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Safety Spotlight: NTSB transition

Blue skies, tailwinds, and sincere thanks to the Honorable Robert Sumwalt

This summer, Robert L. Sumwalt III, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, will retire after 15 years with the NTSB.

Jennifer Homendy has been nominated by President Joe Biden and is expected to receive Senate confirmation to succeed Sumwalt. The transition is an important one for the world’s leading aviation accident investigation organization. Homendy will do well to build on the successes Sumwalt has championed while setting new strategies to deepen the NTSB’s influence.

Sumwalt departs as the second longest serving board member in the history of the NTSB and the longest serving member to also serve as chairman. A colleague once advised me the key to success in Washington, D.C., is to root for people on a personal level, even when you must work against any broad action they are advancing in the moment. Sumwalt mastered that approach. He can hold civil disagreements without belligerence. Even when we disagreed, I always felt he was still personally in my corner. I’m sure most people across the transportation sphere felt the same way. Which explains how he could navigate four presidential administrations from both sides of the political divide to hold uninterrupted appointments as member, vice chairman, and chairman for two consecutive terms.

I admired Sumwalt for his willingness to stand in the breach. We had numerous discussions, public and private, on aviation safety matters, some of which he knew would not be kind on the NTSB. He defended the NTSB vigorously at times. He also admitted NTSB missteps and struggled to move notoriously intransigent civil servants to act on reforms he knew were needed.

As safety-minded aviators, Sumwalt and I agreed on far more than we disagreed. We typically disagreed on the length government should go to mandate actions for GA safety. Sumwalt’s background in large airline and corporate operations inclined him to advocate for structure, restrictions, and oversight that I often felt would strangle GA without significant safety benefit.

No one can take full credit for the safety improvements across commercial and general aviation over the past 15 years. We witnessed a 10-year run in the airlines without a single fatality, and the GA accident rate dropped steadily to record low levels. Everyone involved can take some credit, and Sumwalt deserves his share.

Homendy is a former senior staffer on Capitol Hill and brings exceptional skill navigating Washington’s labyrinth. She showed a bit of her compassionate style and exhaustive work ethic leading the NTSB’s response to the Sikorsky accident that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others in 2020. If Homendy is confirmed, as with any senior leader transition, the NTSB change offers an opportunity for renewed energy and focus. Since the NTSB is fond of its biennial top 10 most wanted list, I’ll stay in that style with a most wanted list for Homendy’s term leading the NTSB:

  1. Stop the top 10 most wanted list. An arbitrary round number like 10 results in a few items that don’t belong on the list just to reach the number. It dilutes the credibility and thus the impact of a list intended to draw focus to the most pressing issues.
  2. Focus on improving the NTSB’s core mission: accident investigations. Over the last couple of decades, the number of fatal aviation accidents has dropped by more than half; meanwhile, the average time to complete an investigation has increased. The NTSB is investigating fewer accidents, with more resources, and taking longer to do it. Additionally, each investigator writes in their own format, which can result in them focusing on subjects they know the most about, leading to time-consuming tangents, not germane to the accident cause. Much of the safety strategy and materials used in industry begins with data and trends derived from NTSB reports. Accelerating work underway to standardize reports and release them more promptly would have a positive impact on GA safety.
  3. Stop the “one size fits all” recommendations in aviation. An owner-pilot commercial operator with one airplane hauling a single passenger to locations in Idaho is vastly different than a Part 135 commercial operator with multiple airplanes each carrying a half dozen or more tourists in Alaska. The risk to society is different and the regulatory oversight should reflect the public risk. The notion that every passenger paying seat should meet the safety standard of a Part 121 air carrier is unrealistic. It’s disingenuous to set such an expectation for the public.

Blue skies, tailwinds, and sincere thanks to the Honorable Robert Sumwalt. Welcome to the Honorable Jennifer Homendy and all the best in her confirmation. We’ll work with her to make the next 15 years in aviation safety even more impressive than the last.

Go fly.

Richard McSpadden

Senior Vice President of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden was appointed executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute in February 2017 and was promoted to senior vice president in July 2020. He currently leads a team of certified flight instructors and content creators who develop and distribute aviation safety material –free of charge— in order to advance general aviation safety industrywide. ASI distributes material through a dedicated YouTube channel, iTunes podcasts, Facebook, and a dynamic website. ASI material is accessed 12 million times annually. A native of Panama City, Florida, McSpadden started flying as a teenager and has logged over 5,000 hours flying a variety of civilian and military aircraft. McSpadden is a commercial pilot, CFII, MEI with SES, MES ratings and a 525S (Citation Jet Single Pilot) type rating. He taught his son to fly, instructed his daughter to solo in their Piper Super Cub, previously owned a 1950 Navion that was in his family for almost 40 years, and currently owns a 1993 Piper Super Cub. McSpadden holds a degree in Economics from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Public Administration from Troy University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Air War College. Prior to joining AOPA, McSpadden had a successful career in the information technology industry, leading large, geographically dispersed operations providing business-critical IT services. McSpadden also served in the Air Force for 20 years, including the prestigious role of commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team where he led over 100 flight demonstrations flying the lead aircraft. Additionally, McSpadden currently serves as the industry chair for the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee.

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