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Landsberg Helping NTSB Improve Safety in Multiple Ways

Bruce Landsberg is NTSB vice chairman, having joined the board in 2018. From 1992-2014 he was with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, where he was executive director of the Air Safety Foundation, then president of the AOPA Foundation and Air Safety Institute, conducting countless safety seminars. Earlier, Landsberg held safety-oriented positions with Cessna and FlightSafety International. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, he became a flight instructor and taught while earning a master’s in industrial technology from the University of Maryland. Landsberg has served on numerous government/industry committees promoting aviation safety, including the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee and NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System. He owns a Beechcraft Bonanza and has accumulated more than 7,000 hours of flight experience.

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Q: You’re a lifelong aviator with lots of lessons learned. What do you think helped you best prepare for your role at the NTSB?

Once one gets beyond the pure enthusiasm and adrenaline that infects every new pilot, the best words come from President Reagan: “Trust but verify.” The mistakes I’ve made in flying was when I didn’t follow that advice.

As for preparing for serving on the NTSB, it wasn’t something that I consciously sought. In retrospect, though, every position that I’ve held for the past 40 years was relevant.

Cessna, FlightSafety and AOPA’s Air Safety Institute were all focused on flying aircraft safely. Those jobs required some management background, a lot of public speaking, and the ability to analyze and communicate safety data. Those are requisite skill sets for NTSB positions.

Having served on several boards and reported to others provided me with a great perspective on interpersonal interaction. Being prepared, asking lots of questions and being willing to change your mind based on solid data are all essential for anyone in a management position.

It’s also about being pragmatic to get things done. Receiving credit is far less important than achieving results.

Q: Can you give us some takeaways from your time as NTSB vice chairman? Also, what are the best ways for the business aviation community to share feedback and insight with the NTSB?

The NTSB is a small agency by government standards and comparatively nimble. It’s easy to find the person who’s responsible for something.

While there are often robust differences of opinion, the data speaks for itself. Politics has no place in aviation, which is the only reason I chose to come on the board. That’s an odd thing to say as a presidential appointee, but in transportation safety, we see the results of failing to learn from the past. Crashes occur on a bipartisan basis, so it’s easy to stay above the political fray.

Regarding industry providing input to the NTSB, open communication is always the best. All the board members are happy to hear from associations about issues of concern.

Likewise, we need the aviation associations’ ability to reach into the community to get the safety message out. NTSB has limited resources, so we must rely on the community to bring attention to problem areas and potential solutions.

“In transportation safety, we see the results of failing to learn from the past.”

Q: Among the priorities you identified for your next term at the safety board, you mentioned NOTAM enhancements. NBAA and its members are very interested in this topic, especially in a digital age. What improvements would you like to see?

The NOTAM system has been a work-in-progress for several decades, and we almost had a big NOTAM-related problem one night in San Francisco a couple of years ago. One of the parallel runways was closed and a fatigued airline crew nearly landed on the parallel taxiway, which was occupied by several other airliners. The crew missed seeing the NOTAM about the closed runway – twice – because the information was buried in many pages of other NOTAM minutia. We have a meeting with FAA later this year, and we hope they’ve made substantial progress on this issue.

As former FAA Associate Administrator Nick Sabatini put it, “If everything’s important, nothing’s important.”

The ability to sort by relevance is essential. An unlit tower 10 miles from the airport at 300 feet agl is probably not important to a typical fixed-wing pilot, but it could be critical for an EMS helicopter operator, a pipeline or power line patrol crew, or an ag applicator.

Sometimes, it appears that the main concern in publishing certain information is avoidance of liability, instead of operational necessity. When the list becomes cumbersome, important things get lost.

“Increasing the quantity and quality of PIREPs is another priority. Weather and forecasting continue to be one of the biggest safety and economic challenges facing aviation.”

Increasing the quantity and quality of PIREPs is another priority. Weather and forecasting continue to be one of the biggest safety and economic challenges facing aviation.

For weather-intolerant light aircraft, good forecasts, “nowcasts” and appropriate Airmets are critical to safe flight.

For the airlines, having more accurate three- and four-day forecasts will help them tremendously in scheduling.

The current system is cumbersome and ineffective. The National Weather Service is hungry for many more PIREPs and promises more accurate forecasts and Airmets to benefit all of aviation and the country at large.

The solution is crowdsourcing, possibly through electronic flight bags or some other inexpensive system. FAA and industry are both working on “WAZE for pilots” that will increase the number of inflight weather observations tremendously. Weather creates delays, diversions and causes flights to be canceled when they could have been flown. Or it may encourage the unwary to fly when they shouldn’t.

Another NTSB priority is improving the timeliness of accident reports. With some crashes, it’s obvious what happened, and those reports should be expeditiously published. Others can be complex, which involves more investigation and research. Those will take longer, but we agree that quality will not be compromised.

Quick Poll

How often do you file PIREPs when you encounter hazardous weather?

Q: NBAA and the NTSB each develop an annual list of top safety concerns. As you look to the future, do you see new safety issues emerging that could find their way onto the NTSB’s safety list?

The big items do not change much year-to year.

Distraction and fatigue are two areas where there’s a great opportunity to improve both safety and efficiency. They affect all of us, and humans are notoriously poor at self-evaluation.

Complacency is also one of the biggest challenges – it can affect anyone, at any time, in any transportation mode. It’s difficult to measure, especially after a crash. We only look at the symptoms, with checklist discipline and procedural shortcuts being the two most obvious ones.

One item that should take center stage is human factors in automation. It goes hand-in-hand with the degradation of flying skills, as many pilots become over-reliant on automation.

The Boeing 737 MAX tragedy brought that home, and we’ve seen it in a number of other crashes. That’s an entire conversation itself, but the complexity of modern aircraft can overwhelm crews under the right circumstances. I think we can do better.

“Distraction and fatigue are two areas where there's a great opportunity to improve both safety and efficiency.”

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