Tag Archives: Sumwalt

Reflecting back on 10 years as a Board Member

By Robert Sumwalt

On August 21, 2006, I was sworn in as the 37th member of the National Transportation Safety Board. At the same time, I was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as NTSB Vice Chairman. In 2011, President Barack Obama reappointed me for an additional five-year term as a board member.

Robert Sumwalt, taking the oath of office, administered by then-NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker on August 21, 2006.
Robert Sumwalt, taking the oath of office, administered by then-NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker on August 21, 2006.

As I reflect on 10 years as an NTSB board member, there are several things that stand out. First, is the mission. Our role in transportation safety quickly became apparent when, on my seventh day on the job, I launched to an airline crash in Lexington, Kentucky. Tragically, that crash claimed 49 lives.

But, the NTSB’s primary mission involves more than just investigating accidents. It also involves determining the cause of accidents, and then, most importantly, issuing safety recommendations to prevent future accidents. At the entrance to our training center, we have an etched glass window that says, “From tragedy we draw knowledge to protect the safety of us all.” And that’s exactly what we do – we learn from tragedy so we can keep it from happening again.

Recently, one of our investigators wrote to me about a rail accident he investigated where fire and explosion claimed multiple lives. He told of meeting a man who was glaring at the carnage as he pushed a baby in a carriage. As it turned out, the man’s wife – the baby’s mother – had been killed in the disaster. Our investigator promised the man that the NTSB would get to the bottom of why this event occurred so other accidents could be prevented. “I also watched a man standing outside of the exclusion zone peering over the barrier in tears as a backhoe demolished his home,” the investigator explained in his note to me. “My thoughts were of those victims, and it was clear that we were being called upon to do this for them.”

Yes, we are here to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice—the victims and their families of transportation accidents. I take great solace knowing our work really does make a difference and keeps others from enduring similar tragedies.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency – meaning, we are not attached to a larger federal organization such as the U.S. Department of Transportation. In my opinion, independence is one of our greatest virtues because it allows the agency to conduct investigations and explore safety issues without being encumbered by actual or perceived political pressures. As I’ve often said, our independence allows us to “call it the way we see it.”

What also stands out to me is the dedication of the men and women of the NTSB. Their passion and determination to find the truth is uplifting. In the most recent employee viewpoint survey, 96 percent of respondents replied positively to the statement, “When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” That demonstrates the commitment and dedication NTSB employees share for fulfilling our mission.

In addition to investigative activities, there is a proactive side to the NTSB. Our staff conducts safety studies, tracks and follows up on our safety recommendations, and advocates for safety improvements by providing testimony on safety issues, promoting our Most Wanted List, bringing important safety issues into the public discussion via social media efforts, and organizing safety events such as roundtable discussions.

One of the NTSB’s values is transparency; we are open and honest with the public about our work. We post on our website all accident reports and publications, as well as the docket for each accident. The docket provides reams of background information for accidents, such as interviews, photos, and technical information that may not be in the actual accident report. Our board meetings are webcast and open to the public. And, our Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications ensures the media are informed of the status of investigations by answering questions, arranging interviews, issuing press releases, and releasing updates through social media.

Many are surprised to learn that the NTSB also serves as a court of appeals for pilots, aircraft mechanics, and mariners who receive violation notices from the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S Coast Guard. The NTSB’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) processes those cases, and our three ALJs hold hearings to adjudicate those matters.

The NTSB’s Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance – a highly trained group with expertise in social services, emergency management, and forensics – works closely with various organizations to meet the needs of disaster victims and their families. This group also serves as the primary point of contact for family members and disaster victims, providing updates regarding the status of NTSB investigations and addressing their questions. It takes a special person to do the work they do, and I’m always appreciative of how well they do it.

There are other parts of the agency that aren’t often acknowledged, but nevertheless are important to allowing the agency to function. As in any organization, job openings need to be posted and filled, bills paid, contracts written and executed, and our computers maintained. The employees who perform these functions are as dedicated as those performing the agency’s core mission.

To put it simply, I’m so proud to be part of this agency. Our mission, independence, transparency, and people are all so important. I’m honored to have served with them for the past 10 years.

Robert Sumwalt is an NTSB board member.

After 25,000 flight hours and 49 years in aviation, a good friend retires.

By Robert Sumwalt

Captain Bill Weeks is presented with a retirement gift from Captain Bruce Galleron
Captain Bill Weeks is presented with a retirement gift from Captain Bruce Galleron, American Airlines/US Airways director of flight for Charlotte crew base, following Captain Weeks’ last flight as an airline captain.

7:18 Friday evening, US Airways flight 1782, an Airbus A321, sailed 35,000 feet over America’s heartland at 610 mph. At the controls of the San Francisco to Charlotte flight was a 34 ½ year airline veteran, Captain Bill Weeks. Due to reaching mandatory airline pilot retirement age, Captain Weeks’ landing in Charlotte would be his last as an airline pilot.

Bill started flying at 16. After college he flew for the USAF for 6 years, followed by a distinguished airline career, where — in addition to his piloting duties — he served as instructor, check airman, air safety investigator, and air safety representative for the Air Line Pilots Association.

Bill was a mentor and role model for many during his 25,000 hours of flight time and 49 years as a pilot. One of those who was deeply influenced by his professionalism was me. In 1983, he and I were selected to be part of a small team to travel to The Netherlands to be trained on an airplane that our airline would be soon be placing into service. For six weeks, Bill and I grilled each other on various aircraft systems, limitations, and procedures so that when the final check flight came, our qualifications would be unquestioned.

My learning experience didn’t stop there, however. From that point forward, when faced with tough decisions as a new captain and years afterward, I would often ask myself, “What would Bill do?” Our paths continued to cross, as we were both detailed to work in the airline’s safety department.

I recently asked Bill to reflect back on his vast experience and provide three tips that he’d like share.

1) “When things get time-compressed, slow down.” Two of the most important controls in the cockpit are the parking brake and the microphone. When on the ground, the pilot can reduce the tempo by setting the parking brake and not releasing it until things are at a more comfortable pace. Likewise, use the microphone to request delaying vectors or a holding pattern. As the saying goes, “take time to make time.” When Bill and I did safety work together, we would review events where rushing was a factor. One of Bill’s mantras was, “Don’t let ATC fly your aircraft.”

2) “If you can avoid continuing an unstabilized approach or doing a high speed rejected takeoff, you’ll probably have a long career.” To further Bill’s point, this summer the NTSB completed two air carrier accident investigations where, if the crew had discontinued an unstabilized approach, the accident could have been prevented.

3) “Don’t take off or land when convective weather is on or near the field.” Bill relayed a recent flight where a thunderstorm was over the airport. ATC asked each flight in the queue awaiting take off if they were able to depart, and with the exception of one, each flight declined. Fifteen minutes later, the storm had passed over the airport and skies along the departure corridor were completely clear. His point is certainly valid: When the weather is questionable, it’s not worth the risk of trying to takeoff or land. Allow the weather to move through before attempting to go.

Good advice from someone who is a professional in every way. Wishing Bill and his family Godspeed.

Positive Train Control Saves Lives

By Robert Sumwalt

NTSB Most Wanted List 2014 - Implement Positive Train Control
NTSB Most Wanted List 2014 – Implement Positive Train Control

Today I had the honor of representing the NTSB at a hearing before the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The topic of the hearing was passenger and freight rail safety, an issue of the utmost importance to the NTSB.  My testimony emphasized that any comprehensive approach to improving rail safety must include Positive Train Control, also called PTC.

PTC is designed to protect trains from human error. If an engineer attempts to operate past a red signal or operate too fast, a PTC system intervenes by stopping the train before a crash or derailment occurs. Simply put, widely-implemented PTC has the potential to prevent crashes and save lives.

Sadly, there are many real-world examples that demonstrate the need for PTC.  For example, in September 2008, a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, California. Twenty-five people were killed in that crash, and more than 100 more were injured. The NTSB’s investigation revealed that the engineer was texting while operating the train. He ran past a red stop signal and crashed into an oncoming train. The NTSB determined that PTC would have prevented this deadly crash.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The Act requires each Class 1 rail carrier and each provider of regularly-scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger service to implement a PTC system by December 31, 2015.  I’m pleased to report that progress is being made toward this lifesaving goal.  Just last week, Metrolink became the first commuter rail system to implement PTC, when it began a revenue service demonstration under the authority of BNSF Railroad. While this is just a demonstration project, it certainly is a start in the right direction. Metrolink reports it will be implementing PTC fully throughout its entire system before the Congressionally-mandated deadline.  

Earlier this month, I visited a large Class 1 freight railroad to get an update on their progress toward implementing PTC. I walked away from that meeting believing this railroad is firmly committed to the project. That one company alone has invested more than $1 billion in PTC, adding over 1000 workers to devote to the project, beginning the enormous effort of retrofitting locomotives, training train and track maintenance crews, installing trackside equipment, and developing elaborate computer networks to allow PTC to work. In spite of the commitment by this railroad and others, however, an August 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to the U.S. Senate indicated that the majority of railroads will not complete PTC implementation by the 2015 deadline.  There has even been talk of extending the deadline, despite the seven year timeline provided by the original law.

As I noted in my testimony today, while NTSB commends the enormous and costly implementation efforts being made by many, we realize that for each day that goes by without PTC, the risk of more PTC-preventable accidents remains. That point was driven home again on December 1, 2013, when a Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx, killing four people and injured dozens of others. While the exact cause of the accident is still under investigation, we do know the train entered a curve at approximately 82 mph, where the maximum authorized speed was 30 mph — in other words, something that PTC would prevent.

It is because of our investigations of accidents like this – and 24 others in the past decade that could have been prevented by PTC – that the NTSB would be disappointed by any delay in PTC implementation.  Implementation of PTC is needed now, not later.  Lives depend on it.

Out of the office and in the field

By Debbie Hersman

Hersman-in-NCToday, Member Robert Sumwalt and I had the opportunity to visit with Carolina Gas Transmission, a SCANA company that delivers natural gas to wholesale and direct industrial customers throughout South Carolina. We met with company leaders and safety officials at their headquarters in Columbia, South Carolina. In the morning, we heard about their capital maintenance program to replace, inspect and maintain 1,469 miles on their transmission lines in South Carolina and Georgia, over half of which were laid prior to 1970.

In the afternoon, we traveled to Lexington, SC, to observe a 12″ pipeline confirmatory dig. The dig’s purpose: to conduct additional radiographic exams (or X-rays) of the pipe using GPS locations noted in previous in-line inspections that had established the basis for further evaluation. A crew had excavated a 40’ section of Line ‘M’ and was evaluating the pipe’s condition when we arrived.

We finished the day with a visit to their control center where we saw how employees monitor pipeline operations and heard how their emergency response process is designed to work. It was a busy day, but a good opportunity for us to hear from pipeline company employees about their vision of safety, from the CEO to a backhoe operator.