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Drawing Knowledge From Tragedy

With his term as a presidential appointee at the NTSB ending, Robert Sumwalt shares lessons from that time and many more years of work in operational safety and research.

Aviation safety has been of tremendous interest to Robert Sumwalt since Dec. 20, 1973, when a Beechcraft C90 crashed on approach to Metropolitan Airport in his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. He was 17.

“I heard on my car radio that there had been a plane crash” and decided to try to find it, Sumwalt recounted in a keynote speech at the Seventh International Helicopter Safety Symposium three years ago in Anaheim, California. “As I approached the crash site, I saw the coroner and decided to tuck in close to him,” following that official as law officers raised yellow tape and cleared the way.

“Don’t ask me how this happened, but on the way home, I drove by the airport and stopped in to Miller Aviation and signed up for flying lessons,” Sumwalt told that 2014 gathering. “So, yes, I sort of got into aviation by accident.”

I first met Sumwalt several years ago at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, where we had a chance to share our mutual passion for aviation safety and accident prevention. Since then, we have crossed paths at many aviation events. In December, I visited his offices at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s Washington, D.C., headquarters as his term as a top official of that safety body draws to a close to discuss the insights and experiences of more than two decade’s work as an aviation safety professional. These are presented below.

I’m proud the board has taken some unpopular stances, ones we knew we’d get heat over but were made because of an honest intent to prevent accidents, save lives and reduce injuries.

In August 2006, President George W. Bush appointed Sumwalt as the 37th member of the NTSB and then designated him for a two-year term as vice chairman of the five-member board that oversees investigations and research by the 400-plus staff of the NTSB. In November 2011, President Barack Obama reappointed him to a second five-year term as a board member, which expired in December.

Bush’s action capped Sumwalt’s 32-year flying career, including 24 years flying for Piedmont Airlines and US Airways. He has more than 14,000 flight hours in several aircraft types, including the Airbus A320, Beech King Air 350, Boeing 727 and 737, and Fokker F28 and 100. (Sumwalt never got a type rating in the 727; it was not required at the time to serve as flight engineer or first officer. “Wish I had,” he told R&WI. “It was my first jet, and what a bird she was!”)

At US Airways, his duties included serving on the airline’s Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) monitoring team and working as a member of the Air Line Pilots Assn. accident investigation team at the time when that air carrier had a string of fatal accidents.

Following his airline career, Sumwalt managed the corporate aviation department for Fortune 500 energy company SCANA. He also spent eight years as a consultant to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, studying crew performance, crew-monitoring skills and aircraft de-icing. He has written extensively on aviation safety and taught at the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program.

Sumwalt in 2003 received the Flight Safety Foundation’s Laura Taber Barbour Award, which honors a “significant individual or group effort contributing to improving aviation safety.”

Perhaps most pertinent for our readers, Sumwalt chaired the NTSB’s 2009 public hearing on emergency medical helicopter operational safety issues. He also is a regular speaker at safety events like the International Helicopter Safety Symposium.

Sumwalt holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of South Carolina and a Master of Aeronautical Science (with Distinction) from Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University, specializing in aviation/aerospace safety systems and human factors aviation systems. He also is a 2010 inductee of the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame.

Looking back at your 10 years as board member, what are some of your key observations?

First is the mission. 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.

The NTSB probes transportation safety beyond aviation. Here, Sumwalt observes a train derailment investigation in Philadelphia.Photo courtesy of NTSB

At the entrance to our training center [in Ashburn, Virginia], we have an etched glass window that says, “From tragedy we draw knowledge to protect the safety of us all.” That’s exactly what we do — we learn from tragedy so we can keep it from happening again.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency. We are not attached to a larger organization such as the U.S. Transportation Dept. 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.

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.

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% 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. Commitment and dedication covers not just aviation. Remember the safety board’s mandate includes highway, marine, pipeline and rail transportation.

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.

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 Admin. and U.S Coast Guard. The NTSB’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) processes those cases, and our three ALJs hold hearings to adjudicate those matters.

What were your biggest challenges as an NTSB board member?

Obtaining advocacy or public support for our safety recommendations has been a difficult thing to fulfill. Progress is always slow. This is evident in the long period of time that it can take to have laws or regulations passed that would enhance safety, such as the “flat light” issue in Alaska and radar altimeters.

In October 2002, the NTSB wrote the FAA administrator, pointing out that the board had mentioned “flat light” conditions in the probable cause for 23 aviation accidents, including numerous helicopter accidents. Flat light is the diffuse lighting that occurs under cloudy skies, especially snow-covered ground. There are no shadows cast. The topography of snow-covered surfaces is impossible to judge. Flat light greatly impairs a pilot’s ability to perceive depth, distance, altitude or topographical features when flying VFR. A pilot may become spatially disoriented, unable to maintain visual reference with the ground and unaware of the actual altitude.

To address this safety threat, the board in 2002 called on the FAA to require all helicopter pilots who conduct commercial, passenger-carrying flights in areas where flat light or whiteout conditions routinely occur to have a helicopter-specific instrument rating, and to demonstrate their instrument competency during initial and recurrent check rides.

We also recommended that the FAA require all commercial helicopter operators conducting passenger-carrying flights in such areas to include safe practices for operating in flat light or whiteout conditions in their approved training programs and to require installation of radar altimeters in all helicopters conducting such operations in those areas.

The FAA finally adopted those recommendations in 2014, 12 years after we called for them. It look way too long, in my opinion. As citizens, we certainly don’t want a heavy-handed government issuing overly burdening regulations. We want a deliberate rulemaking process. But it really shouldn’t take this long for the FAA to decide whether to do something.

What do you consider the most significant accomplishments of your career in aviation safety?

Well, honestly, I believe safety work is a team effort. There is no “I” in what we do.

I’m proud that the board has taken some unpopular stances — ones we knew we would get heat over, but ones that were made because of an honest intent to prevent accidents, save lives and reduce injuries.

For example, we made bold recommendations that states should pass laws to ban use of wireless communications devices while driving. We called for states to pass laws to lower blood alcohol limits to 0.05%, vs. 0.08%. The majority of other countries in the world have laws much more stringent than ours. We lose more than 10,000 lives each year due to impaired driving.

No states have undertaken these recommendations because they are unpopular. Yet, as one politician said, all progress has come from those who are willing to take unpopular positions.

Sumwalt on scene at a 2009 EMS Eurocopter AS350 B2 crash (above).Photos courtesy of NTSB

What were the fruits of the board’s 2009 focus on helicopter EMS safety, and what more needs to be done in this area?

Twenty-one recommendations emerged from the HEMS hearing that we held in February 2009. I was privileged to have chaired that hearing.

When the FAA issued the landmark, broad-sweeping helicopter rules in February 2014, many of those recommendations were incorporated, like mandating helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems, requiring pre-flight risk-analysis programs, establishing operations control centers if they operate with 10 or more helicopter air ambulances, and ensuring pilots in command hold an instrument rating.

Operators now must conduct the flight using Federal Aviation Regulations Part 135 weather requirements and flight-crew duty time limitations when medical personnel are on board and equip their helicopters with flight data monitoring systems. There are additional flight planning and weather minimums requirements, also.

Additionally, any helicopter flight operated under Part 135 — not just HEMS flights — must be equipped with radio altimeters. Part 135 pilots must also be trained in dealing with flat light, white-out and brown-out conditions, as well as demonstrate competency in recovery from an inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions.

While I’m pleased these items were addressed, several NTSB recommendations were not implemented. For example, we were disappointed there was no requirement for HEMS pilots to conduct scenario-based training in simulators or flight-training devices.

I believe most of us in the industry were incredulous there was no requirement for night-vision imaging systems (NVIS) for nighttime operations. And, while I realize adding a second pilot is not often practical in helicopters being used for HEMS, they should at least have an autopilot.

What has changed in the rotorcraft industry during your 10 years at the NTSB?

Many aspects of aviation have changed over the last 10 years. The industry is more of aware of safety risk management and safety management, including a better understanding of identifying hazards that can lead to accidents.

The HEMS industry and law enforcement helicopter operators have made great improvements with safety initiatives, but must continue to do more to enhance safety.

What about flight data monitoring?

The NTSB has recommended image recorders for more than 16 years. Although there may be technical solutions other than image recorders that can capture instrument readings displayed to the flight crew, those solutions do not also capture crew actions.

Data, audio/voice and video recorders capture and store critical information that could help investigators find accident causes. We urge aircraft owners and operators to install such crash-resistant recorders. They are readily available and can be easily installed to “survive” a crash and provide investigators with useful information.

What is your key message for people in the helicopter industry?

When it comes to safety, you don’t have to go out and save an entire world. You only need to keep one person from getting into trouble in a helicopter. If you have done that, it is as if you have saved an entire world.

Admittedly, though, the paradox is that you probably never will be able to fully appreciate just what you’ve done. In many cases, you have prevented a problem from ever being introduced into the system.

What is next for you?

Although my term expired in December. I will try to hold over on the board for a few more months. I’d like to at least see someone in the nomination pipeline before I leave.

As far as the future, well, I really don’t know. But as long as I’m making positive contributions to transportation safety and providing value, I’ll be happy. R&WI