NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker focuses on ‘smarter’

 - November 7, 2006, 10:55 AM

Mark Rosenker was sworn in as the 11th chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board on August 11 after serving as acting chairman since March 2005. A major general in the Air Force Reserve, he was deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House Military Office before becoming a member of the NTSB in March 2003.

Before his White House appointment, Rosenker was managing director of the Washington, D.C. office for the United Network for Organ Sharing. Before joining that organization, he served 23 years as v-p of public affairs for the Electronic Industries Alliance. His interest and experience in transportation safety date back more than three decades to his time at a major national public affairs organization.

Rosenker was the board member assigned to the November 2004 crash of a charter jet in Houston and the December 2005 crash of a Chalk’s Airlines amphibian in Miami. His second term as a member of the NTSB will expire on Dec. 31, 2010.

A number of people have called for cockpit video recorders to be installed in aircraft, particularly those with a single pilot. Where does that stand?

Not only have a number of people called for the installation of a video system that would survive an accident, but the NTSB has made a series of recommendations concerning that same issue. We made one for turbine aircraft carrying paying passengers after the Wellstone accident. [Sen. Paul Wellstone died in 2002 when his chartered King Air crashed–Ed.] We needed that because at this point there’s no requirement for a CVR, and there’s no requirement for an FDR.

We believe we can learn significant amounts of information by having a device such as an image recorder in the cockpit that would provide information about where the [pilot’s] hands might be, the controls activity, along with perhaps some aspect of the horizon and what the gauges themselves are displaying. We think that’s an important recommendation that needs to be implemented as quickly as possible.

This is for Part 135-type operations, where I plunk down some money to Fred’s Flying Service to get me from point A to point B. I’m entitled to a safe seat. Too many aircraft–where people have paid for seats–have gone down, and it makes it significantly more difficult for us to determine what caused that and prevent it from happening again. This does not deal with GA aircraft at all. This deals with paying customers.

Which leads me to: where are we with the VLJ issue? When these VLJs join the fleets of Part 135 operators, they need to adhere to the recommendation (that ultimately we would like to see as a rule) that they must have [an image recorder] even though they are a single-pilot operation with fewer than six passengers. They need to have some form of recording device that–should the worst happen–will provide enough information that the NTSB can find out what happened and prevent it from happening again. To be flying without that type of information-gathering capability is a disservice to the entire community.

Former DOT Inspector General Ken Mead, before he left office, called for renewed efforts to reduce the number of GA accidents, even as others criticize your agency for cutting back on investigations. What is your response?

The GA community is very important. Let me suggest that perhaps for too long the NTSB has not been able to look at every single accident. Unfortunately, the reality of life is resource driven. We have fewer regional investigators but approximately a steady number of accidents– somewhere between 1,800 and 1,900 a year. For the record, we never investigated every single GA accident that occurred.

There are a number of them that are out of our scope–experimental-type aircraft, for the most part, we do not necessarily look at. We don’t necessarily go after cropdusters and things like that. We try to look at every fatality, but even that can come down a bit.

What we ended up doing was creating a new process to [streamline accident investigation]. So we might have gone from 75 percent down to about 62 percent. When we decided to make this change, we had a backlog of more than 2,500 accident investigations; that many accidents had not gotten a determination, meaning we didn’t tell you what had happened. That is wrong.

So what we came up with was a process by which we would take a look at the simpler ones, which would provide an opportunity to give a one-page [analysis]. And then we came up with an intermediate, a more detailed report that might have three, four or five pages. And then we came up with the traditional field investigation.

We got our colleagues in the FAA to work with us very closely. We made determinations about which ones we would go out to, and we went to those that we believed would provide a safety payback. If an airplane ran out of gas and crashed, odds are it was because the pilot didn’t realize one way or another that either the tank wasn’t filled or he had a problem with his tank or something like that. To go out to 50 or 100 of those wouldn’t necessarily tell us a whole lot.

But if we went out to one where we learned of a structural failure, we learned that there was an engine issue, we learned that the pilot might have gotten disoriented for whatever reason, we come back with something we can tell others and make
the kinds of changes [that are needed]. How many times can you tell a pilot, ‘Don’t leave unless you have enough fuel to get to where you are going?’

So we look for the accidents that we can make the greatest impact on. And because of that, we’ve been able to take that 2,500-case backlog, issue a probable cause and complete those investigations. We are now just about even…and we
are looking to hire a couple more investigators. And we have got enough time at this moment to begin looking at even more GA accidents, because we are doing it in a smarter way and the safety payback is significantly higher. Hopefully this will result in fewer GA accidents and fewer fatalities.

You have said there are other fertile areas for GA safety that your regional investigators are keeping an eye on. Please elaborate.

We’ve made a lot of improvement with the [general aviation investigators] community, but just as important with the manufacturers themselves. We meet with these folks routinely. We have a full agenda every time we do one of these meetings, which are devoted to improving issues and resolving issues and communication–on both sides–about why it is critical for us to be working together and to understand each other, both in challenges and in capability.

I like to believe this has become a much more collegial partnership than it has been in past years. I have been to Wichita twice in the last eight months to take a look at manufacturers and listen to their issues. I care a great deal about this community because I believe it is so important to our nation.

So I instructed our aviation safety people to be working extremely closely with this community to improve relations, but, more important, to raise the bar of safety. And I think that’s happening. I really believe it. I’m proud of what has happened here in the past six or eighth months.

Is there anything else you want to add?

All I can tell you is that I am so thrilled to have the opportunity to be on this board in these challenging times. I believe I have the best job in the federal government. I work with the best people, we have a mission that is extremely important, and I believe this organization deserves its reputation as the best investigatory agency as it relates to safety issues in the world.