working with the Flight Safety Foundation leading international safety programs in areas such as ground accident prevention and runway safety, particularly runway excursions, which remains a major category of accidents. So I come from a place that many in this room share: I love airplanes.  I own and regularly fly a turbocharged Bonanza that began its life in this city.  As a child I marveled at airplanes streaming across the sky and idolized the lucky few who got to fly them for a living. So I understand that unlike most other professions, pilots aren’t just doing a job – we’re living our passion. 

And I’m honored that my passion for aviation now takes me to the National Transportation Safety Board.  As many of you know, the Safety Board is a small, independent federal agency.  We are about 400 people strong, with one-third of that number involved in aviation. 

Our mandate is to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and issue recommendations to prevent future accidents.  We don’t regulate transportation; indeed we can’t require that any of our recommendations be adopted. That’s why the most powerful tool in our arsenal is our independence and integrity; and, in fact, throughout the Safety Board’s history, our recommendations have over an 80% acceptance rate.

The Safety Board’s work tends to be on the public’s radar when we investigate high profile incidents with large numbers of injuries and fatalities; such as last year’s train collision in the Washington, DC Metro system, the recent barge Duke collision on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, and the Buffalo loss-of-control accident. But what we find, time and time again, is that many of the causes of incidents – and the steps we recommend to prevent them in the future – apply to the human operator, whether it be train operators, highway vehicle drivers, marine vessel crews, or airplane pilots. 

One area of major concern continues to be fatigue.  We may not see many accidents where we determine that fatigue was the leading factor, but it is a contributing factor in an alarming number of events.
And it’s no secret that corporate and Part 135 pilots face particular pressures to fly as many hours as possible.  Your margins are slimmer, and you aren’t constrained by the Part 121 rules – which is a topic that I think merits further conversation.

Ultimately you are responsible for self-regulating your fitness to fly.  We have certainly made progress in recent years.  The culture of “powering through” fatigue is not as strong as when I started flying years ago, but we still have a long way to go. And fatigue is just one part of a larger issue that the Safety Board is focused on: pilot professionalism. 

Professionalism in our industry is something that has always fallen under the category of “you know it when you see it.”  It’s pilots joking around in the cockpit when they should be focused on the job at hand.  It’s a pilot or crewmember who comes to work unprepared or unfit for duty.  But it’s always been hard to define it or what exactly constitutes crossing the line.

With that in mind, the Safety Board has begun to formalize the notion of professional standards.  We recently held a Safety Forum on Professionalism in Aviation to raise awareness, and to learn and identify critical issues. We heard from 47 industry professionals during the 3-day forum, coming from a broad spectrum of viewpoints and experiences.  Some of you here today participated in that forum.

On the first day of the forum, we focused on the development of professionalism – that is, how pilots and controllers are selected, screened and trained. On the second day, we focused on methods and techniques for ensuring professionalism; including the shared responsibility that companies and associations have in reinforcing professional standards; and the important role of the captain who is on the front line in ensuring professionalism. And on the third day, we discussed effective pilot-controller communications, and methods for promoting excellence through data and information sharing.  We closed the forum with a discussion of the regulator’s role in ensuring professionalism. The proceedings of this Forum is available on the NTSB website.

Now, I want to underscore a very important point: the Safety Board thinks professionalism is an emerging challenge in the industry, but we also recognize that the vast majority of pilots are doing their job with the utmost professionalism and integrity.

But just as it is in so much of the work we do, we seek to make big improvements at the margins.  And we’re all responsible for making that happen.  It’s not enough just to do your job professionally; you’re also responsible for keeping an eye on your colleagues, especially those with less experience than you have.  Take the opportunity to mentor and instruct, and to share your knowledge and experience. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

Each safety incident that occurs in aviation affects not just one pilot or one company, but the entire industry.  Whether it be the airlines, the charter industry, or corporate flight departments, the public’s faith in air transportation to move people and goods safely and efficiently is hard earned, but easily lost.

We at the Safety Board don’t claim to have all the answers, but events like these that bring people together to engage in dialogue and learn from one another are a big part of the solution, and we strongly support them. So I wish you a productive, enjoyable conference, and I appreciate being a part of it.  Thank you very much.