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NTSB’s Sumwalt pushes for video cameras in the cockpit

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sumwalt webNational Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt, a Columbia native and veteran commercial pilot, cited the advantages of using video cameras in the cockpit to assist investigators. Sumwalt was a keynote speaker at the S.C. Aerospace Conference & Expo, which concluded Thursday. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)

By Chuck Crumbo
Published Aug. 28, 2015
(Updated 11:34 a.m., Aug. 31, 2015)

Hours after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two crashed last Halloween in California, investigators knew the cause.

An onboard video camera in the cockpit recorded the co-pilot prematurely unlocking the vehicle’s feather system, causing an in-flight breakup of the commercial spaceship.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said the video proves onboard cameras can assist investigators in crash inquiries.

Sumwalt, a Columbia native and graduate of the University of South Carolina, reiterated the federal safety agency’s position on installing video cameras in the cockpit during his keynote speech at the two-day S.C. Aerospace Conference & Expo last week.

While the board — which can only recommend changes in federal safety rules — has waged a campaign for onboard video cameras, there has been considerable resistance. Airlines say the technology is too expensive, and pilots complain video cameras would be an invasion of privacy.

Regarding the cost, Sumwalt held up his iPhone and noted that it is equipped with an 8 megapixel camera that produces high-definition video.

“From a cost point of view, it’s hardly an issue,” Sumwalt said.

But not everyone thinks video cameras may be effective in accident investigations.

“Cameras in the cockpit will not prevent an accident,” said the Air Line Pilots Association. “ALPA has long recommended that resources should be focused on enhancing current systems to record more data of a higher quality as opposed to video images, which are subject to misinterpretation and may in fact lead investigators away from accurate conclusions. The goal of accident investigation is to improve safety by preventing future accidents, not to solve them for their own sake. The accident data combed from digital flight data recorder and other sources is far more useful than the problematic, subjective interpretation of video recordings.”

Others have argued that video cameras also could be used for routine monitoring of pilots and amount to an invasion of privacy.

Sumwalt, who was a pilot for 24 years with Piedmont Airlines and US Airways, disagrees with that argument.

“Tell me who has an expectation of privacy in the workplace,” Sumwalt said. “When I’m sitting there in my office and typing on my computer, I might think that it’s my computer, but it belongs to the government and it’s theirs. And I guarantee you when I’m walking down the hallway there are probably three or four cameras looking at me.

“I worked on safety workforce for 17 years for the Air Line Pilots Association. I feel like that argument about an invasion of privacy rings pretty hollow when we’re talking about weighing that versus insuring the safety of the traveling public.”

The video would not be used for real-time monitoring of crews or to gather evidence to discipline employees, Sumwalt said.

“We feel like it can only be used for accident investigation.”

The expo, held at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, wrapped up Thursday.

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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