Deborah Hersman, controversial NTSB chair, to step down

Washington DC
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Deborah Hersman, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair who raised the ire of a pilot group following the 2013 crash of an Asiana widebody at San Francisco, will leave the board on 25 April, the NTSB announces.

Hersman, who has led the investigative agency since 2009, will take a position as president and chief executive of National Safety Council, based in Itasca, Illinois.

NTSB vice chairman Christopher Hart will serve as acting chairman, the agency says.

“As one of the nation's most visionary advocates for safety, [Hersman] has focused our attention and actions on addressing a variety of transportation safety issues, including fatigue and distraction in all modes of transportation,” says the NTSB in a statement announcing Hersman’s departure.

Hersman stirred controversy during her time at the NTSB, particularly for her handling of the 6 July crash of the Asiana flight 214, a Boeing 777-200 that slammed into a seawall while attempting to land at San Francisco on 6 July.

The aircraft’s tail separated at impact, leading to the death of three passengers and injuring hundreds.

In the days following the accident, Hersman publicly announced a host of details about the ill-fated approach. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said that information prematurely implicated that the pilots were responsible.

Hersman said the flight data recorders showed that airspeed fell below target and that the pilots disengaged the autopilot more than one minute prior to impact.

She added that the engines appeared to respond normally, that there was no indication of mechanical problems.

Following those statements and others about the crew, ALPA issued a statement saying it was “stunned by the amount of detailed operational data” released so early in the investigation.

"Publicising this data before all of it can be collected and analysed leads to erroneous conclusions," the union said.

ALPA’s president Lee Moak later said that the NTSB’s actions deviated from “internationally accepted and time-proven investigative processes… in favour of increased media exposure and sensationalism”.

ALPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Hersman’s departure.

But others agreed with the labor group’s assessment.

“I was taken aback by [Hersman's] pronouncements," Hans Weber, president of aviation consultancy TECOP International, told Flightglobal in August 2013. "At this early in the investigation, her pronouncements led to the conclusion ... that it was pilot error."

The NTSB defended its actions, saying it is “an independent, open, transparent agency” that is responsible for communicating with the public in an “appropriate time frame”.

Hersman, who was first appointed as a board member in 2004, also oversaw the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407, a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop that stalled and crashed while approaching Buffalo, New York, on the night of 12 February 2009.

The NTSB pegged the cause of that crash, which killed all 50 passengers and crew, on pilot error, and concluded that pilot fatigue likely played role.

That conclusion focused national attention on fatigue and working conditions at regional carriers, leading to new pilot training rules that began taking effect in 2013.

Rules now require pilots have 1,500h of flight time, up from 250h.

The requirement drew criticism from the US Regional Airline Association, which said the standards were “arbitrary” and would encourage pilots to accumulate hours ”the cheapest and fastest ways possible”.