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Remarks to the Dombroff, Gilmore, Jaques, & French 5th Annual 2011 Airline Symposium, McLean, VA
Robert L. Sumwalt
McLean, VA

Why does a NTSB Board Member go to an accident site?

I have been on about nine accident launches as a Board Member and when I do, I often read in the paper that "Member Sumwalt is leading the investigation."

This is a misconception.

Board Members are not accident investigators. We do not lead the investigations; we have expert staff who handle that.

A Board Member's job on an accident is to serve as the public face of the investigation. We serve as a liaison between investigators, the family members, and news media.

Whenever there is a transportation accident in this country, the public needs to be assured that the government is conducting an honest, competent, transparent, thorough, and independent investigation. That is what the Board Member is there to do. We are responsible for doing press conferences, meeting with the family members, and being a public face for the accident investigation. Board Members will stay on scene as long as needed but typically we don't stay more than three or four days.

When I leave an accident, I typically won't see that accident again until the investigators have completed their investigation, drafted the report, and are ready to present it to the Board Members.

The way I look at it, Board Members are here to provide oversight of the staff's products. It is difficult to provide oversight of something that you've been involved with because you tend to lose your objectivity.

Three weeks before the Board Meeting, staff provides the draft report to the Board Members.

During that three week period, I will read the report the first time, cover-to- cover. I'm just trying to take it all in and get a general understanding of the accident and the issues associated with it. I look for disconnects in logic and areas where I think the report can be strengthened. Then I will have a one-on-one meeting with the investigative staff to ask questions and discuss concerns. I may also suggest minor editorial changes at this time. If I have serious changes or concerns about the report, I will write a memo. These memos may address my suggested changes to findings, the probable cause, or recommendations. I will also copy my Board Member colleagues so they will know my areas of interest and concern. Once staff replies, they perhaps make changes to the report or explain why they did not. I then read the report again, up to three times, if needed. I review the public docket and read all party submissions.

These party submissions are your opportunity to tell me what you think about the accident.

As former Board Member John Lauber once told me, "I want to know everything I can to get ready for a Board Meeting. It's like getting ready for a type rating oral." As a pilot, I can relate to what it's like to get ready for a checkride or an oral exam.

According to the Government in the Sunshine Act, Board Members cannot have a quorum and discuss agency business outside of a publically announced meeting. Our statutory quorum is three Board Members, so this means that no more than two Board Members can get together at the same time to discuss the upcoming Board Meeting.

Although Board Members may prepare for Board Meetings outside this three week process by visiting sights or viewing accident parts, all the above-stated preparation occurs within that period.

To summarize, Board Members don't lead the investigation. We have technically qualified experts who do that, and they do it quite well.

The Board Members are there to provide a public face for the accident investigation and oversight of staff's product once it is presented to the Board for a Board Meeting. We can't maintain impartiality if we are involved in the actual accident investigation process.

Now, I would like to discuss some "take home" points.

First, you want to be a party member to the investigation. You provide the NTSB with technical expertise that we may need. It provides you reassurance that everything being done is above-board because you are there watching and participating.

So, learn our rules and play by them. Obtain and maintain your party status during the investigation process.

Second, as a party member, you are entitled to make a party submission to express your views on the facts, analysis, probable cause, and recommendations. Please take advantage of this opportunity.

Remember, my job is to provide oversight over our staff's product. I'm not there to defend the staff's product. I'm there to ask tough questions so that when I do vote on the accident report, I feel comfortable that I know all of the pertinent issues.

I only learn what staff tells me, unless I get into the public docket and read your party submissions. Your submissions are a valuable part of a Board Member's information gathering process. I cannot over-emphasize that point.

Third, meet with the Board Members before the accident. Most people aren't even aware that they can do that. And, concerning the timing of these meetings, each Board Member has their own preference but for me, I prefer meeting close to the Board Meeting date.

Some parties want to come in months before the Board Meeting. For me, that doesn't work as well as when the party comes in right before the Board Meeting. If we meet too early in the process, I likely am not that familiar with the accident. I'd prefer to have you come in just a few days before the Board Meeting because by then, I've read the draft report, I've met with staff, I've written my memo, and formed opinions on the issues. I have gone through the docket, read your party submission, and can therefore, ask questions about it.

So, in summary, become a party to the investigation, make a party submission, and do what most others don't do - meet with Board Members.

The NTSB has a plaque outside its Training Center that states, "From tragedy we draw knowledge to improve the safety of us all."

That's what we do at the NTSB - we try to take something tragic and learn from it so that others don't have to suffer the same consequences.

The agency has been doing this for 44 years, and we generally do pretty well at it. Sometimes, in spite of trying to do our best, we miss something. And this leads to my fourth "take home" point; we have provisions for Petition for Reconsideration. The statute allows that if you have new information that may be relevant to the investigation or if there is erroneous information, a party may file a Petition for Reconsideration.

We do review those and in some cases, the petition is granted in whole or in part. Please keep this in mind.

Thank you and I hope this information helps you understand the responsibilities of a NTSB Board Member.

Good luck and I hope we don't have to meet professionally.