National Transportation Safety Board member discusses career, recent alumna plane crash

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt spoke to MTSU aerospace students on Wednesday night about his 10 years of experience investigating crashes with the NTSB.

Sumwalt was appointed as the 37th member of the NTSB by President Bush in August of 2006 and was re-appointed in 2011 by President Obama after being a pilot for 32 years.

“I got started in aviation, literally, by accident,” he said. “It was Christmas time of 1973. There was a crash in my hometown, and I was curious. The coroner flew passed me so I followed him over there. I parked right behind him and walked up to the scene behind him. When the police officers lifted the yellow tape for him I tucked myself in close and followed him in there.”

A few weeks later he took his friend back to the scene to show him where the plane had crashed and on the way home they stopped at the airport and signed up for flying lessons. Sumwalt has now flown over 14,000 hours during his time as a pilot.

Sumwalt received his undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina, and as a freshman, he spent more time reading NTSB crash reports than doing accounting homework.

“I was fascinated by accident investigation and it was more fun than accounting so I read the NTSB crash reports,” he said. “As a pilot, I wanted to learn from the mistakes of others.”

On Aug. 18, 2005, the NTSB had an opening and Sumwalt sketched out his plan on a napkin. “How? How do you get the attention of the President of the United States?” he asked himself.  He began writing letters to Senators and in March 2006, Sumwalt got word that he was a potential nominee for the board, but first, he would have to go through a two-month long background check by the FBI, and he could not tell anyone about it. “And what’s the first thing I did after that?” he asked. “I called my wife.”

On June 6, 2006 Sumwalt became an official nominee to be the newest NTSB member, and he was sworn in on Aug. 21, 2006 after going through a Senate confirmation hearing.

“I had secretly dreamed of being on the NTSB since I was 18-years-old,” he said.

During his 10 years with the NSTB Sumwalt has worked many different types of crashes and was featured in the movie “Sully,” a 2016 film about the investigation surrounding the pilot who landed a plane in the Hudson River.

Sumwalt spoke to the aerospace students about the general operations of the NTSB and their investigations, as well as some crashes he has worked, including an air balloon crash that killed 16 people. According to Sumwalt, that is the deadliest crash the NTSB has been involved in for the last seven and a half years.

“The guy that was operating that balloon couldn’t legally drive a car because of four DUIs,” he said.

The NTSB was recently part of the investigation surrounding a plane crash that killed MTSU alumna Taylor Stone in September above an airfield in West Georgia.

The accident preliminary report recently released that Stone and a student pilot were traveling in a Diamond aircraft and the other plane involved was a Beech F33A. Both planes were traveling in the same traffic pattern, but the pilot operating the Beech aircraft did not appear to have broadcasted his intentions. According to the report, nearby airplanes that witnessed the accident said they heard Stone announcing the Diamond’s position calls in the traffic pattern prior to the crash.

“When there is any  kind of transportation accident, we learn about it through the media. We have our guys monitoring the media and they immediately say, ‘Hey guys there’s something going on out there,’ and once they notify us they coordinate with getting everybody in the right places,” he said.

Sumwalt explained that not every crash involves the large go-team that most people often think of. There are some instances in which they don’t respond or have the FAA gather information for them; they may send a regional officer to run the investigation locally; and in some circumstances, the large go-team is necessary.

“When we get there, the FBI and local law enforcement agencies are usually already there, and they’re usually glad to see us and hand the case off to us,” he said.

After discussing the deadly crash, Sumwalt emphasized the principles of professional disciple and integrity to the audience of aerospace students.

“Whether you’re in administration, professional piloting, airport management, whatever it is that you’re doing, insist on that professional discipline and integrity,” Sumwalt said.

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To contact News Editor Amanda Freuler, email

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