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Remarks to Air Line Pilots Association, International Pilots Assistance Forum, Chantilly, VA
Robert L. Sumwalt
Chantilly, VA

“Assisting for a Safer System”

It’s a pleasure to be here this evening. I spoke at this forum ten years ago and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be back.

As you know, the theme for this year’s forum is “assisting for a safer system.” We both share that common bond – working to make our system safer.

At the NTSB, we are charged with investigating accidents so that we can learn from them and prevent future accidents. That’s how we work to improve safety.

You are making the system safer by helping pilots who could use a helping hand.

Think about that for a moment – saving lives.

That’s what you do – through your tireless efforts, lives are being saved.

What greater calling is there than that?

As an NTSB official, my speeches and presentations usually relate directly to what we do at the NTSB. In fact, when I was appointed to this position, I was told that when I speak to a group, what I say doesn’t reflect my personal opinion, but rather, I’m speaking on behalf of the agency.

Well, tonight I’m going off script. Although I can’t literally change who I am, tonight I’ll speak as a former ALPA air safety representative as one aviation professional to another.

Two days ago, I met with four flight attendants and a first officer. Several years ago, they were flying a widebody aircraft on an overwater flight, spending around eight hours on the same plane.

When they landed, the entire crew was removed by stretcher and taken to an emergency room.


They believe they were exposed to toxic engine fumes. You know – that oily “dirty socks” smell that many of us have occasionally smelled on our airplanes over the years.

As the captain later wrote: “As a result of the neurological damage from this exposure, I have been medically grounded by the FAA. I have lost my salary and my career. Other crew members suffering neurological damage as a result of that exposure have been unable to return to work as well.”

As I met with these crewmembers, they told me how their lives had been devastated. Four of the five flight attendants and both pilots were unable to return to work. Since the event, the captain reportedly grew more and more despondent over losing his career and the medical issues associated with his exposure to toxic fumes. This past fall, the captain took his own life.

I’m so pleased that ALPA aeromedical recognizes the seriousness of this issue and is working diligently with industry and government to ensure this hazard is properly addressed

Yes, ALPA pilot assistance representatives, you are saving lives.

Honestly, one of the things I’m the most proud of from my ALPA days is having been part of the formation of the ALPA Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP).

Mimi Thompkins was certainly the inspiration for getting the program started. I first met Mimi at the ALPA air safety forum in 1991. She was on a panel in front of about 350 strangers and told of the trauma that she experienced following her 1988 accident. As I listened to her I turned to the person next to me and said, “We must never allow this to happen to another of our members.” And, as Mimi stepped off the stage, I introduced myself and told her that I wanted to help her develop a program to help prevent the very trauma that she endured.

We had a slow start, but with the assistance of Captain Alan Campbell from Delta, the three of us developed the program. In May 1994, we took it to the ALPA Executive Board, where the Board unanimously passed a resolution to form the ALPA CIRP.

It is so rewarding to me to look back and see that 23 years later, this program is mature and doing well.

Whether we are crewmembers actively involved in an accident, or accident investigators, we are all subjected to having emotional trauma. As I have come to understand, our emotional response is a normal reaction to an abnormal event and CIRP helps provide emotional first aid. 
In my business of responding to transportation accidents over the years, I can tell you there are some pretty gruesome things to look at and, when listening to CVRs, to hear. I can speak firsthand to the value of having peers to talk to.

So, while I’m proud to have been part of founding the program, I’m even more proud to see what you’ve done with the program to allow it to flourish.

You have saved lives, and I thank you for what you’ve done.

Finally, substance abuse – drugs and alcohol. I’ve seen it in my family, and I would imagine that most everyone in this room as seen it somewhere in your family.

The ALPA HIMS program has a wonderful track record of dealing with alcohol dependency. But, our country is now facing an opioid addiction epidemic. 

The traveling public was rocked a few months ago when an airline pilot and his wife were found dead due to an opiate overdose. It brought home that this epidemic cuts across societal lines; it brought home that this epidemic can threaten the professional standing of airline pilots.

And, it further brought home the vital importance of your efforts to provide assistance to pilots who are facing substance abuse.

It is a success story that must continue – now, more than ever.

So, yes, your work saves lives.

But, as someone who has been working in the trenches for a long time to save lives, I confess there can be challenges. I know there can be trials and tribulations. I know there can be disappointments, setbacks, and frustrations.

How do I know? Because, I’ve been there.

I know from experience that when we care about saving lives as much as we all do, it can be frustrating when we feel our input is ignored; when we know there is more that can be done;
when we see things that should be changed, but aren’t; and when we feel others don’t care.

You may occasionally ask yourself: “Why do I keep doing this? Is it all worth it?”

Well, to answer that and keep it in perspective, let me share words that I’ve always found inspirational:

“And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

In other words, to make a significant difference, you don’t have to solve world hunger. You don’t have to find the cure for cancer. You only need to keep one person from getting into trouble. If you have done that, it is as if you have saved an entire world.

I realize that sometimes you may never receive the direct satisfaction of knowing that you have saved someone. But let me assure you … whether you are working CIRP, Professional Standards, HIMS, Aeromedical, Canadian Pilot Assistance …the work you are doing… it does matter; It does make a difference; It is important, and yes, it does save lives.

So, as one professional to another, I want to thank you for your tireless efforts.  I guarantee, your work is saving an entire world.

Thank you and keep up the great efforts!