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"Aviation Safety: We Are Our Brother's Keeper" International Aviation Club of Washington DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
"Aviation Safety:  We Are Our Brother's Keeper" International Aviation Club of Washington DC

Thank you, Natalie (Hartman), for that gracious introduction. And, thank you, for inviting me to join this distinguished group.

We began today by remembering Andy Steinberg. Let me offer my condolences to you, his aviation family. In reading about him in The Washington Post, I was struck by his achievements. But, the last paragraph was really the measure of the man:

... a past president of the International Aviation Club ... He also volunteered for a Boy Scout troop ... and was a co-instructor for the aviation merit badge.

How you spend your time off the job speaks volumes. That Andy could lead delicate international negotiations, articulate the finer points of the law, and then come home to work with Boy Scouts on the rigorous requirements of an aviation merit badge. Well, as the mother of a Boy Scout, that is tremendous testimony to his character — and to his priorities.

Last week, we at NTSB also suffered a loss. The mid-air collision of two GA planes in Northern Virginia, hit close to home.

We investigate hundreds of GA accidents each year, but this one took the life of our chief medical officer, Dr. Mike Duncan. Before Mike joined the Board, he had an impressive career at NASA ... which included working in Star City, Russia, with U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts preparing for the sixth launch to the International Space Station ... as well as leading the team that went to Chile in 2010 to support the rescue of 33 trapped miners.

Andy and Mike — both lives well lived, lives characterized by looking after others — that captures exactly the point I want to make today: In accident investigation and in aviation safety, we are our brother's — and, of course, our sister's — keepers.

Today, as we work together across boundaries to learn what caused an accident to prevent future ones, we are doing even more world-wide to help those whose lives are affected by them. This is why the growing move to provide family assistance after an accident is so important.

Congress passed the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act in 1997. The act requires all part 129 carriers to have detailed response plans for a fatal accident in the United States and it gave NTSB responsibility to coordinate family assistance with the carrier and other organizations, such as the Red Cross and local coroners.

We take these responsibilities seriously, as must the carriers. It is the law. It is also the right thing to do.

Several countries have enacted family assistance legislation. In 2010, the European Union included family assistance in its regulations harmonizing accident and incident investigation. These regulations directly affect the 27 member states, as well as all of the countries operating aircraft within the EU.

On a broader scale, ICAO is developing new initiatives to support families. We were honored to be asked to support these efforts along with Hans Ephraimson-Abt, who is here today.

The current focus — being supported by an international and interdisciplinary team — is to create a policy document on family assistance. The new policy document, which should be ready for the 2013 Assembly, will level the playing field for family assistance.

We applaud ICAO for its leadership in this area.

At the same time we are doing more to help those affected by accidents, we are working more effectively across boundaries to learn their causes ... so we can prevent future accidents.

Yes, in safety, we are our brother's keeper.

International relationships have brought major improvements in the U.S. safety record and have helped raise safety standards around the world for billions of air travelers.

As you know, ICAO Annex 13 authorizes the state of occurrence to lead the investigation and others to participate. In foreign investigations, an NTSB investigator is designated as the U.S.-accredited representative. That representative then leads a U.S. team of technical advisors.

It's clear that multi-national interests lead to multi-national investigations. Accidents can occur anywhere in the world involving U.S. operators and U.S. equipment. Likewise, accidents may happen on U.S. soil, but involve foreign interests. The "Miracle on the Hudson" involved US Airways, Airbus, and engines produced by CFM, a joint venture between U.S. and French companies.

Our investigators have supported thousands of foreign investigations. The support can range from assistance in our lab to investigators assisting on scene and in the months that follow. Over the past year, we've examined more than 125 recorders in our lab — of those about 30 percent were from foreign investigations. The recorders from Sunday's deadly Dana Air crash in Nigeria are on their way to our lab.

In fact, the majority of the fatal air carrier accident investigations the NTSB works on each year are non-U.S. events. One of our investigators — Dennis Jones — spends about half of his time supporting Safe Skies for Africa. Dennis is in Lagos right now.

Our investigators have been called to a wide range of accident sites — from an Afghanistan mountaintop, to the middle of the Amazon, and everywhere in between. Yes, first and foremost, they are aviation safety experts, but, in many ways our investigators serve as diplomats for the United States.

Take the 2005 accident that killed John Garang, newly appointed Vice President of the Sudan. His appointment came out of a peace agreement brokered by the U.S. government to end the decade-long war between North and South Sudan. Garang was traveling in the Ugandan presidential helicopter after a meeting with the Ugandan President. Everyone on board perished in the crash. Understandably, emotions ran high, fueling rumors of sabotage and terrorism.

Our investigators, sent as technical advisors, were soon asked to stay and help complete the investigation. Both governments ratified the accident report, which pointed to flying VFR in bad weather. So, while we initially launched to provide limited assistance, we may have helped prevent a war.

Yes, so many times there's so much more to accident investigation than recorder readouts, reconstructing the wreckage, and radar returns.

Time after time, the safety benefit from the NTSB's involvement is clear. It is immediate. This is because U.S. stakeholders, including the FAA and manufacturers, are able to see — firsthand — and identify a safety issue overseas before we see it here at home.

Take the 2007 accident in Japan — after taxiing in an engine fire erupted on a China Airlines 737. The fire quickly began to engulf the airplane and led to a fuel tank explosion. Fortunately, everyone got off safely.

The NTSB team helped identify the cause of the fuel leak that led to the fire. Within a week of the accident, the FAA and two other national authorities issued emergency Airworthiness Directives.

That's just one of many examples of the benefits of our participation in foreign accident investigations.

And, often, we are on the receiving end of international cooperation.

For example, three years ago, a Pilatus airplane, carrying three families headed for a ski vacation, crashed in Montana. All 14 onboard perished. Uncovering the accident's cause was a major challenge for our investigators — no survivors, no recorders, no documented distress calls, and completely destroyed wreckage.

For months, our team doubted they could solve this puzzle. Yet, the answer was found with the help of our counterparts.

One of our investigators sifted through the wreckage to find a circuit board. He believed one of its tiny computer chips — so small it could rest on his fingertip — would provide much-needed information.

And it did — with the help of our Swiss and German counterparts. In their labs, they extracted crucial data that led to the probable cause. That, in turn, led to safety recommendations to prevent future accidents.

All of this is to say — and it is something that you, as members of the International Aviation Club know full well — aviation is a community. We may be global or regional, we may be large or small, we may be seasoned hands or just starting out, but we are safer and more successful when we work together.

Even taking into account varying judicial systems, levels of transparency and privacy protections, and acknowledging different cultural and political priorities between nation states, there are just too many benefits and safety improvements that can be gained from working across borders.

IATA predicts that in two years the world's airlines will carry 3.3 billion passengers — that's nearly one-half of the world's population.

That's just the airlines. Air travel is expanding to space. The Space X craft successfully splashed down last week and Virgin Galactic is on track for its first flight later this year.

It's our responsibility — across the community and around the world — to ensure the high standards of aviation safety — of aerospace safety — are not just maintained ... but are improved.

In closing, I began my remarks talking about the mid-air collision that killed Mike Duncan. The other pilot, who survived the crash, is an FAA accident investigator. Because the airplanes were operated by NTSB and FAA employees, we were concerned about conducting a truly independent accident investigation.

After consulting with FAA Acting Administrator Huerta, I called Chair Tadros of Canada's Transportation Safety Board. I asked TSB to take the lead in this investigation. As difficult as that call was, it was because of the international work of the Safety Board — because of our relationships — that the call was easier to make.

And, it was the right call.

As I look around the room today, I see so many members of aviation's global family — regulators, airlines, manufacturers, labor, and more. You know as well as anyone that in safety we are our brother's keeper.