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Dinner speech for FlightSafety International’s “Best of the Best” celebration, Grapevine, TX
Robert L. Sumwalt
Grapevine, TX
10/15/2016

​Thank you, Bruce [Whitman]. It is a pleasure to be here this evening.

The fact is, tonight is not about me. It’s not about my former employer, US Airways. It’s not about my present employer, the NTSB. It’s about you – FlightSafety’s “Best of the Best.”

I wondered to myself, “What does it mean to be the ‘Best of the Best’.”

So I turned to a very insightful, scholarly source - the dictionary app on my iPhone.

It describes “best” as “better than all others in quality or value; most skillful, talented or successful; most appropriate, useful, or helpful.”

So, think about that for a moment.

You possess and exemplify each of those attributes. But you’re not just the best. You are, as this celebration is appropriately titled, the “Best of the Best.”

I wanted to know what your peers thought about the “Best of the Best.” I wanted to know what your center managers thought.

So, in the past ten days, I visited two FlightSafety centers, and started asking questions. From listening to the answers provided, I gained a crystal-clear insight from your fellow teammates as to what this honor means.

One person described this honor as being one that recognizes the “whole person” – not just a great pilot, maintenance tech, or cabin safety specialist – but someone who epitomizes the professional spirit of FlightSafety International: Great teamwork, outstanding customer service, and exceptional instructing ability.

I learned that this award represents someone who is willing to go the extra mile to help a client who may need some extra help. Someone who goes above and beyond. Someone who possesses a high degree of leadership.

I then emailed a good friend whom I’ve known for a while. He’s fairly new at FlightSafety. Nevertheless, I wanted his opinion. Even though he hasn’t been here very long, I really wanted to know what he thought.

He promptly emailed back, explaining as a member of the team himself, the most compelling message was that “all of us in the industry appreciate the role models the ‘Best of the Best’ represent. Their commitment to safety, quality of performance and passion are recognized and admired. Promoting and recognizing deserving teammates is the best part of my job I enjoy it the most. If there is one event that captures and embodies the FlightSafety spirit, it is rewarding the ‘Best of the Best.’ They are the most important members of the FlightSafety family.”

He signed the email as he usually does: “Warmest Regards and Tailwinds....Bruce.”

I thought that was pretty insightful for someone who has only been at the company for 55 years.

So, no matter where I turned, I heard a consistent message.

Whether I asked your peers, the Center managers, or Chairman, or the President & CEO of FlightSafety International, there was a resoundingly clear and powerful message about what it means to be the “Best of the Best.”

So, from one aviation professional to another: I say to you, “Congratulations and a job well done!”

You know, we have commonalities. The organizations that we each work for have “safety” in their names: National Transportation Safety Board. FlightSafety International. 

We are all in the safety business. You may hesitate for a moment and say, “No – we are in the training business,” and I certainly won’t argue with that.

But, ultimately, the goal of providing exceptional, high quality training is to improve safety. After all, the best safety device in any aircraft is what? It is a well-trained crew.

When A.L. Ueltschi founded this company 65 years ago, he didn’t name it: “Simulators R’ Us.” He didn’t name it “Flight Training International.”

He thoughtfully named it FlightSafety International, because as a pilot himself, he saw too many of his peers die in plane crashes due to insufficient training. He recognized that quality training in training devices was the key to improving safety.

I’ve been a Member of the NTSB for ten years, but I’ve been reading aircraft accident reports since I was a freshman in college. One theme that I have recognized is the critical role that instructors and check airmen play in improving safety.

For instance, my airline suffered five fatal crashes in five years. Regarding the crash involving USAir 1016 flight in July 1994, the NTSB voiced concern over USAir’s training. The NTSB stated in its accident report published the following year: “The Safety Board notes with concern that in a department where standardization is promoted and enforced, there is an apparent lack of standardization among the company check airmen.”

That crash hit close to home for me: it involved my airline and my brother-in-law was a passenger on that plane. Thirty-seven people died in that crash.

Your role in promoting safety as instructors, check airmen, maintenance trainers and cabin safety specialists is critical.

I noted that FlightSafety’s top core service value is that you are “dedicated to saving lives by training pilots and other aviation professionals.” What more important cause is there than saving lives?

But, as a former instructor, I know sometimes you may get home at night feeling frustrated. You may feel like your client just didn’t care. He or she may have shown up unprepared. They may have had a bad attitude. They may have had a bad day in the simulator.

It can be frustrating. I know. I’ve been there. I’ve been an instructor.

However, to counter-balance that frustration, here are words that I’ve always found inspirational: “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. You don’t have to 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.

So, let me assure you – the work you’re doing…. It does matter. It is important. It does make a difference. And it does keep people from dying in aircraft.

Two weeks ago I attended the Bombardier Safety Standdown in Wichita. Retired Navy Captain Al Gorthy spoke and introduced the term the “Normalization of Excellence.”

He, of course, derived that expression by completely reversing the notion of “normalization of deviance,” where, over time, not following procedures and taking short cuts becomes an accepted practice.

When aviators “normalize” deviations from procedures, it becomes a dangerous, slippery slope, as we saw in the GIV crash in Bedford, Massachusetts.

Al’s idea of “Normalization of Excellence” is a powerful paradigm shift. It reminds aviators to strive for operational excellence with everything they do.

Best-selling author John Maxwell says: “Leadership is about influence. Nothing more, nothing less.”

I challenge you, as FlightSafety’s “Best of the Best” – as the industry’s Best of the Best, for that matter – to use your leadership to influence and inspire the normalization of excellence.

If anyone can do it, you can.

Thank you and congratulations!