The Hon. Bruce Landsberg Vice Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
Ron Timmermans: Hello, I’m Ron Timmermans from Orlando, Florida, a ground and flight training instructor for the Bonanza Baron Pilot Training program, or BPT. Thank you for joining us for this BPT TAKEOFF interview.
Today, I’m pleased to host a conversation with the Honorable Bruce Landsberg, Vice Chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Bruce has one of the most recognizable names in the aviation industry. For more than 20 years he served our pilot population while working at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, eventually chairing the AOPA Foundation and Air Safety Institute until he retired in 2014. This organization, as you recall, was dedicated to improving safety for general aviation.
Since leaving the AOPA, Bruce Landsberg received a Presidential appointment to the National Transportation Safety Board in 2018. And is now the Vice Chairperson of the NTSB. And as many of you know, Bruce is an avid general aviation pilot and instructor, and he flies a beautiful Beechcraft Bonanza. Bruce has attended the Bonanza Baron Pilot Training Program on numerous occasions over the years, and has registered for another BPT clinic in Norfolk, Virginia. Bruce joins me now for a conversation sharing his unique perspective and insights on several topics of interest to all general aviation pilots. Bruce, thanks for joining me today.
Bruce Landsberg: Well, thank you, Ron. It’s my great pleasure to be talking to many of my friends whom I’ve flown with over the years. In fact, it’s over 50 years now. I just got the Wright Brothers Master Pilots Award, which just basically means I’m old and have managed to avoid the clutches of the FAA, most of the time.
Ron Timmermans: Speaking of the FAA, Bruce, that is a good segue to what I wanted to ask you to begin with. Now, most pilots, of course, are familiar with the Federal Aviation Administration, its regulation; the Airman Certification Standards; the FAASTeam; the Wings Program. But few of us know just what the NTSB is and does, except for maybe the investigations of horrific accidents. Can you share more about the NTSB mission, its relationship with the FAA and your role as its Vice Chairman?
Bruce Landsberg: I’d be happy to. So, the first thing we’ll talk about is our relationship and kind of how the NTSB is structured.
We are not a regulatory organization. That’s the FAA. Our role is strictly to investigate accidents and then provide recommendations to the regulatory agencies, the industry, individual pilots, whatever we think, so we can help to prevent all of these things from happening again.
Our relationship with the FAA, I think is best described as sort of love and hate. We love them when they adopt our recommendations when we make them — and we’re not totally happy with them when they seem to drag things out. You can have a difference of opinion on whether a particular recommendation makes sense. Our role is to strive for the best safety we can get. And we are not encumbered by the Office of Management budget requirements or anything related to cost-effectiveness.
Now, as an owner, I have an approach-avoidance conflict here because on the one hand, we want to be safe. On the other hand, I want to be able to continue to afford being able to fly. So, we have to kind of strive for a balance there.
One of the areas that we have a great interest in, and we have made several recommendations to the FAA is on the Notices to Airman [NOTAM] System, which everybody just loves — or loves to hate.
I’d like to share a short presentation with you on an incident that happened a couple of years ago that resulted in a major investigation. So let me go ahead and bring up my screen here and we’ll take a look at that.
So again, just a quick recap: Our role is to look at what happened, understand why it happened and to make recommendations and perhaps most importantly, and the part that I particularly enjoy is to work on the idea of preventing future occurrences, and that’s advocacy.
Here’s a little quiz for you, Ron: “When the weight of the paper equals the weight of the airplane only then can you go flying.” Who said that? Do you have any idea?
Ron Timmermans: I don’t recall, but I do remember that formula, yes.
Bruce Landsberg: I think we’re all afflicted with it. It was actually Donald Douglas who has had some background in building a number of airplanes. And when it comes to Notices to Airmen, I would say that’s probably the case.
One of my favorite rules, 91.103, Pre-flight Action, says each pilot in command shall before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information. Well, that’s a pretty tall order to do.
Here’s a flight that I typically make between Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and the DC area. I refer to them as “Swamp South” and “Swamp North” – and you can draw whatever conclusions from that, as you wish.
Over on the left-hand side of your screen, you will see the NOTAMS of a recent briefing I got along here and you can see there’s a total of 712 NOTAMS on this, which works out to about 1.65 NOTAMS per nautical mile. I didn’t realize our airspace was in such dire straits that we had to do this. We don’t need to belabor the point other than say, this is a bit of a challenge.
Here was one that I picked out of my particular route here. And this could probably be stated more succinctly, but there’s a lot of important stuff that’s embedded in here and I want to just very quickly take you through that.
There’s a thing in there about from Fayetteville VOR on the 286-degree bearing, at 24 nautical miles. So, I’ve roughly plotted that out to show you where whatever is happening is going to happen. What the NOTAM says is that GPS is not going to be available.
So, this is the radius, which is a rather large one at 113 nautical miles at 7,000 feet. And you can see that covers a significant portion of my planned route. So I have no GPS navigation; I have no ADSB; no RNAV; no weather; no traffic. In the immortal words of a number of people, “Have a nice day!”
This can be challenging, at best, when all of this works – and none of the stuff on your panel is going to be able to tell you anything. You’re going to be back to VOR. And boy, I tell you, it’s hard to do that. So keep that in mind, as you look at your NOTAMs.
I would now like to show you a highlight of a major investigation that we did that occurred a couple of years ago in San Francisco. Can you see the cursor on the screen here? Okay. San Francisco has two parallel runways, 2-8 left and 2-8 right. And Air Canada flying an Airbus 320 was cleared to land on 2-8 right. And this occurred right around midnight or just after midnight, so it was dark outside.
There’s a parallel taxiway that gets everybody out to the runway. That’s taxiway Charlie. And on taxiway Charlie, there were 4 airliners ready to go. So, this is kind of the setup that happened. Runway 2-8 left was closed and it had been in the NOTAMs that it was closed.
Here is what the tower saw on video camera. I’ve blocked out the bottom because there’s a lot of extraneous stuff there, but the green circle up there shows Air Canada, making the approach. The red line here is showing taxiway Charlie and a bunch of aircraft lined up. And there’s a yellow arrow that I draw your attention to.
Here you can see Air Canada making their approach and a number of the airplanes that are lined up there start calling on ground control saying, “Hey, this guy’s off-center. He’s on the taxiway”. The tower suddenly realizes it. And you’ll notice he’s continuing down, look how close he gets to the tail of this airliner right here. And it’s there that he misses the approach.
So initially we thought, well, that’s close enough. There was a Philippines Airlines Airbus 330, I believe. And initially, the thought was he missed the tail by about 51 feet. That’s not correct. It was actually under 20 feet that he missed.
There were 4 other airliners lined up there, and this could have been bigger than the worst aviation accident we’ve ever had, which was Tenerife. It was a really close call!
We know what happened, but with the “why,” there’s a little bit of confusion. We made a recommendation. As I mentioned earlier, there were dozens of Notices to Airmen and the closure of runway 2-8 left was buried in all of that.
As you may have seen from my example, NOTAMS are not written in the King’s English or really much of anything. And there are over 900 abbreviations. Some of which don’t make any sense at all, except to the people who created them.
The cockpit voice recorder on the Airbus was accidentally overwritten. I won’t belabor the point there other than to say that the captain somehow managed not to remember to pull the circuit breaker on the recorder, which he was required to do. As a result of this – and in fact, prior crashes that we’ve investigated – CVRs currently are required only to record 2 hours of time. We’ve recommended that be extended to 25 hours. So when the captain failed to pull the circuit breaker on the recorder and they would remove the recorder and the data, it was overwritten when the airplane went out the next morning. So that was a problem.
The other thing that happened here was the crew was fatigued. It was 3:00 in the morning, Circadian time. And the captain had been awake for 19 hours. We recommended to Transport Canada that they changed some of their fatigue rules and to their credit, they have done that.
But the point here is that had the crew been fully aware of the fact that runway 2-8 left was closed, it’s unlikely that they would have lined up as they did on the runway.
A couple of simple messages for pilots: visual approaches at night, be really careful. If you’ve got a parallel runway there, make sure you’ve got the rock in the correct hand, because it’s easy to line up on the wrong one. And according to the FAA, 85% of the runway misalignments are general aviation. That’s us, flying Bonanzas and Barons and other kinds of airplanes. So we can do better.
What’s the FAA doing about all this? Well, they recognize that a system replacement is needed. They have finally allocated the money. Now, I’ve been tilting personally at this windmill for 2 decades, and we now finally get to it after this incident. I’ve been told that there will be some changes made in March of 2022*. You will notice the asterisk. I’m from Missouri on this and I will wait to see if that happens.
The other challenge we have is that as a member of ICAO, the International Congress of Aviation Organizations, we kind of have to more or less comply with what they want – and that makes things invariably more complicated. And we are told once again, that much bigger changes are coming by 2024*** and that the system’s going to be fixed. You’ll notice that there are 3 asterisks in yellow on that one. So we’ll see how that works out.
I’ll just leave you with this thought that safety isn’t, everything, it’s the only thing.
I’m ready to answer any questions that you might have.
Ron Timmermans: Well, Bruce, thank you. That was most interesting. And along with all of my sisters and brothers in general aviation, I certainly agree with you. The NOTAM system is overwhelming when we go to brief for a takeoff and all of us of course are going to comply with 91.103 and look at everything. But if we studied each and every NOTAM in the detail that would probably be appropriate, we probably wouldn’t be able to leave until tomorrow or two days following. And so I imagine many of us shortcut some of the NOTAMS. So an overhaul of this system is going to be welcome to all general aviation pilots and I’m certain commercial aviation pilots, as well.
So the particular instance that you gave at San Francisco, do I understand then that the pilots understood that, or they didn’t understand that 2-8 left was closed and so rather than line up on 2-8 right, they thought they were lining up on 2-8 right when they were actually lining up on the taxiway?
Bruce Landsberg: That’s exactly right.
Ron Timmermans: And a near disaster was averted just in the last 20 feet. Well, thank the good Lord that that didn’t happen. And that was a couple of years ago, you said.
Bruce Landsberg: That’s correct. I have several areas that I like to work with the FAA on and this is one of my pet peeves, largely because it’s problematic.
In the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, which Senator Inhofe promulgated a number of years ago, this specific guidance was in there to the FAA. They still haven’t done it. I have a good relationship with the FAA administrator, Steve Dixon, and have met with him at this last NBAA. And we talked about it and he knows it’s of interest to us. The challenge is that the bureaucracy and the rules that guide all of this are cumbersome. That’s about as charitable as I can be.
Ron Timmermans: Okay. Understood. Well, Bruce, we will look forward to potential changes in March of 2022 and then further changes in 2024. Like you and all the other folks from Missouri, we’ll wait to see if that actually happens, but I certainly hope it does. All of us need an overhaul of the NOTAM system to make it less complicated and more user-friendly. That will make for safer skies and safer pilots, of course.
Well, that’s great. So, Bruce, thanks for joining me on this interview. So I noted that you were appointed to the NTSB in 2018 for a 5-year term. So what’s next for you in 2023 and after?
Bruce Landsberg: Well, it’s a good question, Senator. I’m glad you asked it. I’ve got a number of different things I want to do. I’ve got a book that I’d like to publish, which under our ethics rules I can’t do. So, I will probably work on doing that and going back to, spending time, more time out on the ramps and more time in the air than I’m doing, although I’m doing a lot of flying now. And I really enjoy it.
I try to practice what I preach, too. My entire career I’ve pretty much been on a 6-month recurrent schedule working in the corporate world. And so I’ve kind of gotten used to that.
Ron Timmermans: Very good. Very good. Well, so we’ll look forward Bruce to receiving your book when you get it published and probably seeing you in an FBO anywhere in the US, I would imagine.
Bruce Landsberg: It’s possible. Great. Well, thank you so much, Ron.
Ron Timmermans: And Bruce, thank you so much for joining us for this BPT TAKEOFF interview. Today, you are a truly remarkable pilot and leader dedicated to safety for all of general aviation. And we’re blessed with your service to our nation as part of the NTSB. I look forward to seeing you and your newly equipped Bonanza at the BPT clinic in Norfolk pretty soon.
Bruce Landsberg: Thank you, sir.
Ron Timmermans: For those of you listening today, like most safety-conscious pilots, you know that routine proficiency training is important for us to remain safe in the skies.
Please consider joining the many Beechcraft, Bonanza, Barron Traveler, Duke pilots who regularly attend a BPT Clinic to maintain and improve their flying skills. I am Ron Timmermans a member of the ground and flight instruction training staff for BPT. I hope to see you at a BPT Clinic soon.