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Opening Remarks Before The General Aviation Air Safety Investigators (GAASI) 2007 Advanced Technical Workshop, Wichita, Kansas
Robert L. Sumwalt
General Aviation Air Safety Investigators (GAASI) 2007 Advanced Technical Workshop, Wichita, Kansas

Thank you very much for that gracious introduction, Ralph.

As a former professional general aviation pilot and the current Safety Board Vice Chairman, it is truly my privilege to be invited to speak at this year’s General Aviation Air Safety Investigators Advanced Technical Workshop. I recognize that for a dozen years now, this annual gathering represents the best, brightest, and hardest-working professionals in General Aviation Safety. Without all of your efforts, there would be a lot more accidents and lives lost. You are part of the reason why GA accidents have been on the decline over the past few decades. 

Ironically, the reason that I am in a position to address you today is partly because of a GA accident. It occurred many years ago in my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. You see, I was a teenager, barely legal to drive, when I heard on my car radio that there had been a plane crash nearby. Out of curiosity, I drove to the accident site and as I was getting out of the car, the coroner pulled up in his car. I decided I would tuck -in pretty closely behind him as he walked towards the wreckage. “Just act like you know what you are doing,” I told myself and as we approached the yellow tape, they raised the tape and I walked right in. It was a King Air accident that claimed three lives. About a month later, I took a friend by to see where the plane had crashed and for some inexplicable reason, on the way back home, we stopped by the airport and signed up for flying lessons. Just like that. Four months later, at the ripe age of 17, I received my Private Pilot Certificate. So when people ask me how I became a pilot, I tell them “I got into aviation by accident.”

I have vivid memories of sitting on the floor of the Government Documents Library at the University of South Carolina, going through and reading NTSB accident reports. As I read those reports I was fascinated by the work of accident investigators.

When I decided to go for the Safety Board, someone asked, “Robert, why do you want to be on the National Transportation Safety Board?”

It is certainly a fair question and one that I could answer with one word – passion. I know it is there but I have never worried too much about where it came from or why it is there. I just know it is there. It gets me up in the morning and it keeps me going into the day.

Truly, I believe the work we are doing does save lives. And that, in itself, is exciting.

I’d like to clarify this point, also. I have been touted – not by my own press, by the way - as someone who is an expert in aviation safety and accident investigation.

While is true that I have written extensively on aircraft accidents, and while it is true that I have worked on a few accidents as a party member, and while it is true that I am familiar with the accident investigation process, let me say that the real expert in accident investigation isn’t me.
No, the real experts are the people sitting in this room. You are the experts and I have a great deal of admiration and respect for you and the work that you do.

I went though the NTSB’s accident investigation course in 1992. And somewhere along the way I received an Aviation Safety Certificate from USC. And I’ve read articles in ISASI Forum and I’ve read books – even written a book on aircraft accidents. In spite being somewhat knowledgeable about the art form we call aircraft accident investigation, I’ll have to admit that every time I go out on a launch with you guys, I am truly amazed – truly impressed – by how you can sort through all of this jumbled-up mess and figure out what happened. So, my hat is off to you.

You know, it’s good to be back in Wichita. Last time I was in Wichita was about 18 months ago when I was wearing a different hat and I out here for recurrent training on the King Air. Someone recently asked if I was doing any flying these days. I replied that I was quite proud of my contributions to aviation safety, and I felt that my greatest contribution to safety these days was simply for me to not fly anymore. After my performance in the simulator, I’m not sure the guys at FlightSafety over at Beech Field would disagree with that.

These are some really exciting times in general aviation. Glass cockpits are standard now for new GA airplanes, and you can’t pick up a trade publication without seeing all of the retrofits available for steam gauge cockpits. Very light jets are expected to swarm the skies. Business aviation is booming. Flight recorders are getting cheaper and more prolific in small airplanes. Special Light sport aircraft hold the promise of reinvigorating GA pilots to the heyday of the sixties and seventies. 

And GAMA’s statistics show that in the first half of 2007, shipments of general aviation airplanes totaled 1,883 units, with industry billings rising 11.7 percent to $9.8 billion. Turboprop shipments rose 15.2 percent and the business jet market segment grew by 14.7 percent.

From a safety perspective, Calendar Year 2006 was the lowest number of GA accidents in several decades.

But, in case any of you have visions of sitting around playing cards and with the Maytag Repair Man… no, don’t count on it. Even though the recent accident record has been remarkable, we still had 1,515 GA accidents last year, 303 of them fatal, resulting in 698 fatalities.

Part of the decline in General Aviation accidents has been associated with a steady decrease in the amount of flight activity. Since 1990, General Aviation hours flown has declined 20 percent. As you know, General Aviation accounts the highest accident and fatal accident rates. As a consequence, if we maintain this current accident rate, averaging approximately 7.5 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, and given the increase in the number of GA aircraft as reported by the FAA Flight Plan, the yearly number of GA accidents will simply not be acceptable. In five years, if the FAA’s traffic predictions are correct for new aircraft entering the skies, the number of accidents, given the current rate, will rise above 2,000 per year. Ten years from now, the figure could exceed 2,500 accidents per year. We simply cannot allow accidents to increase and we need to work together to lower the accident rate.

Let’s switch gears and talk about a few things pertaining to the Safety Board. First, I think the Safety Board is in good hands. Regarding the Board itself. We have a collegial Board. We certainly don’t always agree with each other – and that is the way it should be. But, when we do disagree, we can do it without being disagreeable. We can disagree philosophically on issues during board meetings, but then all go out and have lunch together after the meeting.

We have a diverse board and I think we have a strong board. One of my mentors is John Lauber, who many of you know, served on the Safety Board from 1985 – 1994. John taught me that it is important to have a Board with people of diverse backgrounds because everyone brings a different point of view. “Accidents are not just technical issues,” he said. “They involve issues of state federal oversight, organizational practices, public policy, economic issues and legal issues.” He postulated that collectively we come up with much better decisions than if we were all pilots, engineers or lawyers. I agree and I think the net result is one that had positive benefits for the traveling public.” And we have that with this current Board. Each member brings something to the table.

As you know, Chairman Rosenker, recently retired as a Major General from the US Air Force. At one time ran the White House Military Office and controlled all of the Presidential aircraft. Member Hersman crafted transportation legislation and worked all kind of transportation issues while on The Hill. Member Higgins served in the White House as Assistant to the President and Secretary to the Cabinet, where she worked closely with the NTSB, FAA, and Coast Guard on a number of matters, including the ValuJet Everglades accident and TWA 800, increasing FAA inspector staffing, FAA reauthorization, and creation of the NTSB Office of Family Assistance. As I think you know, Member Chealander brings a great deal of aviation knowledge to the board, having served as a Thunderbird, and as a chief pilot for American Airlines. And, as Jeff Guzzetti recently told me, “THIS Board has probably the most intense support and interest in general aviation than any other Board in NTSB history.” Our Managing Director often refers to this Board as being a very “engaged” board. And it is true. Each of the board members does take the time to study the issues and really prepare for board meetings. (We may drive staff a little crazy, we at least we are very interested in the products that you bring before us.)

Last year, Chairman Rosenker stood here and made a commitment to increase the ranks of regional air safety investigators (ASIs). Today, I am pleased to tell you that we are making good on that commitment.

During the past year, we hired Jason Aguilera into our Texas Office, and Mike Huhn and Dennis Diaz into our Ashburn Office. Each comes with great experience.

But that is not all; the Safety Board is currently in the process of hiring FIVE more regional investigators, which represents a 15% boost in our regional investigator ranks.  We hope to have these folks on board before the end of the year. Alex Lemishko will provide more details on this when he presents our annual “State of the Regions Address” this afternoon, but I will say that impressively, when we advertised for these ASI openings, we received over 500 applications.

With more regional investigators, we will have the capability to continue our plan to launch on more GA accidents. I assure you that you’ll be seeing more of us on site. That’s not to say the help we receive from the 3,400 FAA inspectors from around the country is not needed…we simply could not do our job without them. However, in our efforts to conserve Safety Board investigative resources for priority safety issues during periods of tight budgets over the past few years, we needed to be even more selective about those accidents to which we launched.  Although we will still prioritize our workload to get the biggest safety bang for the buck, I’m pleased to say that we are now able to travel to more fatal and serious injury accident sites, along with those GA incidents that may be rich with safety issues. 

And I’d like to add that our efforts to think out of the box in attempting to become more efficient during those austere times have paid off greatly in reducing the accident report backlog and increasing timeliness of accident findings. Due to the efforts of Jeff Guzzetti, Alex Lemishko and the ASIs in our regional offices, backlog of accidents over six months old have never been lower.

Five years ago, when Jeff took the reins, we had over 1,100 incomplete reports older than six months. Today, we have less than half of that amount. One of the main drivers of this success is the one-page “c-form” for those no or minor-injury accidents where we have minimal “safety payback.” We document them for our database, complete them in 30 days, and move on to accidents with greater potential safety payback.

With the crushing weight of a big backlog off of our investigator’s shoulders, coupled with more investigators, we can now do more with GA safety issues. The Office of Aviation Safety, both in the regions and the go-team folks at Headquarters, have initiated numerous and significant investigations and studies into a wide spectrum of general aviation safety issues and accidents.

Since January, NTSB regional investigators led partial go-teams and participants like you on an EMS business jet crash in Milwaukee, a midair collision involving two news helicopters over Phoenix, two air tour helicopter accidents in Hawaii, air tour accidents in Alaska and New York City, and the NASCAR owned Cessna 310 accident in Sanford, Florida this summer. These investigations are leading to numerous discussions regarding safety issues, with the hopes of preventing the next accident of their type. We are bringing more regional accidents to the full board for deliberations in Board Meetings. And, we’re conducting a Special Study into the deployment of airbags in GA airplanes, and Special Investigation into the new category of Special Light Sport Aircraft.

These days, a successful organization is one that has the ability to change. We are studying ways to continually improve our efficiency. We are looking at all kinds of innovative ideas that may involve more use of telecommuting, which would put more investigators in more locations. We are not considering these changes in a vacuum. Our foremost goals on any changes are to continually improve the quality and efficiency of our investigations through improvements to our ASI’s working conditions and lifestyles.

Speaking of change, as a former airline pilot, I know that the safe and efficient operation of an airliner is a result of standardized procedures. I think the same holds true for Safety Board investigations. We have a Major Investigations Manual for our go-team investigators, but we’ve never really had the same type of written procedures for our regional ASIs…until now. Jeff and Alex have issued over a dozen “Regional Operations Policy Memoranda” which reside on our intranet, and they have plans for about 40 more.  We are also in the process of developing a Regional Investigator’s Manual, and we look forward to having GAMA members and others provide input to its development. Written procedures will provide a template to ensure that our various regional offices do business essentially the same way. I think you’ll agree this is a good thing.

As I start to wrap it up, I implore you to pay attention to all of the sessions that will be presented over the next two days. This workshop represents a critical element of the Safety Board's mission…to share the knowledge gained from our investigations to prevent similar accidents from occurring again. I commend GAASI and GAMA on sharing the lessons learned on how to do investigations - for ultimately, it's the quality and thoroughness of our investigations that can allow us to fulfill our mission and save lives

To be honest, I look forward to sitting in on some of the sessions, as well. As you can imagine, the manufacturers and training organizations were kind enough to invite me to visit, and that’s something I look forward to doing. But, I told Jeff when we outlined our schedule that I really wanted to listen to some of the presentations before heading out and doing the VIP thing. The topics presented involve the cutting edge of GA, such as Night Vision Devices in EMS aircraft, GA Flight Data Monitoring, and how today’s Electric Airplanes can be influenced by high intensity radio frequencies.  I also see from this year’s workshop agenda that there are three sessions related to preventing accidents involving the most precious of all general aviation resources…YOU.  With an annual bloodborne pathogen’s training session, a session on risk management for investigators, and another on post-accident safety tips for ballistic parachutes, there will be plenty of good advice to keep yourself safe at an accident site.

I am very proud and honored to have been selected to serve our Nation and our profession.
When my term expires, I hope we can look back and say, “You know, we - Board Members, professional staff, industry, labor, government – we all worked together and we did make a difference.”

Come to think of it, I think that explains where the passion comes from. Ever since getting involved in safety business some 20 years ago, I’ve had a burning desire to give something back to the profession. 

And when it comes to passion, I don’t think I am alone. I suspect that is what probably drives most of us – to simply make our profession just a little better. And, I suspect your devotion to that cause explains why we have some 150 aviation safety professionals gathered in a room to improve their professional skills. I think we all share the passion.

So, I like to leave you with a call to action - approach each and every accident knowing that your work does matter; it is important; it does make a difference and it does save lives! Whether you are a manufacturer, regulator, educator, investigator, or operator, I challenge you to work together, think out of the box, so that we can continually drive down the GA accident rate.
Given your efforts over the past years to improve GA safety, I know you are up to the challenge.

Keep up the good work, Safe travels and may God Bless America!

Thank you very much for the opportunity to join you today.