NTSB Chair Reflects on Investigating Accidents in a Virtual World

The Covid-19 pandemic has altered the way that organizations around the world do business — and that holds true even for investigative agencies like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“All the things that we would normally do, we are doing,” said NTSB Chairman the Honorable Robert L. Sumwalt, in a recent Aviation Outlook webinar event. “We’re just not going on scene.”

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Instead of visiting the sites of aircraft accidents, train wrecks, car crashes and other vehicular mishaps in person, the NTSB is now relying on local law enforcement to photograph the areas and send in the evidence they collect. All other aspects of the NTSB’s normal procedures, however — interviewing witnesses, checking pilot backgrounds, exploring maintenance records and more — are operating as normal. In fact, Sumwalt said, the NTSB has filed 981 accident reports this year alone, in addition to completing 534 lab reports.

"We are getting a lot done in this virtual environment,” he said.

Sumwalt was featured as the sixth guest in the free and interactive Aviation Outlook webinar series, presented by Embry-Riddle’s deans of Aviation.

“Since launching our Aviation Outlook webinars, Embry-Riddle has hosted some of the most influential voices in the industry — from airline CEOs to the head of the FAA,” said Embry-Riddle President P. Barry Butler, introducing Sumwalt. Not only does Sumwalt serve as the national voice for transportation safety, Butler added, but he’s also an alumnus.

Sumwalt (‘14, ’18) has been a member of the NTSB since 2006 and its chairman since 2017. Before joining the NTSB, he was a pilot for 32 years, including 24 years with U.S. Airways. 

“Every time you travel in an airplane, a school bus, a train or a bus, or even your own automobile, you’re protected by safety measures resulting from the National Transportation Safety Board,” Butler added.

Appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Sumwalt is the face of an organization that proposes safety protocols that, once approved, become national law. As a child, though, it was never his goal to become “head of the table for the world’s premier safety board,” as College of Aviation Dean Alan Stolzer put it. Instead, Sumwalt said, he “got into aviation by accident” — literally.

At 17 years old, Sumwalt heard about a plane crash nearby and, fascinated, drove down to the site to see what he could find out. The experience stuck him with and, soon, he found himself in libraries poring over aircraft accident reports, trying to learn why crashes happen and what could have prevented them. He signed up for flight lessons soon after that, earning his private pilot’s certificate before finishing high school.

“As a safety official, we don’t just make up recommendations,” Sumwalt said. “These recommendations come from accidents where people die.”

NTSB investigators research every aspect of transportation incidents, analyzing wreckage and personal histories, studying maintenance records and listening carefully to every second of flight deck recordings — all in an effort to uncover what went wrong and, most importantly, why.

“As an accident investigation agency, we want as much information as possible … so that we can learn from it and keep it from happening again,” Sumwalt said. “That is our prime motivation.”

And that purpose remains clear, even in the midst of national crises. The aviation industry has survived wars, the Great Recession, 9/11 and other major events, Sumwalt added, and he sees no reason why it won’t do the same through the current pandemic, eventually rebounding to offer young professionals entering the field long and promising careers.

“Over the 46 years I’ve been in the business, I’ve seen ups and downs, but in each case … the aviation industry has recovered,” he said. “I am optimistic that there’s a bright sunrise out there, and there’s a great future for people.

For his organization, specifically, the NTSB has hired 15 new employees since the start of the pandemic. Those signs of life, he added, should serve as motivation for recent and soon-to-be graduates.

“Maintain the course,” he said to young people watching from home. “Don’t give up. … It’s the journey that’s more important than the destination.

The Aug. 12 webinar featuring NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt is available for playback online. For recaps on prior guests, visit the Aviation Outlook website.

Posted In: Aviation