Looking back 30 years

By: Robert Sumwalt

There are so many events for my generation — the assassination of President Kennedy, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, 9-11— that are indelibly ingrained into our memories. One that is particularly poignant for me are the images of the January 13, 1982, crash of an Air Florida Boeing 737 in Washington, DC. The 737 had just departed Washington National Airport and, unable to climb, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the icy Potomac River below. I remember right where I was when I learned the news. It’s hard to believe it was 30 years ago today.

I was a new a pilot for Piedmont Airlines. We flew out of Washington National Airport earlier that morning, planning to return later that evening. It was snowing hard for most of the day, though we got out before the heavy snow began. After we departed, the airport was closed off and on while snow plows busily attempted to clear the runways. Air Florida Flight 90, like many others, was late departing. The one thing that made this flight different than others, however, was that the relatively inexperienced crew made fundamental errors in dealing with the snow — errors that ultimately led to the loss of their lives and those of 76 others, including four people in vehicles on the bridge.

Much has changed in the decades since then to improve aviation safety. Advanced deicing fluids are now used to provide additional protection against icing while on the ground. Flight crews have specific guidance on how long that fluid can be expected to provide adequate protection, unlike in those days when it was merely an educated guess. Crews are taught how to communicate more effectively, skills that the NTSB found were sorely lacking in the case of Air Florida Flight 90: the first officer was trying to communicate that something wasn’t right, but he kept second-guessing himself and the captain ignored his muddled attempts to communicate.

As you may have read recently, U.S. air travel has never been safer. Even still, there is more that needs to be done. Three years ago this week, the headlines of a national newspaper boasted that there had been no fatalities onboard a U.S. airline in the previous year. By the end of the week, headlines across the world were filled with news of the “Miracle on the Hudson” – the US Airways plane that made an emergency landing on the Hudson River adjacent to New York City. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, but it underscored that we must not rest on our laurels. Further stern reinforcement of that message came four weeks later, when Colgan Air crashed on approach to Buffalo, claiming 50 lives.

We at the NTSB have a saying: “From tragedy we draw knowledge to improve the safety of us all.” With the Colgan accident, and many others the agency has investigated in the past 44 years, the NTSB identified ways the U.S. air transportation system could be further strengthened. That accident also brought about profound and unprecedented legislation aimed at filling holes in the system’s safety. Despite the fact that Congress has mandated these changes, however, the FAA still has not implemented many important aspects of the legislation. Although the FAA is to be applauded for publishing a rule on fatigue — a rule also mandated by Congress as a result of the Colgan tragedy — we are still awaiting FAA action on several NTSB recommendations. Right before Christmas, for example, the DOT Office of Inspector General released a report highlighting that more needs to be done regarding pilot training and proficiency programs — items the NTSB highlighted in the wake of the Colgan crash.

There was another tragic transportation accident that also occurred that snowy January day in Washington — one that perhaps was eclipsed by the publicity of Air Florida Flight 90. About 30 minutes after the Air Florida accident, a Washington subway train derailed, claiming three lives. Since that accident, the NTSB has continued to press for safety improvements on the Nation’s capital transit rail system.

While the U.S. transportation system enjoys a strong safety record, we at the NTSB continue to push for improvements. We realize that our system is only as good as the next flight, the next subway ride, and the next trip on any of our Nation’s modes of transportation.


Robert L. Sumwalt was sworn in as the 37th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on August 21, 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

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