Sumwalt served on the NTSB under three presidents: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. He began his NTSB tenure in 2006, served as a vice chairman, and became the fourteenth chair of the NTSB in 2017.
The ERAU distinguished fellow shared his background and some of the inner workings of the NTSB during an AOPA Pilot Lounge video with Richard McSpadden, head of the AOPA Air Safety Institute.
“I say that I got into aviation by accident and that’s true,” Sumwalt told McSpadden. When he was 17, the University of South Carolina student learned on the radio of an aviation accident and drove to the site nearby. When the coroner lifted the yellow caution tape to enter the area, Sumwalt ducked under it, too, “and there I was on the scene of a fatal King Air crash.” He soon signed up for flying lessons, earned his certificates and ratings, and then served as a flight instructor “all through college.”
Sumwalt’s aviation experience includes a 24-year flying career with Piedmont Airlines and US Airways. He accumulated more than 14,000 hours on the flight deck and served as a flight quality assurance monitor for the airline.
Following his commercial aviation career, Sumwalt managed a corporate aviation department in the business sector, consulted with NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, chaired the Air Line Pilots Association’s critical incident response program, co-founded an ALPA human factors and training group, published more than 100 articles on aircraft safety and accident investigation, and co-authored a book on aircraft accidents.
The university previously described Sumwalt as a “fierce advocate for improving safety in all modes of transportation.”
Safety issues related to unmanned aircraft systems, advanced air mobility technologies, and human-machine or machine-to-machine interfaces are some of the examples of the initiatives Sumwalt may be called upon to help coordinate. Additional tasks may include safety assessments of alternative fuels, safety considerations for virtual reality training, overseeing implementation of new technologies that may include artificial intelligence, and more.
“By joining the world’s leading aviation and aerospace institution, my goal is to continue making human mobility as safe as possible,” Sumwalt said. “I’m excited about this opportunity and I look forward to cultivating transformative partnerships with government and industry.”
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University President P. Barry Butler said that Sumwalt’s “deep knowledge of aerospace safety issues and his professionalism and commitment to excellence make him an ideal leader of this much-needed new enterprise.”