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Remarks to the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide, Beaufort Teaching Site, Charleston, and Greenville Campus 2010 Commencement, Charleston, SC
Robert L. Sumwalt
Charleston, SC

Neil [Keifer], thank you for that kind introduction.

Graduates of Embry Riddle’s Class of 2010, congratulations! I am honored to be part of this special day aboard the historic USS Yorktown. I am privileged to serve as a Board Member on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). As many of you know, NTSB is an independent federal agency, charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine the probable cause, and issue safety recommendations to prevent future accidents.

We have a very experienced investigative staff. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our very experienced investigative staff isn’t getting any younger and fewer young people are investing in the skills necessary to take leadership roles in the future.  So I am particularly excited that you have chosen a career path in aviation.

To earn an undergraduate or graduate degree is a distinguished accomplishment under any circumstance.  But to achieve it as nearly all of you have while shouldering the workload of a full-time job in addition to your studies is a testament to your courage, character and conviction. You have paid “the upfront price,” and although the job market is very tight these days, I am optimistic that your perseverance and investment in higher education will pay off.

Tuesday night, I had the privilege of dinning with Embry-Riddle President John Johnson.  He cited a figure that I think you will find encouraging.  Ten years after graduation, according to Dr. Johnson, Embry-Riddle graduates have a salary that is, on average, 40 percent higher than other graduates in comparable positions. 

So as you begin this exciting next step in your lives, allow me to offer some simple words of guidance that have served me well.
In your chosen profession, do what you love, do it well, do it with passion, integrity, and professionalism.

Growing up, I assumed my path would lead me to become an engineer.  My grandfather was an engineer. My dad was an engineer.  Both had graduate degrees from MIT. My grandfather had been the dean of engineering at the University of South Carolina (USC). In fact, the engineering school at USC was named the Robert L. Sumwalt College of Engineering.

So, what do you think I thought I’d be?
There was just one problem; I didn’t want to be an engineer. And, frankly, calculus – well, let’s just say that although I finally made an A in it, it wasn’t on the first try.
My senior year in high school I started flying, so by the time I entered as a college freshman, I was hooked. Flying was my passion. Within a month of entering college, I convinced the dean of students that we needed a flying club.  I spent most of my time dealing with the flying club and working on my pilot ratings and certificates.

The good news was that I was building lots of flying time. The bad news was that those calculus grades weren’t getting any better. And, did I mention that chemistry was eating my lunch, also.

After a fairly unceremonious year in engineering, I summoned the courage to tell my grandfather that I wanted a career in aviation, not civil engineering.

I thought he would be disappointed, as if I was somehow letting the family down but he said to me, “Robert, the secret to life is very simple do what you love and do it with passion.”

He pointed out that people spend most of their lives at work, and if you’re not happy in your job, then you likely won’t be too happy in life. If you want to be a pilot, do it well. And with that I had “permission” to pursue my dreams, my own passion.  

Perhaps you, yourself, have struggled with a similar situation. Perhaps there are those in your family who have wondered why you didn’t follow the careers that others in your family have chosen. Perhaps there are those who may have wondered why you got into this “aviation thing,” and wondered what you’d do when you “grow up.” 

Well, what my grandfather told me that day in 1975 was the best advice I’ve ever been given, so I wanted to share it with you.

But, in addition to doing what you love and being passionate about it, there are 2 other elements of success - Integrity and Professionalism.

Integrity. Your integrity is your greatest asset. It is one of those key metrics that others will use to judge you, depending on the degree that you either have or don’t have.

The Honorable Andy Card was Secretary of Transportation during the George H.W. Bush’s administration, and he served as White House Chief of Staff for 6 years to President George W. Bush. Secretary Card is a USC engineering grad, and he often returns to Columbia where he has family. I heard him speak to a group about his experience serving two US Presidents. His speech was absolutely riveting. As we can imagine, no matter what the President of the United States does or says, there will always be critics.

But Secretary Card pointed, “Leaders have the courage to stand alone.” And as an airline pilot, as an aviation manager, and now as a NTSB Board Member, I have found it necessary to occasionally stand alone and I can tell you that it does take courage.  

As a captain, it took courage to refuse to take off in weather that I wasn’t comfortable with, when other airplanes were departing. As a board member, there have been occasions where I have been completely outnumbered by a 4 to 1 vote. It does take courage to stand alone.

But it is those moments when we choose to go against the grain, to stick to an unpopular stance, and take the heat that comes with it that we discover the calibration of our moral compass and find out what we’re really made of.

Wisdom is knowing the right path to take. Integrity is taking it. 

Professionalism. Over the past few years, the Safety Board has found a number of accidents where professionalism of transportation employees has been a factor in the accident. We see this in many transportation accidents not just aviation. But since this is an aviation crowd, I’ll focus on that.

Just four days ago the NTSB held a board meeting for a midair collision over the Hudson River involving a tour helicopter and a Piper Lance. The Safety Board determined that part of the probable cause was the Teterboro tower controller’s non-pertinent telephone conversation, which distracted him from his air traffic control duties.

He was on a phone call with a woman in airport operations. I’ve heard the conversation, and I can say it isn’t indicative of professionalism. It is sickening to hear that conversation, as you watch the radar images of those two aircraft converging. His phone call ended 4 seconds before the collision. Nine people lost their lives that day, in part because this controller was more interested in that phone call than doing his job professionally.

My second week at the NTSB began with my being launched to Lexington, KY for the Comair accident. As you will recall, the crew attempted to take off on a runway that was too short. Forty-nine lives were lost that day.

The NTSB found a factor in the accident was the crew’s noncompliance with standard operating procedures, including both pilots’ non-pertinent conversation that most likely created an atmosphere in the cockpit that enabled the crew’s errors. In short, unprofessional behavior.

Then was Colgan Air at Buffalo last year, and before that, Pinnacle Airlines 3701 at Jefferson City, MO. And others.

I remember one cockpit voice recording where the taxi checklist was conducted in a non-standard manner. The crew violated sterile cockpit regulations when taxiing out and a comment that really captured my attention was that after starting engines, the captain stated, “I’m ambivalent right now. I got six months to go.”

Perhaps an offhanded comment but when combined with other behavior in the cockpit, I can’t help wondering if this comment was, in fact, a true indication of how the captain approached his job on the day of the accident. Quite simply, he wasn’t mentally in the ball game when the emergency unfolded.

A hallmark of an aviator’s professionalism is insistence on strict adherence to procedures, checklist usage, and sterile cockpit compliance. This is not for the flights where everything goes right. Instead, it is for those flights when things go downhill and you need something to fall back on. You fall back on procedures, standard operating procedures, and discipline that have been practiced repeatedly over time. You insist on doing things this way so that when faced with an unfamiliar situation, you can fall back on procedures and discipline that are familiar to you.

So, yes, the NTSB has witnessed too many cases where professionalism was lacking, but we have also seen cases where the professionalism of the crew and controllers saved the day.
In the “Miracle on the Hudson,” for example, the NTSB praised the actions of the flight crew, the flight attendants, the air traffic controller, and the first responders.

And, to be clear, as one who flew for a living for almost 3 decades, I can say that the majority of the flights in this country do operate with high degrees of professionalism. But that strong commitment professionalism must be unwavering. It must be each and every day, each and every flight.   

Integrity and professionalism, they are essential ingredients in any occupation but especially important in aviation.

As I wrap up, I can’t help but note how befitting it is to hold this graduation ceremony aboard the USS Yorktown. From its commissioning in 1943 to its final anchoring here at Patriots Point nearly 3 decades later, the Yorktown saw action in nearly every corner of the globe; From Panama to Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima to Okinawa, and the Philippines to New Guinea.

Many of you will travel just as far and wide in your careers but as you stand on the brink of that great adventure, I hope you will remember that it’s not the quantity of the miles but the quality of the journey.

When you practice a profession that you love, and you do it with passion, with integrity, and with professionalism, you will have a worthwhile journey.

Thank you. Safe travels, Good luck, and may God Bless America.