This bureaucrat may have saved your life

Tom Haueter arrives on the job at NTSB offices in Washington, D.C., where his work made flying safer. His investigation of the USAir 427 case led to improvements in the 737, the world’s most widely used jetliner.
Tom Haueter arrives on the job at NTSB offices in Washington, D.C., where his work made flying safer. His investigation of the USAir 427 case led to improvements in the 737, the world’s most widely used jetliner.
Published May 27, 2012

Meet Tom Haueter, a bureaucrat who may have saved your life.

Haueter is the director of aviation safety at the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates plane crashes. In the language of the bureaucracy, he is SES, in charge of AS-1.

I often think of Haueter when I hear politicians belittling federal workers. It's a campaign year, so the attacks are coming fast and furiously. In Ohio, a U.S. Senate candidate says his opponent sides "with federal bureaucrats to stop exploration of natural resources." In Congress, Republicans decry a Medicare panel that is run by "15 unelected bureaucrats."

Running against Washington has long been a winning strategy — particularly for challengers trying to get to Washington. Federal workers are easy targets because of news stories about wasteful spending, lavish conventions and $16 muffins.

The reality is more complicated. Yes, there are genuine tales of waste, and it's true the bureaucracy can be sluggish and frustrating. But the simplistic attacks ignore the reality about tens of thousands of federal workers who have dedicated much of their lives to public service.

Take Haueter. He is retiring this week after 28 years with the NTSB. He got into government because he needed to pay his mortgage. He ended up making it his career.

"I had no intention of being a government employee," he said during an interview in his Washington office last week. "Quite frankly, it taints you for getting back into private industry."

Haueter (it's prounounced how-ter), who looks the same at 60 as he did at 45, stayed because he loved the NTSB's mission and impact. The safety board not only solves mysteries about plane crashes, it pressures the Federal Aviation Administration, airplane manufacturers and airlines into fixing problems so accidents don't happen again.

I met him 17 years ago when he was in charge of the investigation into USAir Flight 427, a Boeing 737 that crashed near Pittsburgh. I had decided to write a behind-the-scenes account of an NTSB case and happened to choose the longest and most complicated one in history.

I've spent many hours talking with Haueter at his Virginia home — not just about the crash but about his life, hobbies (he restores old airplanes) and the tradeoffs of working in a government job. He earns a nice salary of $178,000 a year, but he very well could have earned more at this point in his career had he worked in private industry.

I also spent lots of time with his friends and co-workers from the NTSB and the FAA. I found they weren't paper-pushers. They worked hard and loved their jobs. They too probably could have earned more money in the private sector, but they found the government jobs fulfilling because of their success at making aviation safer.

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And one thing to keep in mind about bureaucracy: It can be a good thing. It can put the brakes on impulsive political responses and make sure agencies thoroughly consider the impact of their actions.

Haueter started at the NTSB in a job tracking the agency's safety recommendations. He moved up to become an accident investigator specializing in aircraft structures, then a lead investigator, and now the agency's top aviation official.

The biggest challenge in his career was the NTSB's probe into Flight 427. Haueter had to referee constant fights between Boeing and the pilots union over whether the plane or pilots were at fault. When the investigation stalled, he resisted pressures to give up and kept pushing until the case finally was solved.

The accident was blamed on a sudden movement by the plane's rudder that most likely was caused by a hydraulic malfunction. His work on the USAir 427 case led to many improvements in the 737, the world's most widely used jetliner.

With that case and dozens of others, Haueter had an impact. If you have flown on virtually any type of plane in the past three decades, he may have saved your life. He can point to many planes and identify things that got fixed because of the NTSB's work.

During his career in accident investigation, Haueter saw tremendous improvements in technology that make the detective work better. When he started, flight data recorders took only a few measurements, which made it difficult to piece together what happened. Today, those "black boxes" take several hundred measurements, giving investigators tremendous details about what caused an accident.

Looking back on his time at the NTSB, Haueter says, "I lucked into the perfect job." He's proud that the safety board has corrected so many problems and that crashes are now relatively rare.

"The system works extremely well," he says.

Because he has worked for more than 20 years, he can retire at 60. He plans to do some aviation consulting, but his main goal is to finish building a Lockheed Altair, a 1930s plane similar to one flown by his hero, Charles Lindbergh.

Haueter's departure is a reminder of the importance of federal workers and the need for government to keep attracting smart people. There are legitimate debates about whether government should be larger or smaller. But either way, we want to encourage smart people to get into public service.

We need more Haueters.

Bill Adair is the Washington bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times and the editor of PolitiFact. His book about the USAir crash, "The Mystery of Flight 427," was published in 2002.