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Keynote Address at the Flight Safety Foundation 3rd Annual Dinner, Washington, DC
Robert L. Sumwalt
Washington, DC

​Good evening and thank you for having me. I truly appreciate the opportunity to be surrounded by those who have a passion for improving aviation safety. I believe those gathered in this room are truly the “Who’s Who” in aviation safety.

Aviation safety has been something that has been of tremendous interest to me for over 40 years. You see, I got into aviation by accident.

When I was 17 years old, I heard on my car radio that there had been a plane crash on approach to my hometown airport in Columbia, South Carolina. I decided to see if I could find the crash. As I approached the crash site, I saw the coroner and decided to tuck in close to him. As he walked towards the accident site, I stayed close to him. And as the law enforcement officers raised the yellow tape for him, I slipped in with him.

And, don't ask me how this happened, but on the way home, I drove by the airport and stopped by the local flight school and signed up for flying lessons.

So, yes, I sort of got into aviation by accident.

And, while I college, instead of studying whatever I was supposed to be studying, I would spend countless hours sitting on the floor of the Government Documents Library, reading NTSB accident reports.

So, although perhaps I got in to aviation "by accident," so to speak, I truly have had a lifetime appreciation for accident investigation and a passion for working to prevent accidents – just like everyone in this room. One thing I have observed through those years of studying accidents is the important role of leadership in preventing accidents.

I’ve seen so many cases where a failure of leadership led to a bad outcome. Sometimes that leadership failure is in the cockpit, sometimes it is on the shop floor, but quite often, the leadership failures can be traced back to senior management and even the board of directors.

A few years ago the NTSB investigated a Metro subway accident here in Washington, DC. Tragically, nine lives were lost. The NTSB found that a factor in the accident was a lack of Metro’s safety culture. We also found ineffective safety oversight by the Metro board of directors. Quite simply, no one was keeping their eyes on safety, including the board of directors.

The board of directors was only aware of those safety concerns brought to them by the Metro general manager. And, the general manager wasn’t really attuned to many of the problems because of the silo mentality that was pervasive throughout the organization. The metrics that the board of directors used to measure safety were things like crime in subway stations; escalator injuries;, and slips, trips, and falls. Although these are important topics, they had no relevance to anticipating and preventing the type of accident that killed nine people and injured dozens others.

So rhetorically speaking, how do you ensure safety permeates the entire organization and is a consideration for everything you do?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but it is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. The best answer I can come up with, based on my observations and experiences, is that safety must be a core value of the organization and, most importantly, those in the organization must do everything they can to live those values.

How many times have you heard someone say “safety is our top priority.” Whenever I hear that, I just shake my head. Why? Usually it’s just rhetoric. And, besides, priorities come and go. When I was an airline, for example, a new president would come in say “on-time performance is our top priority.” A few years later another president would arrive and announce “customer service is our top priority.” And, once that guy left, the new president would come in and proclaim “the airline’s priority is becoming more mean and lean financially,” so everything we did was driven by lowering costs.

Priorities come and go. Therefore, safety shouldn’t be just a priority – it must be a core value that drives everything you do. I’m not saying safety is the only value you should have – certainly it would be expected to have other values such as providing excellent customer service, using ethical business practices, and being a good steward of the environment. But, in successful organizations, everything you do is run through the filter of your core values to make sure you are being true to them.

A few years ago, then-NTSB chairman Debbie Hersman and I visited a Fortune 500 transportation company. During the two days of being with them, we noticed a true commitment to doing things the right way. We found that commitment with the CEO, we saw it throughout their operating lines of business, and we even observed it in their corporate aviation department. That commitment was so noticeable that we asked various employees why they were so emphatic about doing things the way they did. In every case, the employees would point to the values on the wall and say “because these are our values. We live by them.” It was impressive – the values weren’t just words hanging on the wall like they are at so many places – what distinguished this organization was that they made a point of actually living their values.

As a leader, your role is to ensure that your organization has safety as a core value and, most importantly, the organization lives those values.

In the NTSB’s report of the Metro accident, we stated that “the safety behaviors and attitudes of individuals are influenced by their perceptions and expectations about safety in their work environment, and they pattern their safety behaviors to meet demonstrated priorities of organizational leaders, regardless of stated policies.”

In other words, people will watch you and they do what they think you want, and not necessarily what you tell them you want.

As a leader, are you sending the right message? Is safety just talk in your organization, or are the leaders actually walking the talk?

Let me leave you with one final thought. I, like many of you, have been doing safety work for a long time. I know there can be trials and tribulations. I know there can be disappointments, setbacks, frustrations. Perhaps sometimes you feel your work is all for nothing.

And, why do I suspect you may sometimes feel that way? Because, as one safety professional to another, I know from experience that when we care about something as much as we all do, it can be frustrating when we feel our input is ignored; when we know there is more that can be done; when we see things that should be changed, but aren’t; when we feel others really don’t care.

You may occasionally ask yourself: “Is it all worth it? It is really worth all of the time I have spent on these safety initiatives?”

Well, to answer that and keep it all in perspective, one of my favorite inspirational sayings is: “And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

In other words, to make a significant difference, you don’t have to solve world hunger or find the cure for cancer. You only need to keep one person from getting into trouble in an aircraft. If you have done that, it is as if you have saved an entire world.

Admittedly, the paradox is that you probably never will be able to fully appreciate just what you’ve done. You will probably never receive the direct satisfaction of knowing that you have helped someone.

But let me assure you … the work you are doing… it does matter. It does make a difference. It is important. And yes, it does keep people from dying.

So, as one safety professional to another, I want to thank you for your tireless efforts. I guarantee, your work is saving an entire world.

Thank you and keep up the great efforts!