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Remarks at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Twenty-Second Aviation Law and Insurance Symposium, Orlando, Florida
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Twenty-Second Aviation Law and Insurance Symposium, Orlando, Florida

Thank you, Gary [Allen], for that kind introduction. And thank you for inviting me to say a few words tonight. As you may recall, Member Sumwalt and our General Counsel, Gary Halbert, have each keynoted this event in previous years. Both of them strongly urged me to join you tonight – and when Robert and Gary make a suggestion, I do everything I can to follow it, but I'm not sure I'll impress you as much as Judge Mullins.

2010 was a productive year for the Safety Board. We now have a full Board with five strong and very engaged members. We are working hard to support our staff as they continue the tradition of meticulous accident investigations, and as a team we are also leaning forward to advance our transportation safety mission with accountability, integrity and transparency. To that end, last year in the aviation area, we completed several major accident reports. Among them:

  • The Continental Connection crash near Buffalo, New York,
  • The "Miracle on the Hudson" US Airways ditching,
  • The Continental flight 1404 runway excursion in Denver,
  • The midair collision between a private airplane and a helicopter over the Hudson River,
  • The Learjet overrun in Columbia, SC, and
  • The crash of a firefighting helicopter near Weaverville, CA.

We also held public forums on the professionalism of pilots and air traffic controllers in aviation, the practice of code-sharing, and child passenger safety. Our rail, pipeline, marine and highway divisions were similarly productive.

Although I have been a Member of the Safety Board for over 6 years, it wasn't until I became Chairman that I truly appreciated the integral role of the NTSB in the realm of international aviation safety. I was part of the US delegation to the International Civil Aviation Organization's High Level Safety Conference last March and the 37th General Assembly in September. Through my involvement at ICAO and other aviation venues, I can tell you that our international counterparts often look to us for consultation and, more importantly, leadership in promoting transportation safety.

Although we are seeing historically low US passenger accident rates, in the past decade the Safety Board provided support in nearly 400 foreign investigations and launched to 77 of them. That is why, in my second year as Chairman, I am committed to strengthening our international relationships.

Previously, the Safety Board's investigative workload was focused on major air carrier accidents in the US, rather than overseas events. However, in 2005 the tide turned and we launched to 15 foreign and 6 major domestic accidents, and the trend of more foreign than major domestic accident launches is continuing.

So, one of my priorities as Chairman is to identify for our constituents the many safety benefits of NTSB participation in these investigations and to bring home the lessons learned from these foreign accidents.

To give you a sense of the extent of our foreign activities, about 75% of the air carrier accident and incident investigations conducted by the NTSB each year now are non-US events. And of our seven Investigators-in-Charge, one spends almost half of his time in Africa.

Let me tell you about his work on the 2005 accident that tragically killed then-Vice President of the Sudan, John Garang, who was formerly the leader of South Sudan. He had only been in his position of Vice President for two weeks before the crash; his appointment came out of a peace agreement brokered by the US government to end the decade-long war between North and South Sudan. The crash occurred while Garang was returning from a meeting with the President of Uganda flying on the Ugandan presidential helicopter with a crew from the Ugandan military.

Understandably, after the accident, emotions ran high, fueling rumors of sabotage and terrorism and concerns of another civil war. Our investigators served as technical advisors to help with victim identification, recovery and readout of the flight recorders, and to determine whether explosive devices were involved. As a result of the investigators outstanding work, the Ugandan/Sudan and US governments requested that they extend their stay and complete the investigation. Both the Sudanese and Ugandan governments ratified the accident report. So, while we initially launched to provide "technical assistance," we may have also helped prevent another civil war.

When we get a call about a foreign accident, there are often complex political issues and travel logistics. Our team must obtain country clearance from the Department of State and visas before they can launch.

Safety and security are not usually issues in a domestic launch, but consider the 2005 launch to Afghanistan after the loss of Kam Air Flight 904, a Boeing 737. The team traveled by armored helicopter with armed military escorts to the accident side, which was atop an 11,000 foot mountain peppered with land mines in freezing conditions. You can imagine that this type of work is not necessarily what civilian employees (or their families) planned on.

ICAO Annex 13 authorizes the state of occurrence to lead the investigation and others, such as the states of manufacture and design or registry, to participate. In foreign investigations, an NTSB investigator is designated as the US-accredited representative. They lead a US team of technical advisors which often includes the FAA, manufacturers, operators and labor unions.

While our investigators may not be diplomats by title, they are diplomats through their actions, as they work alongside people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Last year, NTSB investigators traveled to Dubai to support a United Arab Emirates investigation. They arrived at a desert crash site in 120 degree temperatures during the month of Ramadan, which is when many Muslims refrain from eating or drinking between sunup and sundown. Out of respect for our colleagues, NTSB investigators did their best to follow suit. Those circumstances were definitely not something contemplated by our OSHA committee.

Investigating an accident on non-US soil can present a unique set of challenges. When our international partners cannot conduct their own investigation or need additional support, we can provide the necessary technical expertise to assist them. We do this regularly in our recorders lab as well; about a third of our recorder workload involves devices from foreign accidents. In some instances, we are goodwill ambassadors for the US and in other circumstances we can be the honest brokers of factual information and the neutral arbitrators of conflict.

In these foreign investigations, the US stakeholders – the NTSB, as well as the FAA and the manufacturer and/or operator of the aircraft – are in a position to see, first-hand, potential airworthiness issues with US products. This, in turn, provides us at the Safety Board with the information we need to make recommendations to address safety deficiencies.

For example, we worked alongside Spanish investigators on the August 2008 Spanair crash during takeoff in Madrid. Investigators quickly determined that the MD-82's leading edge slats and trailing edge flaps were not extended during takeoff. In coordination with the Spanish investigative team, the NTSB issued five safety recommendations citing areas for improvement in US certification standards for take-off warning systems as well as operational procedures for addressing take-off configuration errors.

Another example involves the crash of a British Airways Boeing 777 airplane during landing at London's Heathrow Airport in January 2008. Through our participation in the British-led investigation, investigators identified vulnerabilities in the airplane's Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines that resulted in the restriction of fuel supply to both engines. As a result, the NTSB, in concert with our British colleagues, issued two safety recommendations addressing the design of the engine's fuel-oil heat exchanger.

Most of you have travelled outside the United States, and you likely travelled on a foreign air carrier by choice or through a code-sharing arrangement. Our work makes your flights on all carriers safer. Further, our participation in foreign investigations helps to ensure the safety of US products and aviation-related equipment, which are marketed worldwide

Finally, our participation in foreign-led accidents also ensures reciprocal support when foreign equipment or foreign air carriers are involved in an accident here in the US. Our investigation of the Continental Connection 3407 crash and the Miracle on the Hudson ditching both involved foreign designed and manufactured airplanes, and the NTSB's investigation benefited greatly from the support we received from our Canadian and French counterparts in understanding the performance of the aircraft during the accident.

Throughout these foreign investigations, we always try to keep our focus on the big picture. We continually ask: Are we advancing aviation safety? And does our work serve the American public? The answer to both questions is an unequivocal "yes". Through our investigations, we help drive further improvements in the US safety record. Ultimately, my hope is that our work will result in expectations for the safety of international air travel on par with what we have in the United States.

Thank you.