"Safety is Hanging from the Heavens"
Robert A. Sturgell, Washington, D.C.
December 1, 2008

Safety Forum Reception

Thanks, General Dailey. And welcome, everyone, to the most visited museum in all of America, if not the world.

And a special word of appreciation to our sponsors, IATA, ATA, and Boeing, who made this evening possible.

There’s a lot of history hanging above our heads tonight. Look around, and you begin to appreciate how far aviation has come in so short a time.

In this building, one of my favorite displays has a wonderful quote from the pilot of a Curtiss JN-4. They called it the “Jenny,” and it was a popular training plane late in World War II and after the war.

The pilot considered it to be safe because the engine vibrated so badly that — and I’m quoting the pilot here — “it would shake the ice off the wings.” Unquote.

How’s that for a de-icing strategy?

Maybe he would’ve been better off flying the Boeing 247D, which is also around here. It was the first to introduce a wing de-icing system in 1933.

The DC-3, however, was the real breakthrough in safety.

It had cantilever wings, a single elevator and rudder, retractable gear, an automatic pilot and two sets of instruments. These features constituted a quantum leap in safety.

In another first, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner introduced pressurization, and cruised at up to 20,000 feet. A newspaper ad once invited passengers to “fly above the clouds.” It should have added that you could fly above terrain.

Post-war, much of the fleet could cruise above the terrain and actually find a runway. Accident rates fell sharply. Aviation pros in the era of the 377 or the DC-6 would have told you that “this is the safest period in aviation history,” and they’d be right.

But, to provide some sense of scale, we had fatality rates in the late 40s that ranged from 1,500 to 2,000 per 100 million onboard.

By contrast, in the last two years, U.S. airlines have moved more than 1.6 billion — with just one on-board fatality — which occurred on a cargo flight.

These planes above our heads remind us that aviation is safe and getting safer. But there’s always more we can be doing, and that’s what we’ll begin tomorrow. For tonight, let’s celebrate.

And as we do, I ask you to join me in saying farewell to someone who personifies the very meaning of aviation safety — Nick Sabatini. As some of you may know, Nick is retiring this year. And I want to take this opportunity, here in front of all of his friends, to say simply “Nick, thank you.”

And it’s now my pleasure to turn it over to the Secretary of Transportation, the Honorable Mary Peters.