The Untold Story behind the National Transportation Safety Board

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Robert Sumwalt’s Experience with the NTSB

10 Years as a Board Member

Recent articles about the NTSB investigation of the US1549 included rather negative comments about the NTSB’s investigatory tactics. Though this Board Member was not part of the investigative team, it seemed appropriate to republish a blog by Mr. Sumwalt on his experiences working for the Board. His original piece was posted before the release of Mr. Eastwood’s blockbuster.

robert sumwalt ntsb

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

robert sumwalt ntsb



Robert L. Sumwalt was appointed as the 37th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board in August 2006, whereupon President George W. Bush designated him as Vice Chairman of the Board for a two-year term. In November 2011, President Barack Obama reappointed Member Sumwalt to an additional five year term as Board Member.

Since joining the Board, Member Sumwalt has been a fierce advocate for improving safety in all modes of transportation, including teen driver safety, impaired driving, distractions in transportation, and several rail safety initiatives.

Before joining the NTSB, Member Sumwalt was a pilot for 32 years, including 24 years with Piedmont Airlines and US Airways. He accumulated over 14,000 flight hours. During his tenure at US Airways, he worked on special assignment to the flight safety department and also served on the airline’s Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) monitoring team.

Following his airline career, Member Sumwalt managed the corporate aviation department for a Fortune 500 energy company.

In other notable accomplishments, he chaired the Air Line Pilots Association’s Human Factors and Training Group and co-founded the association’s critical incident response program. He also spent eight years as a consultant to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) and has written extensively on aviation safety matters.

Member Sumwalt earned an undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina and a Master of Aeronautical Science (with Distinction) from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, with concentrations in aviation/aerospace safety systems and human factors aviation systems.

robert sumwalt ntsb

Reflecting back on 10 years as a Board Member

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.

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 reading this essay, one should be impressed with the humanity, sincerity, integrity and intelligence of this one Member. Those characteristics are found throughout the organization. There have been occasions where a witness has been uncomfortable and in every such instance, the presiding officer will assure that there is no abuse.

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5 Comments on "The Untold Story behind the National Transportation Safety Board"

  1. Overall, I agree with Mr. Sumwalt’s assessment, and feel that in general, the NTSB does a great job in investigating accidents and promoting safety. Unfortunately, they can get a bad reputation because there have been (over the years, a proven fact) a number of cases where not every accident was investigated as well as it could or should, or where the IIC (investigator in charge) was somewhat abusive to flight crews, or where the Board decided on a likely reason for the accident that did not really reflect all the facts. Additional, the Board over the years has a long history of ALJ’s siding with the FAA and not making good judgements on aviation Law. Some ALJ’s are very good and experienced, others have had a history of being quite poor. Overall, a mixed history. But it’s true the majority of people that work for the Board are good, well trained, well meaning individuals.

  2. I know many of the current and former members of the NTSB. I can tell you from personal experience that the current Board Members are DEEPLY committed to finding the real causes of transportation accidents that fall within their purview. Many of the “pilot error” probable cause determinations are actually made by FAA investigators to whom have been delegated NTSB investigating powers for accidents not involving air carriers or multiple fatalities. And, speaking as an instrument-rated private pilot and former aircraft owner, as well as a Board Certified Aviation Attorney, the plain fact is that, in many — perhaps most — non-air carrier accidents are, in fact, caused at least in significant part, by pilot error. It is just an immutable fact. Sure, there is the occasional mechanical failure. There is the occasional ATC mistake (which often gets blamed on the pilot anyway). But few airline pilots run out of fuel, or get caught in a base to final stall spin.

  3. Honestly, there is no telling how much real world experience I’ve gained, outside of the airplane, just from reading NTSB reports in various Aviation Magazines. Real world experience directly related to decision making and operational awareness in the airplane, making me a better pilot. Also insight into all manner of human activities and decision making. It’s pretty amazing how repetitive and predictable humans can be considering how hard many of us work to pretend we’re different.

  4. I personally had an incident in where the LIT FAA researched it along with the NTSB . FAA found a fuel burn anomaly after investigating two prior trips on this aircraft ,all fuel upload records during my trip, ATC records of flight time on all the legs flown that night and the previous day. Although a definite conclusion was never nailed down (aneroid carburetor went emergency rich with no FF , and 68 yr old fuel gauges) while the NTSB’s probable cause simply said “Pilots failure to bla bla bla”. I ended up with a letter of commendation from LIT FAA with the comment “We wish there were more pilots like you” and no certificate action was recommended. It’s a lengthy story , but you all get my point.

  5. Sharon L Willoughby | December 19, 2017 at 7:47 am | Reply

    Mr Robert Sumwalt might of been a pilot for 35years BUT how many years has he been trained in giving DRUG TESTING to all his EMPLOYEES ????????” Mr Sumwalt needs to retire and have some one very very KNOWLEDGEABLE in DRUGS to take his place he is the one who is hurting the poor people in thee Amtrak accidents !!!! Then again no one will see this plea of mine…..

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