Deborah Hersman was sworn in as the 12th chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board at the end of July, taking over from acting chairman Mark Rosenker. On June 18 President Obama nominated Hersman for the two-year term of chairman and she was confirmed by the Senate on July 24. She was also confirmed as a board member for her second five-year term, which runs through the end of 2013.
During her first term as a board member, Hersman presided over 16 major investigations including several high-profile aviation accidents: the February 2005 crash of the Platinum Jet Challenger 600 at Teterboro, N.J.; the August 2006 crash of a Comair CRJ-100 in Lexington, Ky.; the crash of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle’s Cirrus SR20 into a Manhattan apartment building in October 2006, as well as the crash of the Global Exec Aviation Learjet 60 in Columbia, S.C., and that of
a Maryland State Police Eurocopter AS 365N3 EMS helicopter in Forestville, Md., both in September 2008.
NBAA Convention News spoke with Hersman about the challenges and rewards of her position, safety issues the Board has observed and changes aviation needs to adopt to become safer.
What has been the biggest change you have encountered as you moved from board member to chairman?
Having been a board member for five years, I’m very familiar with the subjects the agency works on. I’m familiar with the [investigation] launches on accidents–I’ve been to 16–and with reviewing reports and attending board meetings, so for me the biggest challenge is the transition into managing and running the agency from
an administrative perspective.
Is it difficult to transition between dealing with an accident in one
transportation mode and another?
I don’t think it’s too difficult. The important thing is understanding the
subject matter that underlies each mode and being able to speak the language.
We have looked at human factors issues and find that a majority of accidents–over 50 percent and sometimes as high as 70 to 80 percent–are human-factors related. That doesn’t change from one mode of transportation to another.
If we talk about fatigue, we understand Circadian rhythms, the science behind fatigue; it’s the same whether you’re the pilot of the Cosco Busan [container ship] transiting the Bay Bridge in San Francisco or the pilot of an airplane transiting time zones. The science underlying fatigue is the same for all human beings, so the lessons translate from one mode to another.
What trends have you noticed in the aviation accidents you’ve investigated?
We can look at the data; we’re fortunate that the NTSB has the ability to investigate accidents in an aviation environment that’s the best in the world. But there is still room for improvement, which is why we investigate each
accident to see what we can learn from it.
One of the things we saw in the 2008 statistics was a spike in fatalities with on-demand air charter operations. We looked at a couple of special areas within Part 135; we had a public hearing on EMS operations, certainly that’s an area where we saw a high number of fatalities.
The Board recently reported on last year’s crash of a Citation in Oklahoma City where the operator was conducting charter flights without proper authorization. You investigated the Platinum Jet crash at Teterboro.
Are operational control issues still a problem among charter operators?
Different issues came up in the Oklahoma City accident versus the
Teterboro accident. At Teterboro we were concerned about piggybacking onto another’s operating certificate. [In the Oklahoma City crash], Interstate Helicopters didn’t have any authority to operate fixed-wing aircraft on their certificate or anyone else’s, and they had no authority to put together such flights. They were being compensated for them when they shouldn’t have been operating them at all.
The concern in both the Teterboro and the Oklahoma City operations shows us that consumers don’t know whether or not the operation is legitimate and whether it is safe.
Post-accident, the FAA worked on an enforcement action that would have
suspended this operator’s operations. Unfortunately it was negotiated out and they got their certificate back, but the board members were deeply concerned by the obfuscation. There was no way for the operator to conduct these flights legally. They didn’t have the authority and yet they did it. They did it scores of times and got away with it.
You mention working with the families of victims as one of the most rewarding parts of the job. Why?
A lot of people think working with family members is hard, but really it’s not. They show us with their grace and courage why it is important for us to
continue our work, to make sure other people don’t go through that experience. Clearly at the onset, the very early stages after an accident, there is a tremendous amount of grief and pain, but so many people turn that into something positive.
I can’t tell you the number of family members who have been tremendous forces. They show incredible grace as they try to turn their grief into something transformational, to change aviation safety. I have seen a lot of amazing things just watching those family members and it has humbled me.
Aside from the actual investigations, what other challenges do you face?
You need to be able to explain things in terms everyone can understand. When I’m communicating with the public on behalf of our employees, I hope I can make the information understandable to them. I hope the professional pilot and the chief safety officer in a company can appreciate what we have to say, and also the person on the street. We have to make what we say relevant to people.
It’s up to the recipients to implement our recommendations but I see our role
as being the truth tellers. We hold up a mirror and show people what we
see. We make the recommendations and sometimes they are challenging,
sometimes they are hard and sometimes people tell us what we have recommended is impossible. But I think that’s our challenge and I think it’s not always well understood or discussed enough.
What needs to be done right away to improve aviation safety?
One thing the Safety Board shined a very bright spotlight on in our Colgan investigation was fatigue. We have seen over and over the insidious effects of fatigue on operations. We’ve seen it in mechanics, in pilots, in air traffic controllers. I think fatigue has been on our most-wanted list since the list’s inception in 1990; it’s certainly one thing we would like to see addressed immediately.
With respect to some of the smaller operators in business aviation and others, I think implementation of SMS [safety management systems] is a good thing.
In the last five years I’ve had the privilege to attend the Corporate Aviation Safety Seminar. A lot of good work is being done on SMS and the Safety Board has made some recommendations about it.
Runway safety is another area that is a perennial concern. When we talk to people in the aviation community and ask them what keeps them up at night, it’s a runway collision that they are concerned about. The Safety Board has expanded its definition of runway safety in the last few years following the Comair accident.
It used to be that we were concerned just about runway incursions, but with Comair we realized that safety on the airport surface–making sure that people are where they should be, as opposed to where they think they are–is as critical as making sure that aircraft are separated and don’t collide. There is a lot of
technology that can help in almost all of these areas.
Have you been disappointed in the FAA’s response over the last 10 years to the need to improve icing safety?
We’ve made recommendations with respect not just to design standards for certificated aircraft, but also for actions that crews need to take–whether it’s
turning off the autopilot in certain circumstances or, if you have boots,
making sure you cycle or run them when it needs to happen.
I think the Board is disappointed with the [lack of] timeliness of the FAA’s response. That’s why we’ve categorized that issue area on our most-wanted list as “red” or unacceptable progress. Many issues have been raised in the past and
we know they are working on them. We know additional research is being
performed, but that’s not changing the environment that exists today.
If you could write some rules to take effect tomorrow, what would they be?
There are a couple of issue areas where we feel there is some agreement with industry and others about positive action on certain things, but they just haven’t put the ball across the goal on a couple of these.
CRM [cockpit resource management] for 135 operators is something everyone seems to embrace but it just hasn’t been completed. It’s the same with emergency medical service flights–we’ve heard for years that most operators have risk assessments. We’ve heard for years that many of them are going to be installing terrain awareness warning systems. We’ve heard for years they have dispatch and flight-following procedures, but we don’t have anything concrete to look at and we still see operators who don’t have those things being involved in accidents.
What accomplishments are you most proud of during your NTSB career?
I still have a lot of work to do; I’m not sure I’m ready to look back. I guess my launches with the teams have clearly made a big impact, working with the families who lost loved ones in the accidents, all of these things have affected me and remind me every day how important the work we do is.
I think the mission of this agency is extremely important and we play a role in raising the bar for aviation safety, whether it’s scheduled service, business aviation or general aviation. That’s really our purpose. At a cost of 30 cents to each tax payer, we perform service to the public across all modes of
transportation to make the traveling public safer. I’m proud to be a part of that mission and a part of the team that works to do that.
What message would you like to give to the business aviation community?
The good news is we’ve seen a very good safety record from the corporate operators and from Part 91K [fractionals] and we hope that continues. The Board is very interested in some of the good things being done in that part of the aviation community and we will also be working to see if there’s anything we can learn that will improve safety there.