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Remarks before the Aero Club of Washington, DC
Marion C. Blakey
Aero Club of Washington, DC

Honorable Marion C. Blakey
Remarks before the Aero Club of Washington, D.C.
May 23, 2002


Thank you, Shelly (Simi).

Thank you all. It is a pleasure to be here today. I thought I would use this as an opportunity to share some of my goals for the Safety Board. Certainly, there are many issues in aviation safety we could discuss. However, I think the future of the Board itself is a fitting subject for a group of people, such as yourselves - - because I know many of you are avid and interested Board watchers.

Avid and interested may be understated. The commentary from a number of veterans I received in the days leading up to my appointment as Chairman makes me recall what Mark Twain said about his father's constant advice giving.

At 14, Twain said his father's advice was driving him crazy and was to be avoided at all costs. At 21, Twain said he was astonished at how much his father had learned in 7 years.

Well, let me tell you - - I am impressed at how much you've learned in the last eight months.

Seriously, I was very surprised - - pleasantly surprised - - by how many of you got in touch to convey to me your commitment to the work the Board does … to convey your desire to see it succeed and to improve in some areas - - to preserve its hard-earned reputation for credibility and independence. I thank you for that, and I thank you for your specific insights.

To echo the words of St. Paul, the future is a glass through which we see darkly. And, rare are the times when we are able to see the direction of future events, anticipate the challenges associated with them, and respond accordingly.

This is precisely what I said to the entire NTSB staff last week at an All Hands Meeting where I laid out how I see the challenges we will face in this 21st century and how we intend to meet them. Essentially - - my vision for the agency.

And, I think it is entirely appropriate that we are discussing this in a week where we mark the 75th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh's historic solo New York to Paris flight.

Just as the future is difficult for us to envision, it is also hard for us to look back and imagine an event that today is often nothing more than a side note on the calendar.

A recent issue of Smithsonian magazine carried one young American's description of being there. She recalls sitting at a Paris café with her family, "when we heard that Lindbergh had been reported a hundred miles off the Irish coast."

They rushed to the airport to discover a crowd that was already ten deep surrounding the field. "It must have been about quarter past ten," she wrote, "when the roar of an aeroplane overhead was distinctly heard above the answering roar of the mob below … and then suddenly, out of the darkness, there flew a great silver moth … which glided down the path of light in the middle of the field and was as suddenly swallowed up again in the seething, howling mass of humanity that surged towards it from every direction."

Lindbergh himself, after spending the night in the comfort of the US Embassy in Paris, said he awoke to a life "that could hardly have been more amazing if I had landed on another planet."

As you all know, that flight was a breakthrough event. Now, in a world where the latest Space Shuttle flight barely merits a mention on the evening news, it may be hard for people today to appreciate how that one flight changed not only aviation, but how we perceive the world.

You and I know that today, 75 years later, we are again on the brink of breakthroughs that have the potential to revolutionize transportation and will bring the world closer together on many levels - - breakthroughs that are not merely in the minds of researchers or on the drawing board, but that are already being developed and implemented on a global scale.

Two weeks ago, I met with several of the scientists and engineers at NASA to discuss our ongoing work with them on composite materials and also to discuss some of the exciting aircraft safety technologies that they are currently researching.

Some of these technologies are truly revolutionary. For example - - morphing technologies, that can mimic nature and allow planes to change form in-flight, like birds (an original concept of the Wright brothers) … or self-correcting technology that can sense an impending failure, assess the problem, and fix an aircraft in-flight before a catastrophic event occurs … or refuse-to-crash technology that is able to safely guide an aircraft to the ground without pilot input when there's a security problem such as we had on September 11th.

These are just a few of the tools that will be in the hands of the Charles Lindberghs of our time … the men and women who will usher in a whole new era of aviation … and who might even generate enough excitement to get people lined up ten deep again to see it done.

What does all of this mean for the NTSB?

To borrow a saying from an earlier period - - it means the days of "kicking tin" to find the cause of modern commercial aircraft accident are over.

It means that accidents aren't getting any simpler … and that our investigations are going to be increasingly driven by issues involving high tech safety systems, integrated computer programs, high-grade materials and electronically generated data and data analysis.

It means the cause of the next major air accident is just as likely to be an error in a line of computer code as it is the failure of pilots to set their flaps during take-off - - as was the case in the crashes of Northwest flight 255, Delta flight 1141, and LAPA flight 3142 in Buenos Aires, Argentina [most recently Lion Air - Indonesia in which nobody was killed].

This is why we at the Board have taken a good, close look at ourselves. We've taken the inputs and opinions of groups such as Rand, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Government Accounting Office. We have also done our own internal review - - with lots of input from our career staff - - and we have identified weaknesses, and we are in the process of fixing them.

We have to … if we are going to keep up with the rapid pace of changing technology, remain the best at what we do, and continue to fulfill our mission as we head into the future.

Now don't get me wrong, the Board is not something that's broken and in need of fixing. On the whole it's doing well. And, I would be very remiss if I didn't thank Jim Hall and those who came before us for putting in place some of the exciting possibilities we are now going to take advantage of.


What we are talking about here - - is taking things to the next level.

I also recognize each of the outside reports on the Board were conducted with a particular agenda (the Rand Report, for example, was employed effectively by our last Chairman to increase the Board's resources). But, the Rand Report also offers an excellent jumping off point for discussing the challenges that face the NTSB in the near future.

I know that many of you are already familiar with the report, and the more ambitious demands it envisioned for the Board.

But, I think one line in the report in particular encapsulates the specific issues I would like to touch on today:

It says, "Board investigators must be the ones who are able to ask the right questions … and understand whether they have received the right answers."

To do this we must continue to improve our technological and training capabilities … improve our access to outside support and expertise … and ensure that the party process (ie. those who participate with us) is committed first and foremost to putting the pieces together and putting safety first.

The Rand Report stated flat out that the "Board's ability to lead investigations and to form expert teams is threatened by lack of training, equipment and facilities." And this is only going to become more acute as technology leaps forward.

New technology is all very exciting - - but in future accident investigations - - our investigators will increasingly be looking for evidence and clues in computer software and electronic data that we are going to have to mine with the same kind of meticulous attention that we give to the physical wreckage of an aircraft today.

Currently, we are successfully staying abreast. But, as technology continues its rapid pace, it will become more difficult to stay ahead.

And, this is where the Academy comes in.

The new NTSB Academy, which will open in the fall of 2003, provides us with a terrific opportunity to adapt and to keep abreast of technological advancements. It allows us to expand our lab and bring in new equipment and tools.

It gives us an excellent platform not only for sharing our knowledge - - with accident investigators worldwide as well as first responders, law enforcement, firefighters and others who we need to work with at the site of an accident … but it also gives us a platform for bringing expertise and resources to us and will help us strengthen our cooperative relationships with industry, academia and other government agencies.

And it is these kinds of outside relationships that are only going to grow in importance as technology advances.

Our recent work with NASA on the Flight 587 investigation is an excellent example of this.

Not only was Flight 587 the second deadliest accident in US aviation history … it is also the first crash investigation involving the failure of a major structural component made of composite materials.

As you know, we have been working closely with the experts at NASA's Langley Research Center, where they have been studying composites for decades.

The work on 587 is a meticulous process, and one that Langley has the expertise and the equipment to perform. And, we are grateful for the support and expertise that they have provided us so far.

And it is an experience we hope to duplicate with other government agencies, with universities, and other organizations possessing the expertise we need.

And, It is this type of cooperative spirit that we hope will also dominate our party process in the near future.

The Rand Report acknowledges that the party process works - - and I agree with that.

But the report also offers a cautionary note. It reminds us that we need to ensure that party process continues to be guided by our quest to make transportation safer. As accidents become more complex, as public scrutiny intensifies, and as legal repercussions carry greater and greater implications with them, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain this focus.

I actually believe there is a healthy level of tension built into the party process that results in high-quality results. And, the rough and tumble of the meetings and hearings can sharpen arguments and focus issues.

I also believe there have been some troubling signs recently, where dueling press conferences, hallway leaks, disinformation and excessively partisan behavior at the witness tables have threatened to politicize the process. I'm told that this characterized more than one hearing of the last few years and our most recent hearing on Emery Air Freight had to be adjourned because some of the witnesses were less than forthright with important information.

The party process works as long as all the parties realize what a rare and unusual approach it is, and that they appreciate the kind of responsibility it places on every organization involved. We must not take it for granted. And, it should be very clear to all - - that the NTSB must call the shots on the contentious issues.

As the new Chairman, I want to take this opportunity to call on everyone to step up to that higher level of responsibility … and to remember that the public will only have faith in the outcome if they are convinced we worked together with the collective purpose of finding out what went wrong, fixing it, and keeping our skies safe.

The public hearings for flight 587 will convene this fall … and I look forward to the best possible participation of all the parties involved.

If you think about it, the way the Board has recently examined itself is similar to the approach employed during the party process.

We brought everybody together, we figured out what can be improved, and we are on our way to making those improvements.

Just to give you a brief overview - - We are planning to improve internal operations by applying the same "sense of urgency" that defines our on-site accident investigations to the rest of our work. We are going to focus our resources, change some of our processes, and get our reports out on a more timely basis.

We are planning to be more proactive in our safety advocacy, expanding our outreach capabilities, working with consumer and industry organizations, as well as our regulatory partners in government.
We have already started a series of meetings with the various DOT modal administrators to focus on open safety recommendations - - particularly those on our MostWanted list. And, our own Board members are launching a new program of state-level advocacy.

We have also put a program in place that is intended to ensure that our own employees continue to have access to the best training available - - and are provided this training on a consistent and regular basis.

And, finally, we are looking at developing a "Silver Eagles" program that could take advantage of the loyalty and continued interest of NTSB alumni - - as well as others - - to provide grassroots safety advocacy, mentor new employees, or teach courses at the Academy.

I think it is also fair to say that this self-examination process discovered that we ourselves are going to have to adapt some of the attributes of the aircraft we will be investigating in the future.

The construction of those aircraft will rely on highly integrated and multidisciplinary systems - - and our investigative teams are going to have to reflect a similar approach.

We are going to need some morphing capabilities of our own - - allowing us to adapt to many of the complex accident investigations of the future.

Self-correcting abilities … that will allow us to monitor ourselves and our partners participating in our investigations.

And, a refuse-to-crash mentality that will give us the resilience to pursue even the most difficult accident investigations.

You know, in addition to Lindbergh, I am struck by the fact that that this week is the 70th anniversary of Amelia Earhart's solo transatlantic flight - - the first by a woman. As the first woman Chairman of the NTSB, I also feel like I am on an inaugural flight. But, with the continued support and enthusiasm from distinguished groups such as yourselves - - I intend to make our flight together a success.