In May 2015, the Honorable Robert Sumwalt stood in front of the media, political figures, bystanders and, sadly, family and friends of the deceased and injured, providing periodic updates during the aftermath of the tragic Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania which claimed eight lives and injured more than 200 others. During that press conference, like the countless others he has led, when the cameras are blinding and the questions are probing, Robert focused on reporting the facts and analyzing the details that helped him and his team uncover the cause of the accident. Robert is a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, originally appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006 (for a two-year term as NTSB vice chairman) and reappointed by President Obama in 2011. He is one of the five Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed NTSB board members. However, at present, there are only four board members.
The NTSB is an agency of approximately 430 people with a board of five. Board members are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate, emphasizing both the honor associated with such an appointment as well as the immense qualifications needed. When major transportation accidents occur, such as the tragedy in Philadelphia, the public needs to be reassured that an honest investigation is being conducted. “One of our core values is transparency,” says Robert. “Our business is about finding out what happened and about keeping it from happening again.”
Robert is a Columbia native and still calls this fine city his home. While he spends much of his time in Washington, D.C., his goal is to get home every other weekend. When Robert took his esteemed job with the NTSB in 2006, he was determined not to uproot the lives of Anne, his wife, and Mackenzie, his daughter. He felt the job was about him and didn’t think it was fair to make them move.
On the evening of Feb. 3, 2015, a 49 year-old woman was inching along a back road in Westchester County. Due to a traffic accident, cars were being detoured off of the Taconic Parkway, a major thoroughfare north of NYC, and onto this smaller road. Suddenly, rail crossing gates descended and struck the rear of the woman’s Mercedes SUV. Bewildered, she got out of her car, looked at the gates and then got back into her car. Seconds later, a commuter train slammed into her car at more than 50 mph. Not only did her car catch fire, but the entire first rail car was quickly engulfed in flames. The woman and five occupants of the first rail car perished. The NTSB team arrived in Westchester County early the next morning and began their work. While investigators are combing over the wheels of the train, Robert is looking at the right side of the SUV, trying to understand how a piece of rail pierced her car and ended up penetrating the rail car.
It’s this unselfish attitude that has garnered Robert such respect in his role. He is much less interested in focusing on himself and more interested in putting a spotlight on the tremendous work the NTSB does. While the board members are the face of the organization, there are dozens of investigators on the scene at every transportation accident working tirelessly to determine what happened and why. Having a board member serve as the spokesperson during these tragedies allows the investigators to work without interruption when time truly is of the essence. There is only one board member per accident, plus, they rotate weeks on the Go-Team.
For Robert, meeting with the family members who are unsure if their relatives are injured, deceased or are fortunate enough to have survived, is the hardest part of every investigation for him. “Having to inform family members about these accidents is so difficult and certainly has an effect on me,” says Robert. “I am only slightly eased in this process by knowing that I can tell them that we are going to find the truth about what happened.” The input of the NTSB runs far and wide, as the organization is consulted when planes — from large airliners to small airplanes — from the United States crash anywhere in the world, as well as certain rail, marine, pipeline and highway accidents.
Robert finds it very rewarding to know that the efforts of the NTSB can help prevent these problems from occurring again or, at the very least, can inform future decision makers concerning travel safety. Even though they will never know for certain what accidents didn’t occur because of their investigation, insight and input, the numbers speak for themselves. “It’s hard to see the accidents that never happened, of course,” says Robert. “But I read a statistic the other day that said if we had the accident rate we had in 1960, we would have one major airline crash every other day. The reality is that our industry has had an amazing record of airline safety over the past few years. Accidents are fewer and further in between. It’s not just the NTSB; a lot of things have come together to improve aviation safety.”
Being a part of the NTSB was a calling for Robert. By the young age of 17, he was already flying airplanes. As a freshman at the University of South Carolina, he would often find himself in the library reading NTSB accident reports. “I wanted to read these reports to help me become a better pilot,” recalls Robert. “But I also found it so fascinating that people could piece together the elements of an airplane crash and figure out its cause.” What some may find morose, Robert found riveting. He would return to those government documents again and again, not knowing then that what once was a lifelong dream would one day become reality.
Robert’s passion for studying those documents in the USC library served him well. Today, he is a very outspoken member of the NTSB and will not accept the obvious as being the answer. He wants to understand all of the factors that have come into play. He wants to push for not the superficial answer but, instead, to arrive at the underlying issues. Only then, he believes, can one truly get to the truth.
Robert’s road to the NTSB was literally paved in the sky. For 24 years, prior to becoming a member of the NTSB, Robert served as a pilot for US Airways (once Piedmont Airlines which merged with USAir to be US Airways, now American Airlines). During this time, he worked with the NTSB on a number of investigations, while also working in accident investigation and safety work along the way. “When I was a pilot, I thought, ‘This is the best job in the world,’ but I always secretly wanted to get appointed to the NTSB,” says Robert. “I think God had a plan.”
On Dec. 8, 2014, a private jet with three occupants crashed into houses in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. Here, Robert is speaking to one of the investigators before conducting his first press conference. He prefers to survey the scene himself before speaking to the media so he can describe the scene firsthand. Tragically, not only were the occupants of the plane fatally injured, but a mother and two young children (including an infant) died in one of the houses when a fire consumed their house.
Robert spends a week at a time on a Go-Team, where he must be ready to launch to an accident site at a moment’s notice. When he isn’t on a Go-Team, he attends board meetings where the investigative staff presents its findings after an accident has occurred. Each member individually reads the report, and then a public board meeting is held where the findings are delivered and discussed. All meetings are public, ensuring everyone has access to listen in.
Robert never misses a board meeting, as it is a critical function of his job — as is reviewing the team’s findings. The board members deliberately stay out of the investigation, as their job is to provide oversight of the investigative product while also providing a fresh set of eyes, so it is critical that the team remains objective and out of the proverbial weeds of the investigation.
“As a board member, there is always the challenge of wanting the investigation to go faster, while also giving the team enough time to do their jobs properly,” says Robert. “It’s a tough balance but one we must have to ensure the job is done well and done right.”
When Robert isn’t immersed in the reports or sharing the findings with the public, he can often be found at speaking engagements across the country. Robert’s experience, expertise and reputation have made him a much sought-after presenter. From aviation law symposiums to safety conferences, Robert can often be found sharing words of wisdom and advice. He is also very involved in advocacy work and frequently participates in media interviews on critically important topics, such as distracted driving. Robert also spends much of his time meeting with groups on safety issues, sharing valuable input and advice, all in an effort to make the country a safer place.
Robert believes it is important for someone to follow their interests and their passions. “Looking back on it now, I know I was following my passion,” he says. “I was always reading the accident reports and going to the library — learning more and reading more about it.” Robert’s thirst for knowledge never went dry. And while for many a job is a daily grind, for Robert, his vocation truly is his avocation. “I am living my hobby,” he says. Robert knows without a doubt that he is doing what he was meant to do in life and for that he is extremely grateful. And while most days on the job are very rewarding for Robert in his vitally important position, there is one occasion that is particularly fulfilling for him. “Completing a board meeting — when the board chairman gavels the meeting to a close, and we have finished an investigation and come out with recommendations that we know will improve safety is one aspect of this job … that is absolutely immeasurable,” says Robert.
While Robert never tires of his duties, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy some downtime every now and then. When he has it, he can be found spending time with his family and catching up on home improvement shows on HGTV. Relaxing or not, Robert’s focus on fixing things and making them better never takes a vacation.