NTSB lectures to the FAA

Member Homendy and Chairman Sumwalt
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NTSB’s job is to find fault

FAA’s job is to respond

Dialogue would benefit from better tone

The NTSB’s statutory job is to find “probable cause”, a mission which it well performs. By definition, the Board is expected to fault those subject to its jurisdiction. The FAA, likely the #1 target of these findings, has had to develop a thick skin.

That does not allow the agency, whose mission is aviation safety to ignore these criticisms. In fact, there is an office, Office of Accident Investigation & Prevention with a primary assignment to receive, respond and prioritize the Board recommendations. The staff receives executive direction from the Associate Administrator Aviation Safety and the Administrator.

The FAA, unlike the NTSB, is not an independent organization; it directly reports to the Secretary of Transportation as well as receiving direction from the Office of Management and Budget through its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Further, the FAA is a high-profile organization for Congress from which many, many priorities (statutory and informal) flow.

Integrating the “mandates”, “recommendations” and internal safety-driven agenda is an impossible taskfinding available experts to study the issue, grabbing the economists/policy analysts to create the OMB/statutory required justifications corralling the rule writers able to translate broad policy directions into specific, actionable regulations and here especially, identifying technical subject matter consultants to assess the practical implementation strategy. It may be necessary to remind all that the FAA does not have unlimited resources to respond to all NTSB, political and other demands.

That is a very long preamble to a suggestion to the Board. Yes, it is the FAA’s job to receive criticism, but no they are not machines. The individuals who do these jobs take pride in their mission. So, the Board might consider these recommendations from a human resource management consultant for delivering bad news:

Never deliver negative feedback in front of team members. Not possible with a public organization but suggests that a softer tone may be appropriate.

Be specific. Effective feedback is not just “X” is unacceptable, but suggesting better technique/policy. For example, how much more impactful would be for the Board to issue an SMS analysis, showing the specific weights assigned to the risks identified. That quantitative assessment would add to the FAA’s integration within its existing priorities.

These managerial techniques, if applied to the below two examples, might improve the flow between the FAA and the NTSB. After the two Board Member statements are some points which might have improved the reception of the messages:


FAA’s failure to cull bad pilots cited in fatal Atlas crash

July 20, 2020

atlas map

“The fatal crash of a cargo plane last year was caused in part by the failure of the U.S. federal government to establish a reliable system of weeding out unqualified airline pilots, investigators concluded.

The Federal Aviation Administration came under heavy criticism Tuesday as the National Transportation Safety Board issued its findings in the fatal crash of a cargo jet carrying Amazon.com Inc. packages near Houston.

The lack of an improved system for tracking pilot records — despite a decade-long congressional mandate — has created “holes in the safety net,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a video hearing. “The FAA has dragged their feet on implementing a sufficiently robust pilot-records database.” [full statement]; full NTSB report]

The copilot of an Atlas Air cargo plane who inadvertently added full power during a routine approach to land in Houston became disoriented and pushed the Boeing Co. 767-300 into a steep dive, NTSB found.

He had repeatedly panicked during training exercises and shown other deficiencies and those systemic issued hadn’t been addressed, NTSB found.

All five board members criticized the FAA for its slow pace adopting a better system for checking pilot records and voted unanimously to toughen the findings to specifically include the regulator’s inaction as a contributing factor in the accident.

There have been 10 airline accidents over the past 30 years in which pilots with prior performance issues were identified as part of the reasons for the crash, Sumwalt said.

The FAA expects to finalize its new system by next January, it said in an emailed statement. “The rule includes the requirement that industry provide pilot records” to the new database so they can be shared among carriers, the agency said.

Carriers can now voluntarily access the database for some agency records, FAA said.

prd fed reg

Three months before this statement, the FAA took this action in response to these NTSB recommendations. The Chairman might well have said “it has been a long time, but it is good now to see an NPRM with 60 pages of Federal Register explanations, analyses and rules Pilot Records Database [FAA-2020-0246] .


NTSB: FAA must act on safety recommendations

cvr fdr

Jennifer Homendy, Member of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), has urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take action on flight data recorder installation recommendations

She wrote: “[Several] months ago, a helicopter carrying nine people collided with a mountainside in Calabasas, California, tragically killing all on board. As the Board member on duty, I launched to Calabasas with a team of NTSB investigators just a few hours after learning of the crash. In the days following the accident, our team of investigators thoroughly examined the details surrounding the collision and I relayed our initial findings to the public. At our final press conference, I highlighted a 2006 safety recommendation issued to the FAA that the agency had refused to implement: require all transport-category rotorcraft operating under Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 (requirements for general aviation operations in the United States) and Part 135 (requirements for operating charter and on-demand flights) to be equipped with a CVR and an FDR. The transport-category helicopter in the Calabasas crash was operating under Part 135,  but was not equipped with either a CVR or an FDR.

“Unfortunately, the absence of a CVR and an FDR in the Calabasas crash was not unique. In fact, the NTSB has investigated several helicopter crashes and issued recommendations to address the lack of crash-resistant flight recording technology onboard helicopters as far back as 1999 (A‑99‑60). It followed up with comparable recommendations in 2003 (A-03-62 to -65) and 2009 (A-09-9 to -11), and recently released a safety recommendation report detailing several helicopter crashes in which recorded flight data would’ve helped us better identify potential safety issues.

“Expanding the use of recorders has been on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List (MWL) going back to 2011. The MWLs in 2014 and 2015 both specifically called for crash-resistant flight recorder systems to be adopted to enhance helicopter safety. Its most current MWL, which spans 2019 and 2020, calls on regulators to ‘require all Part 135 operators to install data recording devices’ to meet the same safety requirements as commercial airlines.”

Homendy concluded: “To date, the FAA has not acted on our repeated recommendations regarding crash‑resistant and crash-protected flight recording systems for helicopters. Although the FAA encourages helicopter operators to voluntarily use crash-resistant flight recording systems, the agency stops short of mandating CVRs and FDRs. This is especially disappointing because, although flight recording systems are undoubtedly crucial to improving aviation safety, they serve another important function: they provide grieving families with answers. The benefits of crash-resistant flight recording systems well outweigh[1] their cost; it’s beyond time for the FAA to take action on our safety recommendations regarding them.”


Member Homendy is a veteran of the Washington policy machine having advocated safety measures on behalf of a union and having been a key staff person on the House side. She knows of all the traps which the Board’s CVR/FDR recommendation must go. Recognizing those impediments might not only have been a nice outreach to the FAA, but such a statement might have caught the attention of those on the Hill who are in a position to overrule that OMB OIRA A-94 benefit-cost test.

[1] It would have been useful to cite numbers in support of this statement.

faa ear ntsb mouth


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