Not Your Father’s Safety Board

Smart and experienced, the National Transportation Safety Board will delve into issues facing General Aviation in a forum to be held next week.

The National Transportation Safety Board needs no introduction, especially these days, when the pace at which it issues communiqués, announces industry forums, and e-mails press releases is unmatched in its history. Just to refresh our collective memories, the five members of the board are nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate for five-year terms, a time span deliberately designed to foil political influence on the choices. The President also nominates one member of the board to a two-year term as chairman, which requires Senate confirmation, and a second member as vice chairman for two years.

While it’s impossible to measure the effectiveness of one board, this group of five seems to be exceptional in its ardor for safety. And although aviation accidents sometimes seem to grab more and bigger headlines, a review of the issues this group has tackled shows a wide-ranging and deep concern for all modes of transportation, with a special focus on fatigue and distraction while driving on the nation’s highways. A cursory examination of aviation issues alone reveals a broad scope of investigation. Last August, following the rupture of an airline fuselage and the resulting decompression, the board undertook a thorough examination of airplane fuselage structural integrity. That fall, the issue of public aircraft — those operated by state and local governments or their contractors — was given a thorough airing. Exemption of this class from regulations that govern all other operational categories is now under review.

After a catastrophic crash of an unlimited racer at the Reno air races, the board conducted a lengthy investigation of the cause and published a comprehensive revelatory report that showed hard-nosed science and engineering in its analysis. Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman (more on her later) made it clear that the purpose of the effort was not to shut down air racing but to make it safe for participants and onlookers alike. Having detected a trend indicating a lack of safety, the group polled amateur-built aircraft builders, owners and operators to analyze data that showed most accidents were occurring during the first flight of these aircraft. (That had been long suspected in the community of builders, many of whom wisely hired professional test pilots to execute a series of escalating taxi tests culminating in a first flight prior to piloting the aircraft themselves. Now everybody knows it.)

An upcoming forum to be held June 19 and 20 will explore the operation of general aviation aircraft, and if it is as far-reaching as most of this board’s work, it is guaranteed to save lives. The number of lives saved can never be known, which is the peculiar irony of safety efforts.

Chairman Deborah Hersman during a recent Board meeting.

Beginning with its chairman, the board is made up of unusually well-credentialed people. Chairman Hersman, who has made it her business to communicate as openly as possible with the public, is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a master’s degree from George Mason. After wide experience as a Congressional staffer, she was appointed to the board by President George W. Bush and became chairman following nomination by President Obama when she was just 39. She also had the foresight to earn a commercial driver license that qualifies her to drive a heavy passenger bus equipped with air brakes–and a motorcycle endorsement. She’s serving her second term as chairman and will leave the board in 2013.

The current vice chairman is Christopher Hart, a lawyer, engineer and pilot. He holds commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings and both bachelors and masters degrees in aeronautical engineering from Princeton. He learned his lawyering at Harvard and actually has served on the board before, during the early ‘90s. Just prior to his return to the NTSB, he held two key positions at the FAA, including deputy director for air traffic safety oversight. He’ll leave the board at the end of this year.

On his second five-year term is Robert L. Sumwalt, a 14,000-hour pilot with a 24-year career in the airlines and another eight elsewhere. He served on the Air Line Pilots Association’s accident investigation board and chaired their human factors and training group. He’s also consulted with NASA and authored a book on aircraft safety. His term will be up in 2016.

Mark R. Rosekind has become one of the world’s leading experts on fatigue, which has been on the board’s list of major concerns for years and undoubtedly led to the FAA’s recent overhaul of regulations governing pilot duty hours. He earned his A.B. with honors at Stanford, two masters and a PhD at Yale, and finally, a post-doc fellowship at Brown University Medical School. He’ll be with the board through the end of 2014.

Earl F. Weener has a PhD, 24 years with Boeing, flies a Beech Bonanza and holds a U.S. Coast Guard Master’s License that he uses to navigate his steel-hull trawler along most of the waterways in the nation. As one of Boeing’s chief engineers, he had a key role in developing the first glass cockpits aboard the 757/767 airliner families.

The measure of this board’s accomplishments can be read in the proceedings of their various forums and hearings, through which you can begin to comprehend how deeply they probe into the issues facing them. When the helicopter medical evacuation safety record was marred by a string of fatalities, board members involved the entire industry and discerned some business practices (“shopping,” in which those soliciting missions in questionable weather will continue to press for someone willing to fly despite the conditions) that might have eluded a less experienced and deliberative group.

When this board made it a regular practice to invite the families of accident victims to safety forums to give voice to the tragic impact of unsafe operations, it rose above the normal levels of Washington bureaucracies and demonstrated to all who would listen that safe operations mean that pilots, passengers, patients — the people transported by aircraft — will come home to those who love them. This group of five deserves to be remembered.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.