Jumpseat: ‘From Tragedy We Draw Knowledge’

My wife and I stood up from the couch in the well-appointed office and shook hands with National Transportation Safety Board chairman Robert Sumwalt. We thanked him for taking the time to squeeze a visit into his packed schedule. The visit was the culmination of our personalized tour at NTSB headquarters, an opportunity not often afforded the public.

With a sincere dose of humility, the chairman provided me a signed copy of Aircraft Accident Analysis: Final Reports, a book he had co-written with James Walters. The book would assist in research material for my next novel. I reciprocated by presenting a signed copy of my novel Paper Wings.

Although I was biased by the fact that Sumwalt had originally come from within the ranks of airline pilots, the day’s interactions confirmed the positive attitude reflected by the chairman. No doubt, people were on their best behavior for our visit, but it genuinely appeared that everyone was enthusiastic to be a part of the NTSB.

Our primary tour guide was Paul Sledzik, deputy director for the Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications. Although Sledzik’s title sounded impressive, he modestly reassured me that it was not. Apparently, titles at the NTSB don’t define a strict job description. People wear different hats at different times.

The NTSB is housed on two separate floors of a high-rise building at the L’Enfant Plaza East section of Washington, D.C. The hearing room is separately located below ground level, within the shopping area of L’Enfant Plaza. I recalled having been present in the room during proceedings following a crash investigation involving my airline almost 15 years prior. The proceedings were a well-orchestrated, respectful and solemn occasion.

As most folks are aware, the agency covers all forms of transportation, not just aviation. As one example, Jim Ritter, director of Research and Engineering, and our tour guide for the really cool laboratory stuff, mentioned a landmark automobile accident investigation with a Tesla Model S that had just concluded.

The NTSB analysis conflicted with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s May 2016 fatal-accident report in regard to manufacturer defect. Although inattention by the driver while he was using the auto-steer feature was a mitigating factor in the collision with a semitrailer, the NTSB blames Tesla for not developing a better system. The auto-steer function exceeded its capability for the road involved, and the methodology for determining driver engagement and attention was not adequate. Aviation has highlighted automation-dependency issues, but now technology advancements available in cars have brought the problem to the auto industry.

More than 420 staff members are employed by the NTSB, with approximately 120 of those in the Office of Aviation Safety. Aviation personnel are generally not hired right out of college. The majority have extensive backgrounds in engineering and industry. Although most of us are familiar with the Go Team folks because of media coverage, many others work behind the scenes in support of the accident investigators in the field.

The most visible person at an accident is usually the investigator in charge (IIC). He or she is oftentimes the spokesperson at press conferences and is responsible for coordinating the choreography of the investigation. I had the opportunity to speak with Joe Sedor, the chief of Major Investigations for the past five years. In one of Sedor’s prior lives, he was involved with the Citation X development. Once he joined the NTSB, Sedor became an accident investigator specializing in aircraft systems. With a few years of experience under his belt, he took an IIC position.

No one is hired from outside the agency for the IIC job. Having participated on a peripheral level with a major accident, and having witnessed the stress involved, I can see why experience in the field is an absolute necessity.

Four IICs are on staff. At a major accident, an NTSB board member accompanies the Go Team. As a matter of fact, the magic-marker assignment board in the Response Operations Center (ROC) confirmed that Sumwalt was on the list for that week. You might recall that Deborah Hersman, a former NTSB board chairwoman, was on site in San Francisco during the Asiana Flight 214 accident investigation. She just happened to be on call that week.

Sedor indicated that about 65 percent of NTSB investigations have been international events. Although the implication is that the United States has a better safety record, the statistic also means that we are learning through the accidents of foreign carriers. Why does the NTSB participate in foreign investigations?

Although diplomacy sometimes must be exercised, International Civil Aviation Organization Annex 13 rules entitle the NTSB to participate as a party to an investigation if it involves a U.S. airline, a U.S.-manufactured or -designed airplane, or U.S. citizens. The NTSB’s expertise is highly regarded, Annex 13 notwithstanding.

In addition to our interactions with the people of the NTSB, the tour of the laboratories was another highlight. The laboratories are where much of the forensic analysis is done. For obvious reasons, the area requires a security code and appropriate ID to enter.

Within the first narrow corridor, a nondescript glass display case exhibited samples of recovered flight recorders from past accidents. The most striking sample for me was the old-technology tape-style recorder from a ValuJet DC-9 that crashed in the Everglades just outside of Miami in May 1996. The bright-orange outer casing of the recorder was battered and dented almost beyond recognition, but somehow its data had been recovered.

I found it interesting that none of the rooms and labs we visited offered an obvious definition of their purpose. They were well-organized and tidy but Spartan in their appearance. For instance, the room that housed the computer console and monitor to run the program that integrated flight-data information with cockpit voice activity also contained a myriad of digital flight data recorder (DFDR) models. The metal orange boxes were unobtrusively stacked on a rack of shelves.

The DFDR boxes are utilized as “surrogates” in the event the accident airplane’s unit is unusable. Data is inserted into the operable surrogate and then read. Because almost all digital electronic devices have recoverable data, surrogates are kept for portable GPS units, cellphones and so on.

After visiting the laboratories, we had the opportunity to visit the ROC, which is basically the dispatch center for coordinating an accident investigation. Surprisingly, it is a contracted operation through Engility Corp. The space occupied resembles that of a TV-news control room. An array of video screens, computer consoles, communications equipment and personnel monitor the globe for any event that could involve the NTSB. Grant Bell, the ROC manager, indicated that the goal is to have a strategy organized before the rest of the world even knows of an event.

For its relative size compared to other government agencies, the NTSB is an impressive operation. The motto inscribed at the entrance to its academy, “From tragedy we draw knowledge to protect the safety of us all,” is truly its mission.

Having witnessed firsthand the dedication of NTSB investigators amid an indescribable tragedy, I agree.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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