NTSB’s Sumwalt says his agency is no ‘villain’

Robert Sumwalt has served as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board since August 2006. He spoke Tuesday to the Wichita Aero Club.
Robert Sumwalt has served as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board since August 2006. He spoke Tuesday to the Wichita Aero Club. The Wichita Eagle

Robert Sumwalt doesn’t want himself or his employer portrayed as a “jerk” or “villains.”

That’s what the National Transportation Safety Board member told the Wichita Aero Club on Tuesday at its February luncheon at the DoubleTree by Hilton Wichita Airport.

Sumwalt, who has spent more than 10 years on the board of the federal group that investigates major transportation accidents, was referring to his and his agency’s portrayal as heavy-handed investigators in the recent movie “Sully.”

“Sully” focused largely on the aftermath of the Jan. 15, 2009, incident when a US Airways Airbus A320 piloted by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger encountered a flock of large birds shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Some of the birds were ingested by the jet’s engines, resulting in a nearly complete loss of power and prompting Sullenberger to ditch the plane in the Hudson River. All 150 passengers and five crew members survived.

“I chaired the hearing myself,” said Sumwalt, who said he and Sullenberger worked together for more than a decade earlier at US Airways, where Sumwalt was also a pilot.

“I know how it went … we treated (Sullenberger) with tremendous respect.

“And there were a lot of things in there that were so accurate … but there were so many things they missed with respect to the investigation and how the NTSB handled it. You know every movie needs a good villain, and the NTSB was the villain.”

But Sullenberger was only part of Sumwalt’s 30-minute presentation.

Sumwalt detailed about a half-dozen accidents he investigated, including the December 2014 crash of an Embraer Phenom 100 business jet in Maryland that killed the pilot, two passengers, and a mother and her two young children after the wing of the plane separated and crashed into their house.

He talked about the crash to demonstrate that Embraer includes voice and data recorders in its Phenom jets, which is not required but is helpful in crash investigations.

“We’ve got movers and shakers from Textron and Learjet right here in this room,” Sumwalt said. “And certainly we would love to see all aircraft manufacturers put in recorders in their aircraft, in some form or fashion.”

Sumwalt said that just days after he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the NTSB, he was sent to his first accident, the August 2006 crash of a Comair passenger jet in Lexington, Ky., that killed 49 people.

“I saw a girl who was 12, looked like she was about my daughter’s age, and I’d just left my daughter a few hours earlier and I was just about to lose it,” he said. “And (NTSB member) Debbie (Hersman) said, ‘Robert, we have to be strong for these people.’ 

Sumwalt said talking with victims’ families is probably one of the hardest parts of the job.

“I think God has used my body to speak because I’m not that strong emotionally,” he said. “To be able to stand up and do what I’ve needed to do, the way that I deal with it, frankly, is just knowing that our job is to find out what happened so that others don’t have to go through what they’ve gone through.”

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark