Sumwalt's Passion Is Finding Out Why Planes Crash
By: Jim Hodges

Aircraft safety has been personal for Robert Sumwalt since he was a teenager in South Carolina, riding around, listening to a car radio and learning of a plane crash nearby.

"I remember thinking I'm going to go out and find this crash," said Sumwalt, just before he delivered the March Colloquium address on Tuesday in the Reid Conference Center at NASA Langley. "It was a King Air, and there were three fatalities. I ended up finding the plane crash.

"I took my friend out to the crash site a few weeks later, and like a couple of 17-year-olds with no sense, on the way back we stopped by the airport and signed up for flying lessons."

From that day, through the next year, sitting on the floor of the University of South Carolina library as a freshman, reading crash reports; to a career spent flying for old Piedmont Airlines and then USAir; to being appointed to the National Transportation Safety Board, Sumwalt has indulged a passion.

Robert Sumwalt, NTSB, March '10 Colloquium.

Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, takes an Reid Conference Center assembly through an investigation of a plane crash of a year ago. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith.

With that in mind, he spent time Tuesday talking about "An Insiders Look at Aircraft Accident Investigation."

The chief example he used has been called the "Colgan Flight." It's the crash of a De Havilland Dash 8-400 into a home near the Buffalo, N.Y., airport that killed 44 passengers, five crew members and a person on the ground on Feb. 12, 2009.

It had taken off from Newark 52 minutes earlier.

"I believe the accident will be a watershed event for aviation for a lot of reasons," Sumwalt said, then went into an analysis of contributing factors.

Chief among them was the conversation between the pilot and first officer that the NTSB said interfered with operations to prevent the crash.

"I think the thing that's most disturbing to me about the Colgan accident is that it really was a case where the pilots were not paying attention to what they were doing," Sumwalt said. "It was as if the flight was simply a means for the captain to conduct a conversation with that young first officer."

Both were tired, the board has found. There was ice on the tail section of the airplane, but not enough to cause the accident. After the investigation, the NTSB made 25 recommendations, most involving human interaction among the crew on board commercial airplanes.

Investigations can be stark.

"Listening to a cockpit voice recorder is one of the most difficult things I have to do, other than talking to families," Sumwalt said. "It's difficult listening to people … talking about their dreams and what they want to do in life, and you know how this thing is going to end. If you've got a timeline, you get a countdown and you listen with a knot in your stomach, knowing that in just a few more minutes these people are going to be dead."

It's part of the job, just as it was on his eighth day with NTSB, when he was called to investigate the Comair crash at Lexington, Ky., in which a plane used the wrong runway, one that was too short to take off. That crash killed 47 passengers and two of three crew.

And just as it was in investigating a good-news story: the Hudson River ditching of USAir Flight 1549, in which quick action by pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger saved all 155 on board when the airplane ingested birds on takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport.

"I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly of aviation," Sumwalt said. "I've lost friends and relatives have been in plane crashes. It really, I do think it really is a calling and something I do hope I can make a difference in."

NASA's role in aviation safety is acknowledged. Langley has played a major role in investigating accidents, and work on aviation safety done by center employees was acknowledged in a Collier Trophy award.

"I know the aeronautics portion of NASA seems to have diminished over the years," Sumwalt said. "As someone who was in the industry, relying heavily on NASA work, human factors work coming out of Ames (Research Center), icing work coming out of Glenn (Research Center) and other work coming out of Langley, I personally hope to see the aeronautics portion of NASA being strengthened.

"The work NASA has done over the years concerning safety is valuable. That's my personal opinion."

That role is at least partly education, and that's a major part of airplane safety.

"I think as soon as we think we can stop learning, something's going to bite us," Sumwalt said. "I think it's important, especially in the aeronautics industry and the transportation industry as well, to never feel like we're there. It's a journey. We don't want to let our guard down and get complacent."


The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Keith Henry