I Lived My Dream: Looking Back on 15 years at NTSB

By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt

I guess it all started on an overcast day in 1973, when I found myself on the scene of a fatal aviation crash for the first time. I had heard of the crash on my car radio, and, as a curious 17‑year-old, I decided to find the crash location. Once there, I saw the remains of a twin-engine airplane lodged in the bases of the surrounding pine trees. Seeing that accident scene sparked an acute interest within me for accident investigation. In college, I spent copious amounts of time in the government documents library reading NTSB aircraft accident reports. It was then, in the mid-1970s, that I began to dream of becoming an NTSB Board member. Today, as I wrap up 15 years with the agency, serving as Board member, vice chairman, and chairman, I can look back and say I have truly lived that dream.   

Photo of ‘The State’ newspaper article on the 1973 plane crash

I was sworn in as the 37th member of the NTSB in August 2006. Seven days later, I found myself on the scene of another aviation disaster. Comair flight 5191, a regional jet operated as a Delta Connection, crashed just off the departure end of a runway in Lexington, Kentucky. Forty-nine lives were lost that morning after the pilots inexplicitly attempted to take off on a short, closed, unlighted runway. The investigation found that the pilots’ casual attitude during preflight and during the brief taxi, including their engaging in nonpertinent conversation, enabled the crew’s errors. Quite simply, the crew wasn’t paying attention and lost positional awareness. As a result, we issued and reiterated several recommendations to prevent that same type of accident. Today, flights are safer because airline pilots use enhanced procedures to ensure they are aligned with the proper runway before departure, and pilots have electronic maps that provide real-time position information during taxi.

Since the Comair crash, I’ve been on the NTSB Go-Team and served as the Board member on scene for 35 transportation accidents and crashes, and I’ve been involved in the deliberation and determination of probable cause of over 250 accidents and crashes. I’ve met with grieving family members and friends of victims on the worst day of their lives. Through these interactions, the one thing that really stands out to me is just how precious life really is. I’ve often said that we are here to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice—the victims of transportation accidents and their families. I take great solace knowing our work really does make a difference and keeps others from enduring similar tragedies.

Looking back, I believe there are two things that allow the NTSB to truly be one of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” as ranked by the Partnership for Public Service: the agency’s mission, and our people.

First, the agency’s mission: Congress charged the NTSB with investigating transportation accidents and crashes, determining their cause, and issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents and crashes, reduce injuries, and save lives. It’s an important calling—taking something tragic and learning from it so others don’t have to endure such a tragedy. Since the NTSB was formed in 1967, we have investigated over 150,000 aviation accidents, along with thousands of highway, marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials accidents and incidents. In that period, we’ve issued over 15,000 safety recommendations, the majority of which have been successfully implemented.  

Our people: Even with a respectable mission, you’re nothing without great people. Fortunately, this is where the NTSB really takes the cake. We’re able to attract and retain dedicated, bright employees who love their work. We actively promote diversity and inclusion, and my hope is that the agency will continue to expand this effort. Our investigators’ passion and determination to find the truth is uplifting. Even throughout the pandemic, although working remotely, NTSB employees found ways to continue delivering our high-quality products. For example, before the pandemic, we had never conducted virtual Board meetings, where we deliberate accident findings, determine the probable cause, and adopt safety recommendations. Even with the challenges of 2020, our employees figured a way to get it done. We held 12 virtual Board meetings in a year, which compares favorably to a normal year of in-person meetings. Although I’ve always had high expectations of the NTSB workforce, I can honestly say that, considering the challenges we all faced during the pandemic, NTSB employees surpassed all expectations.

There are several other qualities that allow the NTSB to be a highly respected federal agency. One of our core values is transparency; we are open and honest with the public about our work. We realize that, when a transportation disaster occurs, the public needs to be assured that the government is conducting an open, competent, and thorough investigation. Therefore, we deliver fact-based information as we learn it. We don’t speculate—just the facts, ma’am. All NTSB Board meetings and hearings are open to the public (literally in person when not in pandemic times, and always via webcast). We post all our accident reports and publications on our website, along with the docket for each accident, which provides reams of background information such as interviews, photos, and technical information that may not be in the final accident report.

When I was sworn in for my first term at the agency in 2006, I told the audience something I had read: “Public service is one of the highest callings in the land. You have the opportunity to make a positive impact on families, communities, states, and sometimes the world.”

I followed up by saying, “I truly believe this statement applies so well to the work of the NTSB. When my term expires, I hope we can look back and say, ‘you know, we—Board members, professional staff, industry, labor, government—we all worked together, and we did make a positive impact.”

Indeed, looking back, I truly believe we have made a difference.

I will very much miss working with the incredibly dedicated men and women of the NTSB. It will be hard to stop referring to the NTSB as “we.” Although I will no longer be part of it, the NTSB will always be part of me. For that privilege, I am forever proud and grateful. I have lived my dream.

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