Robert Sumwalt is stepping down from the National Transportation Safety Board at the end of June, following 15 years with the agency. He became the 14th chairman of the NTSB on Aug. 10, 2017, and served as a member since August 2006. His term on the Board was set to expire at the end of this year.
One of the NTSB’s longest-serving members who was appointed and reappointed by both Democrat and Republican administrations, Sumwalt brought to his position a deep background in commercial and business aviation. He spent 32 years as a pilot, including for Piedmont Airlines and US Airways, and also managed a corporate aviation department of a Fortune 500 energy company, amassing some 14,000 flight hours and, while at US Airways, served on its flight operational quality assurance monitoring team.
Sumwalt discussed with AIN his time on the board and his views on safety as he was preparing to transition back into what he called “normal life."
Your term is not up until the end of the year. So why leave now?
My 65th birthday is June 30th and I felt that would be a good day to leave. The President has announced his intent to bring on board a new chairman. I think the last thing that any new chairman needs is an old chairman looking over his or her shoulders. So, I thought, go ahead and leave and be available to assist, just a phone call away. [President Joe Biden in May announced his intention to nominate current board member Jennifer Homendy to become the next chair.]
You've been with the NTSB a long time. You just missed the record?
It was never my intention to be the longest-serving, or one of the longest-serving, board members. My goal in the time that I have been here was to be an effective board member and an advocate for improving safety. I don't think I ever intended to be here 15 years, but one thing led to another and here I am.
It's been such an honor and privilege to serve on the NTSB, to be appointed by three U.S. presidents, and to be nominated and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate on four occasions. I'm just blown away. I feel kind of like Forrest Gump here—kid gets lucky in life.
I think it's everyone's desire to leave somewhere a little bit better than you found it. I do think that I can leave knowing that we made some improvements in safety and also within the agency. We've got an incredible workforce at the NTSB and a very important mission. And it's one that I will miss greatly. I'll miss the people, I'll miss the NTSB, but life goes on.
When you stepped into the NTSB, was safety culture much different than it is now? How prevalent were terms such as "just culture" and "safety management systems" [SMS]?
Certainly, we cannot go anywhere these days without people talking about SMS. I'll admit I did not even fully understand what SMS was initially and when I came to the board, I went back to where I worked before, a Fortune 500 flight department, and said to my replacement, “I've got to do a talk on SMS.” They said, “It's the things we were doing all along. It's just, we didn't call it SMS.” And I'm like, “Okay, I got it now.”
But I think a lot of good has [happened] in the decade and a half that I've been at the board. It's taken a lot of people to push that rock.
What do you think were some of the drivers behind this change?
I don't know what actually changed the situation, but I was on the board for seven days when the Comair [Flight 5191, Aug. 27, 2006] crash happened. And 11 months later, we had a board meeting on that. We found a lack of professionalism with the crew violating the sterile cockpit. There was just a very casual attitude that the crew had…cascading errors to the point where they would attempt to take off on a runway that was too short. Before then, we had dealt with the [February 2006 Platinum Jet Challenger 600] runway overrun at Teterboro [New Jersey], and we cited the crew’s lack of professionalism there.
Then we dealt with the  event where the Pinnacle Airlines crew took the plane up to 41,000 feet and stalled it.
So, we had a series of tragedies that came out of a lack of professionalism. Those really drove us. We did put professionalism on the most-wanted list and tried to really focus on that. Now, [as to] whether or not that had any effect on behavior, I'd certainly like to think so, but I will say that things have settled down a little bit and I'm going to knock on wood right now.
What about the May 2014 Gulfstream IV accident at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts?
When I do presentations, I talk about that tragedy because from all outward appearances, that was a flight department that looked like they were really doing all the right things. They were going for their IS-BAO Stage 3 audit. The captain had been there like 27 years. The first officer or the other pilot had been there for something like 11 years. The flight attendant had been there for 16 years. They had really good comments in their last audit, yet they weren't even doing basic things [such as preflight checklists]. And I think what was even more troubling—and [resulted in] one of our recommendations—was the NBAA study. [That study] found 18 percent of flight departments or flight crews were not conducting full flight control checks before takeoff.
Have you seen this evolve? Where have you seen improvements?
The board only looks at accidents, really. I'm not sure that the lack of accidents necessarily means that there are no problems out there. We just look at the tip of the iceberg. It’s what is going on underneath that we don't really know. I will say that we have seen fewer accidents related to a lack of professionalism, and I hope that that trend continues. But another troubling one was the Learjet going into Teterboro a few years ago. There were something like 130 expletives on a flight that was only 28 minutes long.
Speaking of unseen safety issues, the board also highlighted the fact that in the Calabasas accident, the company had an SMS but hadn’t fully implemented it. How big an issue is it that people might have a false sense of where they are safety-wise?
Ever since I've run a small flight department for a Fortune 500 company, I realized that a lot of times, people don't really know what's behind their hangar door. They just assume that since the airplanes are shiny, the pilots look spiffy, and the crew gets them where they want to go and makes good landings, they have a good flight department. And the question I've got is, “How do you really know?” Someone recently told me hope is not a plan. I think it's important to do everything you can to ensure that your flight department is running the way that it should.
I'm a believer in flight-data monitoring programs. I think that the term SMS is a little overused, but the main thing is, I want to make sure is that people are doing the things that they're supposed to do.
Looking forward, what do you see as the biggest issues?
One thing that really bothers me is a lack of procedural compliance. And we do find that as a factor [in accidents]. Procedures are written generally for a reason. People say they're written in blood. There've been studies that have shown that once you start deviating from the SOP [standard operating procedures], you're more likely to have consequential errors. So, I think that that's one thing that I do harp on.
SOP compliance is one part of professionalism. I think it's important to ask ourselves, are we truly professionals? And I think everybody would say they are, but by what standard? I think professionals follow procedures. They have a respect for doing things properly. They're doing the right things even when no one is watching. I think in some cases, people spend more time trying to figure out how to skirt the regulations than actually complying with them.
Are you seeing the needle move at all? Is getting voice recorders and video monitors into flight decks still a huge issue?
I think there's still room for improvement there. There again, we don't necessarily see what goes on in the national airspace system because we're more focused on accident investigation, but it is something we've had on our most-wanted list for a long time. Flight-data monitoring programs are another thing we've wanted for a long time. And it's important to point out that these programs are not intended to spy on people. They're to see what systemic issues we may have.
Do you think there's more of an openness to it now than maybe two decades ago, now that there's been this strong push for just culture?
I don't know if there's more openness to it. I think cameras and image recorders are still something that is not acceptable in the pilot community. But 30 years ago, if you had the notion of a flight operational quality assurance program, or FOQA, that's something that pilots would have opposed. Certainly, there's been an evolution over the last two decades to where that is in all of the major airlines today. And it's just an accepted practice. And I think the reason for the success of programs like that is because they have not breached confidentiality. They're not looking at the individual, they're looking for systemic issues. So, I hope that same acceptance is coming into business aviation.
Fatigue is an issue that often gets brought up and across all modes, not just aviation. Do you think that there's a proper awareness of it and do you see it as a continuing issue?
It's something that is always going to be a factor if we don't manage it properly. I do think the awareness of fatigue has increased over the years. It used to be that you were a sissy or a wimp if you said you were too tired to fly. Now, we actually want people to say, “I'm really fatigued, and we can't do this right now.” So, I do think there's a greater awareness of it. And I hope that awareness translates to respect for fatigue.
Do you think that there's a greater understanding in the aviation community of how to handle post-accident situations, particularly with the families and loved ones of the victims? Do you think people have been better at outreach?
Yeah, I hope so. I know that the airlines have been better about it. A few were responsible for the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, including TWA 800 where the families were not treated well. Those tragedies did lead to Congress passing that law that gave us the responsibility to ensure that airlines were doing what they should be doing with respect to the family. So, I think on the airline side, that's gotten a whole lot better. I hope that in other areas that sensitivity has heightened as well. Certainly, one of the most difficult things for any of us to do is to meet with the family members in the hours and days following an accident. We're sharing the worst news that anyone could ever get, but I think it's also important to let them know that here's a little but very important agency that is going to do its best to get to the bottom of the event so that we can prevent others from going through what they're going through.
One of your campaigns, even at aviation events, has been about talking on a mobile phone while driving. You’ve said that even though you've walked out of the hangar, you still have to get home. Did you want to discuss why it's been such an important part of your campaigns?
I think that when we step into the cockpit, we all hopefully are safety-oriented. We want to follow procedures. We want to do the checklist. But many people don't think twice about getting in their truck and getting on the phone. It is very much of a problem. People say, “Well, I'm using Bluetooth.” But the fact is the real problem with cell phones is the cognitive distraction. We're so engrossed in the conversation that we've run through stop signs and stoplights and then people die as a result of that sort of behavior.
What about devices in the flight deck? Has that been something that you've been concerned about?
Yeah, I think any type of distraction, something that takes our attention away from the task at hand, has the potential to affect safety. Cockpit automation is certainly not new, but the level of fancy things that we have nowadays just blows my mind. I remember back in the late 1980s when it was a new deal to have a flight management system. A researcher compared the FMS or flight management computer, the box, to a vacuum cleaner, and said it sucks your attention and your eyeballs and your fingers right into it. And that was just with an FMS. Nowadays, people have all kinds of eye candy in front of them to perhaps inappropriately take their attention away from the task at hand. So, it's something that really has to be guarded against.
If used properly, the systems can truly help us. But the devil is in the detail there. It's easy to just get sucked in. [When I flew] I made it a habit whenever one pilot would go heads down to make darn sure [for the other pilot] to come heads up. That was just a practice that I employed, but that was a long time ago.
Are you hoping to get some flying done?
That'd be fun to get back in a cockpit, but things have changed so much. I've been out of the cockpit for 15 years and, you know, I'm not sure I can catch up. There are a lot of changes, especially with avionics. Somebody said, I think he was flying something like the [Bombardier] Global 7500, that it was like flying an iPad with wings and jet engines on it.
Of all the technologies that have come to date, not as just an NTSB chair, but as just a pilot, what has been most exciting for you to see or the most interesting?
It's hard to say without really having been more out there using it but look at what an iPad has done. I got my first iPad in 2010, right after it came out. And nowadays people can plug in an iPad and get all sorts of information to increase situational awareness.
One thing I always wished for when I was flying for an airline was real-time weather information, such as convective weather information. I'd literally have to wake up to watch The Today Show so I could get an idea of where the weather was going to be. And here I'd be flying an airplane with 160 people in the back going from coast to coast. And that was my weather briefing—The Today Show.
So, I think being able to just have an iPad or an iPhone or some such device to pull up weather is great. We can't over-rely on that because there's a latency factor in that information. But it still gives you a great insight for strategically avoiding the weather and [looking at] what's the better way to go. I think it's great for that.
What else has been on your mind as you leave the Safety Board?
Well, I certainly say that there's tremendous value in business aviation, and I hope that, now that we're hopefully coming out of the Covid situation, business aviation will continue to flourish. We want to make sure that it is done safely and by properly managing risk.
I think that my view of safety has evolved over the years. I now look at safety as the primary practice of managing risk to an acceptable level. I think sometimes maybe people just blindly accept the risk, and I think it's important to assess those risk areas and manage the risk. If we could get people thinking of managing safety, if we could get them thinking in terms of it's really a risk-management situation, that would be an evolution.
When people think of risk management, their eyes glaze over. But a good definition comes from the FAA. They say that we manage risk whenever we modify the way that we do something to increase the chances of success and decrease the chances of injury, failure, or loss. I think we do that in day-to-day life.
It could be something as simple as the exit I would take when I would leave my apartment to go to the office. There were two exits out of the driveway and I always wanted to use the south exit because the north exit had a blind corner. I want to go out to the one where there is not a blind intersection. Those are the types of things that we hopefully do in our everyday life.
Let's take that forward to aviation. When I ran a little flight department, there was an airport that we went into that the pilots didn't like. There were a lot of reasons for it. And once we analyzed all those factors, we said, “I don't think we need to go into this airport anymore.” We took it to management and explained all the hazards and the lack of mitigation. And they said, “You're right.” Previously, the pilots have just been going there because they were called there.
What’s ahead for you?
I don't know. What I really would like to do is take a little time off. I have commuted to and from South Carolina for 15 years and haven't spent a lot of time with my family—except in the last 14, 15 months—but I look forward to just taking a little time off and figuring out where I can make a contribution.