Improving GA Safety

We sit down with NTSB Vice-Chairman Robert Sumwalt to talk about our safety culture and the need for greater GA professionalism.


The 2006 accident statistics are out from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and theyre not good. When compared to 2005, aviation deaths rose from 617 to 779. According to the NTSB, nearly 90 percent of aviation fatalities occur in general aviation, which also accounted for a significant majority of the increase in aviation-related deaths from 2005 to 2006.

Clearly, theres some room for improvement. Whats not clear, however, is how to go about it. Sure, education is key; so is ensuring pilots not only get experience but get the right kind of experience. To gain some additional insights-and insights from the U.S. government agency charged with investigating transportation accidents and recommending safety-related improvements-we spent some quality time with NTSB Vice Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

In Aviation By Accident

AS: Tell us a bit about your aviation career: How you got into aviation, the types of aircraft youve flown and for whom youve flown them?

RS: I mentioned a few weeks ago to a group of aviation accident investigators that I got into aviation by accident. When I was 17, I was out and heard on the radio there had been a plane crash at the local airport. As I was driving to the airport, the coroner passed me, so I followed him to the accident site. As he approached the yellow tape, they raised it for him, and I ducked right in with him and found myself on the scene of a fatal crash involving a multi-engine turbine-powered airplane.

A few weeks later, a friend and I visited the scene again. The wreckage had been removed, but we looked at the scene, the tree-strike angles, trying to envision the precise angles this airplane had come through the trees. And just as a couple of teenagers would do, on the way home we stopped into a local flight school and signed up for flying lessons. From there, I flight instructed, and got a job flying for the University of South Carolina when I was still in college. A few years later, I got hired with Piedmont Airlines. I was flying the Airbus A320 when I left the airlines. From there, I ran a corporate flight department for a Fortune 500 company. I have about 14,000 flight hours. So, I literally got into aviation by accident.

AS: Are you current?

RS: No; my greatest contribution to aviation safety these days is for me not to be flying! On a beautiful fall day like today, Id love to be out there, but the truth is I dont have the time to stay current, so Ive made the commitment to stay out of the cockpit until I can devote the time necessary to stay current.

GA Safety Culture?

AS: Your background involves a lot of heavy iron: 24 years as a pilot with Piedmont and USAirways, plus service in a corporate flight department. We often hear about the culture of organizations operating aircraft and the degree to which that culture promotes safety. How can individual general aviation operators adopt such a culture, even when theyre not part of an organization?

RS: Absolutely, a safety culture can be applied to one- or two-person operations. When we boil it down, I look at a safety culture as doing the right things even when no one is watching. Even when youre out there flying solo, you need a safety culture.

What does that mean? It means Im going to try to do this the right way, as precisely as I can, even though theres no one around to watch and see what Im doing.


AS: I often try to get others thinking about the consequences of their actions in an airplane. For example, If you do that, how will it look in the NTSB report? How can we get GA pilots to understand, no, they dont have to push that cold front or scud-run the last few miles to their destination?

RS: Certainly flying is fun; its something we enjoy doing and some of us look at it as a sport but, unfortunately, it does have a downside. To help pilots understand the serious consequences of aviation, I like to translate the letters N-T-S-B. For example, N could stand for Negative publicity avoidance. How is this going to look in the headlines? I was an airline pilot for 24 years and I used to think that if I go out and do this, hows that going to look?

T means, Take the most conservative approach. For example, when preparing for a flight we often ask ourselves, Should I add more fuel or not add more fuel? Should I de-ice the airplane and get rid of that frost on the wings or should I just assume itll be okay? Dont worry about those things. When youre faced with a decision like that, take the most conservative approach

The S in NTSB means, Standard operating procedure (SOP) adherence: Sticking to those procedures that have been developed is so important. We found in airline flying that, when crews start deviating from the SOPs, they are about three times more likely to commit another error that has consequential results.

Finally, the B in NTSB stands for Be a professional. It doesnt necessarily mean you get paid to fly. Professionalism, the way I look at it, is a mindset; its the way we do things. Its precise checklist usage, its precise callouts, its precise compliance with those standard operating procedures and regulations.

Thats what I think the letters N-T-S-B stand for as far as it relates to trying to keep us all out of trouble and keeping us from meeting the NTSB on a professional basis.

Lessons Learned

AS: Obviously, youve had the opportunity to observe a lot of different organizational cultures. Are there any lessons youve learned from looking at the ways organizations approach the question of how to maintain a level of safety?

RS: Yes, and weve found here at the NTSB during the 40 years weve been in business that the most common link, the most common factor, among all these accidents is the corporate leaderships viewpoint towards safety. Those organizations that have the greatest commitment to safety have the fewer number of accidents. Thats not to say that bad things cant happen to good people, but safety culture is a very important predictor of how that organization is going to fare.

Judgment and Decisions

AS: Why are we seeing slight increases in the number of general aviation accidents? Why is the accident record not improving as we would like?

RS: I wish I knew the answer because, frankly, then we could start working on it. We are all in this boat together, trying to get this accident rate down. And it is alarming to see the increase in 2006.

Thats one of the things I want us to be doing at the safety board is being more proactive. We are very good at being reactive-that is our mission, we are an accident-investigation agency-but I think part of our role is to prevent accidents. So I want us, as an industry, to start looking for innovative ways to make this accident record better than it is now.

I think that judgment and decision making are critically important. We saw these issues in the accident a year ago that claimed the life of Cory Lidle and his flight instructor. The board basically looked at that and said it was a judgment-related accident. I was perplexed by that accident and wrote a concurring statement to say the AOPA Air Safety Foundation and other organizations continue to see a number of judgment and decision-making related accidents. We need to look for innovative ways to improve these two considerations.

I know that sounds easy, but its a formidable task and we in industry and government need to work on it.

AS: Does the NTSB have any studies ongoing that might make recommendations to at least raise awareness of these issues and/or physically improve them?

RS: We constantly look at that because thats how we get our job done, by investigating accidents and looking for possible recommendations.

But we as an industry just havent been able to figure out how we can actually improve judgment and decision making. Good aeronautical decision-making training, over the years, has been proven to improve decisions made by pilots. So, we have shown that proper training can lead to better decisions.

But, weve sort of plateaued there now, and thats why I wrote my concurring statement on the Cory Lidle accident report that we need to be thinking out of the box and maybe looking for some research dollars, or for NASA or private researchers or universities to study improvements. Id like to think they could do a study of this and look for ways to actually improve judgment and decision making. Just telling people to go out and be safe doesnt really do it.

Leading By Example

AS: Obviously, in the aviation community theres a pecking order. We count hours or years or different aircraft flown-perhaps even engines weve flown to TBO-and those with more statistics racked up than others are looked upon as the better pilots. But thats not necessarily true. How can aviation community members translate what experience and seniority we have and use it to set examples for those who might look up to us?

RS: Im amazed sometimes when I read accident reports of the experience level of some pilots involved. Very experienced pilots with a lot of flying time, a lot of years under their belt almost on a daily basis are involved in accidents.

Someone once told me, early in my airline career, Dont pick your heroes too early in life. I know that when were young in experience, we tend to look at other people with more experience with big eyes and great admiration. But I always encourage people to wait a while before we really look up to those people. Because what Ive found in life is sometimes those people we look up to and think are really neat when were young with experienced, as we mature and get more experience, we look back and say, Gosh, thats not really who I wanted to model myself after.

For me, a role model that continually came into my mind was someone who really did approach flying very professionally and as something that can hurt you, and will hurt you if you dont do it right. Yes, we want to have a good time doing it, but the way were going to have a good time is not by going out and fooling around. The way we have a good time doing it is by trying to do it as precisely as we can and as properly as we can, just as a professional athlete is trying to be really focused on what he or she is doing.

So, just dont pick your heroes too early in life and think about-as we discussed earlier-how is this going to look in the newspaper, how is this going to sound in the courtroom as the estates of my passengers, whom I thought were my good friends, are now suing my estate because of something they say I did in an airplane.

The Future?

AS: What kinds of things will the NTSB be looking at relative to general aviation, and where will the GA community go on the safety front?

RS: I think theres a bright future for aviation, and I hope to see a future for the NTSB where were sitting around playing cards with the Maytag repairman because weve got nothing to do! I hope we can get to that status. In the meantime, there are some great advances that can help us.

Final Word

AS: Thanks for your time, Bob. Any final comment or challenge youd want to share with our readers?

RS: Yes, thank you for the opportunity. I think we become safer pilots by learning the mistakes of others. One of the ways we learn about these mistakes is through your magazine, and its an important mission. Your readers also have an important mission, and thats to learn about these lessons.

One of my favorite quotes is about mistakes and learning: You must learn from the mistakes of others. You cant possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.


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