Be­hind the scenes at NTSB head­quar­ters

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Les Abend

My wife and I stood up from the couch in the wellap­pointed of­fice and shook hands with Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board chair­man Robert Sumwalt. We thanked him for tak­ing the time to squeeze a visit into his packed sched­ule. The visit was the cul­mi­na­tion of our per­son­al­ized tour at NTSB head­quar­ters, an op­por­tu­nity not of­ten af­forded the pub­lic.

With a sin­cere dose of hu­mil­ity, the chair­man pro­vided me a signed copy of Air­craft Ac­ci­dent Anal­y­sis: Fi­nal Re­ports, a book he had co-writ­ten with James Wal­ters. The book would as­sist in re­search ma­te­rial for my next novel. I re­cip­ro­cated by pre­sent­ing a signed copy of my novel Pa­per Wings.

Although I was bi­ased by the fact that Sumwalt had orig­i­nally come from within the ranks of air­line pi­lots, the day’s in­ter­ac­tions con­firmed the pos­i­tive at­ti­tude re­flected by the chair­man. No doubt, peo­ple were on their best be­hav­ior for our visit, but it gen­uinely ap­peared that ev­ery­one was en­thu­si­as­tic to be a part of the NTSB.

Our pri­mary tour guide was Paul Sledzik, deputy di­rec­tor for the Of­fice of Safety Rec­om­men­da­tions and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Although Sledzik’s ti­tle sounded im­pres­sive, he mod­estly re­as­sured me that it was not. Ap­par­ently, ti­tles at the NTSB don’t de­fine a strict job de­scrip­tion. Peo­ple wear dif­fer­ent hats at dif­fer­ent times.

The NTSB is housed on two sep­a­rate floors of a high-rise build­ing at the L’En­fant Plaza East sec­tion of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. The hear­ing room is separately lo­cated be­low ground level, within the shop­ping area of L’En­fant Plaza. I re­called hav­ing been present in the room dur­ing pro­ceed­ings fol­low­ing a crash in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­volv­ing my air­line al­most 15 years prior. The pro­ceed­ings were a well-or­ches­trated, re­spect­ful and solemn oc­ca­sion.

As most folks are aware, the agency cov­ers all forms of trans­porta­tion, not just avi­a­tion. As one ex­am­ple, Jim Rit­ter, di­rec­tor of Re­search and En­gi­neer­ing, and our tour guide for the re­ally cool lab­o­ra­tory stuff, men­tioned a land­mark au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion with a Tesla Model S that had just con­cluded.

The NTSB anal­y­sis con­flicted with the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s May 2016 fa­tal-ac­ci­dent re­port in re­gard to man­u­fac­turer de­fect. Although inat­ten­tion by the driver while he was us­ing the auto-steer fea­ture was a mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor in the col­li­sion with a semi­trailer, the NTSB blames Tesla for not devel­op­ing a bet­ter sys­tem. The auto-steer func­tion ex­ceeded its ca­pa­bil­ity for the road in­volved, and the method­ol­ogy for de­ter­min­ing driver en­gage­ment and at­ten­tion was not ad­e­quate. Avi­a­tion has high­lighted au­to­ma­tion-de­pen­dency is­sues, but now tech­nol­ogy ad­vance­ments avail­able in cars have brought the prob­lem to the auto in­dus­try.

More than 420 staff mem­bers are em­ployed by the NTSB, with ap­prox­i­mately 120 of those in the Of­fice of Avi­a­tion Safety. Avi­a­tion per­son­nel are gen­er­ally not hired right out of col­lege. The ma­jor­ity have ex­ten­sive back­grounds in en­gi­neer­ing and in­dus­try. Although most of us are fa­mil­iar with the Go Team folks be­cause of me­dia cov­er­age, many oth­ers work be­hind the scenes in sup­port of the ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors in the field.

The most vis­i­ble per­son at an ac­ci­dent is usu­ally the in­ves­ti­ga­tor in charge (IIC). He or she is of­ten­times

the spokesper­son at press con­fer­ences and is re­spon­si­ble for co­or­di­nat­ing the chore­og­ra­phy of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. I had the op­por­tu­nity to speak with Joe Se­dor, the chief of Ma­jor In­ves­ti­ga­tions for the past five years. In one of Se­dor’s prior lives, he was in­volved with the Ci­ta­tion X de­vel­op­ment. Once he joined the NTSB, Se­dor be­came an ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tor spe­cial­iz­ing in air­craft sys­tems. With a few years of ex­pe­ri­ence un­der his belt, he took an IIC po­si­tion.

No one is hired from out­side the agency for the IIC job. Hav­ing par­tic­i­pated on a pe­riph­eral level with a ma­jor ac­ci­dent, and hav­ing wit­nessed the stress in­volved, I can see why ex­pe­ri­ence in the field is an ab­so­lute ne­ces­sity.

Four IICs are on staff. At a ma­jor ac­ci­dent, an NTSB board mem­ber ac­com­pa­nies the Go Team. As a mat­ter of fact, the magic-marker as­sign­ment board in the Re­sponse Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter (ROC) con­firmed that Sumwalt was on the list for that week. You might re­call that Deb­o­rah Hers­man, a for­mer NTSB board chair­woman, was on site in San Fran­cisco dur­ing the Asiana Flight 214 ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion. She just hap­pened to be on call that week.

Se­dor in­di­cated that about 65 per­cent of NTSB in­ves­ti­ga­tions have been in­ter­na­tional events. Although the im­pli­ca­tion is that the United States has a bet­ter safety record, the statis­tic also means that we are learn­ing through the ac­ci­dents of for­eign car­ri­ers. Why does the NTSB par­tic­i­pate in for­eign in­ves­ti­ga­tions?

Although diplo­macy some­times must be ex­er­cised, In­ter­na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion An­nex 13 rules en­ti­tle the NTSB to par­tic­i­pate as a party to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion if it in­volves a U.S. air­line, a U.S.-man­u­fac­tured or -de­signed air­plane, or U.S. cit­i­zens. The NTSB’s ex­per­tise is highly re­garded, An­nex 13 not­with­stand­ing.

In addition to our in­ter­ac­tions with the peo­ple of the NTSB, the tour of the lab­o­ra­to­ries was an­other high­light. The lab­o­ra­to­ries are where much of the foren­sic anal­y­sis is done. For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, the area re­quires a se­cu­rity code and ap­pro­pri­ate ID to en­ter.

Within the first nar­row cor­ri­dor, a non­de­script glass dis­play case ex­hib­ited sam­ples of re­cov­ered flight recorders from past ac­ci­dents. The most strik­ing sam­ple for me was the old-tech­nol­ogy tape-style recorder from a ValuJet DC-9 that crashed in the Ever­glades just out­side of Mi­ami in May 1996. The bright-or­ange outer cas­ing of the recorder was bat­tered and dented al­most beyond recog­ni­tion, but some­how its data had been re­cov­ered.

I found it in­ter­est­ing that none of the rooms and labs we vis­ited of­fered an ob­vi­ous def­i­ni­tion of their pur­pose. They were well-or­ga­nized and tidy but Spar­tan in their ap­pear­ance. For in­stance, the room that housed the com­puter con­sole and mon­i­tor to run the pro­gram that in­te­grated flight-data in­for­ma­tion with cock­pit voice ac­tiv­ity also con­tained a myr­iad of dig­i­tal flight data recorder (DFDR) mod­els. The metal or­ange boxes were un­ob­tru­sively stacked on a rack of shelves.

The DFDR boxes are uti­lized as “sur­ro­gates” in the event the ac­ci­dent air­plane’s unit is un­us­able. Data is inserted into the op­er­a­ble sur­ro­gate and then read. Be­cause al­most all dig­i­tal elec­tronic de­vices have re­cov­er­able data, sur­ro­gates are kept for por­ta­ble GPS units, cell­phones and so on.

Af­ter vis­it­ing the lab­o­ra­to­ries, we had the op­por­tu­nity to visit the ROC, which is ba­si­cally the dis­patch cen­ter for co­or­di­nat­ing an ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Sur­pris­ingly, it is a con­tracted op­er­a­tion through Engility Corp. The space oc­cu­pied re­sem­bles that of a TV-news con­trol room. An ar­ray of video screens, com­puter con­soles, com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment and per­son­nel mon­i­tor the globe for any event that could in­volve the NTSB. Grant Bell, the ROC man­ager, in­di­cated that the goal is to have a strat­egy or­ga­nized be­fore the rest of the world even knows of an event.

For its rel­a­tive size com­pared to other gov­ern­ment agen­cies, the NTSB is an im­pres­sive op­er­a­tion. The motto in­scribed at the en­trance to its acad­emy, “From tragedy we draw knowl­edge to pro­tect the safety of us all,” is truly its mis­sion.

Hav­ing wit­nessed first­hand the ded­i­ca­tion of NTSB in­ves­ti­ga­tors amid an in­de­scrib­able tragedy, I agree.

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