Robert Sumwalt

Board Member / NTSB
Embry-Riddle Class of 2014
Master of Aeronautical Science

GOING TO EMBRY-RIDDLE

I started flying my senior year of high school. By the time I learned of Embry-Riddle, my college decisions had already been made. So, in Fall 1974, I headed to the University of South Carolina. It didn’t take me long to realize they had a sport parachute club, a SCUBA club, sailing club, and all kinds of fun club sports, but no flying club. So, with three weeks of college experience under my belt, I marched into the office of the dean of student and told him, as only a naïve freshman could do, that we needed a flying club.

After hearing all of the reasons why that would never happen, feeling a bit defeated, I got up to leave. On the way out the door I mumbled something about “I just thought that since Clemson has had a flying club since 1927, South Carolina should have one, too.” In case you haven’t paid attention, the rivalry between South Carolina and Clemson – two large schools in a small state – is about as deep as they come. “Sit back down,” he said. Within a few months, the USC flying club had a used Cessna 150. By the middle of my sophomore year, we had two 150’s. That was mighty convenient since I received my CFI about the same time we took delivery of the second plane.

I had a pretty good deal – living at home and running the flying club. I decided to just stay put at Carolina. By the time I graduated I had about 1500 flight hours that I accumulated through flight instructing and begging. My “second” senior year (aka, 5th year), the University bought a brand new Piper Navajo Chieftain and hired me full time to fly it. Not a bad job for a 22 year-old who still had another semester in school. Two years later I got hired as a pilot for Piedmont Airlines, starting as a Boeing 727 flight engineer. I had a wonderful 24 year career as pilot for Piedmont, who, in the late 80’s merged with USAir. I flew 727s, Fokker F28, Boeing 737s, Fokker 100’s, and the Airbus A391/320/321 series. In 2006 President George W. Bush appointed me as vice chairman of the NTSB.

In September 2010 I was invited to a very small dinner in Washington, DC with Dr. John Johnson and a few other high-ranking officials at ERAU. I remember standing there meeting people like Worldwide Chancellor John Watret and others and feeling pretty lame that I didn’t even have a master’s degree. I sat next to Dr. Johnson’s wife, Maurie, at dinner and confessed – almost apologized – that I hadn’t pursued my master’s. There were the usual excuses – not enough time being one of them, along with any others I could dream up. I explained how I had always thought I would start my master’s when my daughter started first grade, but somehow, all of a sudden, she was about to enter college.

As fate would have it, three days later I was the commencement speaker at one of the ERAU Worldwide campus graduations. There I was – standing on the stage, shaking the hands of graduates who had done what I had not bothered to do – pursued and obtained a masters. That weekend I went online and applied for admission for Embry-Riddle Worldwide to seek a Master of Aeronautical Science. I took 3 ½ years to finish. I went for dual specializations of aviation/aerospace safety systems and human factors in aviation systems, which required one more course. And if workload at work was anticipated to be busy, I would not enroll for that term.

I’m extremely proud that I finally accomplished this goal. Yes, I’m a non-traditional student, in my 50’s when I started. But, I found that what I was studying applied to what I was doing at work, and vice versa. I wouldn’t give a thing for the Embry-Riddle educational experience. And, I learned that I really craved learning and felt a bit empty once I finally completed my MAS. So, to satisfy that urge, I rerolled. I’m currently in the MS in Leadership program.

 

IN HIS OWN WORDS

  • “I feel like I’m Forrest Gump. I was so lucky to get hired by a major airline at a young age and upgrade to captain when I was 27. Then to be appointed to the NTSB as vice chairman by President George W. Bush, and later appointed to the Board by President Barack Obama, really convinced me I am like Forrest Gump. “Some people don’t think miracles happen, well, they do,” he said. I’m living proof of that.”
  • “There are so many things I love about working for the NTSB, but one I really enjoy is watching the professional staff do their jobs. Many are ERAU alum. They are dedicated public servants who have remarkable skills and are passionate about their work and the mission of the NTSB – saving lives, preventing accidents, and reducing injuries.”
  • “It’s never too late to continue our learning experience. I have a friend who was one of four test pilots on Concorde; he was the first test pilot to exceed the Mach 1.0 in Concorde. He recently completed his Ph.D.– at the age of 82.”

 

ADVICE FOR FUTURE STUDENTS

Follow your passion. As my grandfather told me, we spend a lot of time at work and if we are not happy at work, life can be miserable. He told me that when explaining that I didn’t have to follow the professional pathway that he and my father pursued. And, with that, he effectively gave me permission to pursue my love of aviation. I haven’t regretted a day of it. – Robert Sumwalt