My Path to Becoming an NTSB Investigator

By: Emily Gibson

EmilyGibsonSome might say that I took the scenic route to become an investigator for the NTSB. Frankly, it’s not something that I set out to do early in my aviation career. I didn’t go to Embry Riddle, nor did I study human factors psychology or aeronautical science. Having worked for two major airlines, I quickly became interested in the safety arena of my job. I held various positions such as manager of inflight standards, cabin safety, and regulatory compliance. I developed and facilitated inflight training courses, conducted certification of new airplane types into my airline’s fleet, developed safety briefing cards, administered internal audit programs, and provided oversight of a regulatory compliance program for inflight service and much more. I was also a qualified flight attendant for both of those major airlines for 12 years.

The first major airplane accident that I remember after I entered the aviation industry was in 1999, when American Airlines flight 1420 crashed while attempting to land in Little Rock, Arkansas. At that point, I became more passionate about my safety role and challenged myself to make a difference where I could every day.

Just over 10 years after the Little Rock accident, I was waiting to hear back from the FAA on a safety oversight position I had applied for to further my career when I was personally reminded of why improving aviation safety had become a central area of my professional focus. On August 8, 2009, a helicopter and an airplane collided over the Hudson River and 9 people lost their lives. The helicopter pilot was a friend of mine. It was a tough week, but I heard a few days later that I was soon to become a cabin safety inspector with the FAA.

The move to the FAA was a natural progression in my career. In my new role, I reviewed all cabin safety programs for compliance with federal regulations in addition to ensuring that airline employees followed training programs and procedures. I also wrote enforcement actions against the operator or passengers when applicable and conducted routine and off-hour surveillance.

But, I felt like I could do more. I wanted to do more. Working for the NTSB had been a dream. Even before seeking a position with the FAA, I knew the NTSB was where I eventually wanted to land. Still, the agency had not posted a survival factors investigator vacancy in decades. After my friend’s accident in 2009, the NTSB became an ambition.

Transportation accidents are tragic –lives lost, people hurt, families’ lives changed forever. But I knew out of all of the heartache, with the NTSB launching, something good could and would come of it. “From tragedy we draw knowledge to improve the safety of us all,” the words on the entrance of the NTSB Training Center and the agency’s core mission. As an aviation professional, I felt I shared in that responsibility. And in 2012, I would finally get the chance to make a difference as an NTSB survival factors investigator.

So what do I and my survival factors colleagues do? We examine factors that affect the survival of persons involved in aviation accidents. These include the causes of injuries sustained by aircraft occupants or other affected persons, safety procedures, search and rescue, aircraft crashworthiness, equipment design, emergency response and emergency management, cabin safety, flight attendant procedures training, occupant protection, and airport certification and operational issues. These factors are collectively referred to as “survival factors.”

We use our knowledge and experience in a variety of ways throughout the course of an investigation. We serve as a group chairman responsible for documenting, analyzing, and evaluating survival factors; we are a primary resource for investigations into these issues. We may conduct surveys or special studies. And we propose safety recommendations and draft testimony for Board Members.

And while I may have assumed my studies in elementary education would never serve me in aviation, we give presentations and participate as a member on technical panels during public hearings on aviation accidents/incidents. Nothing prepared me better to speak in public than learning to be a teacher.

In my 2 years with the NTSB, I have served as a group member on the Japan Airlines Boeing 787 Battery Fire incident in Boston Massachusetts on January 7, 2013, Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 accident in San Francisco on July 6, 2013 and the UPS Airbus 300 accident in Birmingham, Alabama on August 14, 2013. My desire to make a difference in the aviation community is coming to fruition, and I’m just getting started. My job is rewarding and even though I landed it in a less than traditional method, I’m sure glad I did!

Emily Gibson is a Survival Factors Investigator, Cabin Safety, in NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety

2 thoughts on “My Path to Becoming an NTSB Investigator”

  1. Thank you Emily, your story is inspiring. I am currently attending Embry-Riddle University pursuing a dual degree in Aeronautical Science and Technical Management. My minors are in safety, global security and intelligence, as well technical project management. I retired from the Air Force with over 27 years of service working in law enforcement/security with 4 years in aviation maintenance. The job market and job searches have been seriously disappointing. I’ve applied for several aviation type industries, including NASA, over the past two years. I keep thinking it must be the economy, or I’m over-qualified, under-qualified, etc. It just gets to the point where I start to wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to be in aviation again and have a second career in life; or at least here in the United States.

    You are extremely fortunate to be working for the NTSB without much background in aviation as either an A&P mechanic or safety inspector. However, getting that foot into the door really is an important step. I’ve almost lost all faith that I will ever have any chance to contribute my experience, knowledge, education, and background in the aviation field. Not having much experience in other fields can also be a hindrance to get that foot into the door, even when the job posting advertisement is listed as entry-level and no prior experience is necessary. I’ve often found out the hard way that entry-level does not mean you will get a chance for an interview. So being on the inside is very advantageous whether the job is considered menial or not directly related to aviation safety. It really is about ambition and taking advantage of opportunities that your employer or organization has to offer. The “getting-in” is the toughest part for many veterans and particularly for older veterans.

    Your story is very inspiring and I hope that somebody in the Talent Acquisition department will realize that I’m not just another veteran looking for a job or handout. The U.S. government has invested what seems to be at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in my education, experience, etc. I would hope somebody responsible within HR would see a veteran’s application or resume and realize how much value we add to any company, organization, or agency. Your article has made me reconsider re-applying for work again after having over 200 applications and resumes rejected over the last two years. I hope one day that one of those resumes or an application will actually get through the convoluted maze of aviation HR companies and organizations and at least offer me a chance to actually speak to somebody.

    Thank you.

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