Lorenda Ward, ’90 and ’92 aerospace engineering, is a senior investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in Washington, D.C. She investigates aviation crashes and incidents around the globe. Most recently, she traveled to western Japan to assist the Japan Transport Safety Board after an All Nippon Airways-operated Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s alarm system indicated battery discharge and the pilots noticed an unusual smell in the cockpit, making an emergency landing at the Takamatsu Airport. Before joining the NTSB, Ward was a civilian aerospace engineer for the Navy, working on F-14 Tomcat fighters and EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircrafts. She is a Dothan, Ala., native.
CO: How do people react when you tell them you investigate airplane accidents?
LW: It depends. Sometimes I don’t tell them exactly what I do, but most people are interested. They are curious about plane crashes and want to know how they happen and how I do the job. They’ll ask about what I am exposed to investigating fatal accidents, and if it is emotionally taxing. And it is, sometimes. Then others just think it’s cool because it’s challenging, and it’s like putting together the biggest, most difficult jigsaw puzzle ever.
CO: How many of the investigations that you work on involve fatalities?
LW: The majority are accidents. I would say a high percentage of them are fatal. With Alaska Airlines Flight 261 that I investigated in 2000, two pilots, three cabin crew members and 83 passengers were killed. I was a structures engineer at the time, and the NTSB’s safety board determined that a failed jackscrew, which helps to stabilize the aircraft, caused the crash. We investigated the Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash in 2009. The plane crashed into a home in Clarence Center, N.Y., killing all 49 people on board and one person in the house. The safety board suggested that the accident was caused by the pilots’ inability to respond appropriately to an approach-to-stall warning, a controlled flight maneuver used by pilots when an aircraft has stalled, but is recoverable.
I have done a few nonfatal accidents, for example, the recent Boeing 787 in Japan, where no one was hurt. I did an investigation in Puerto Rico in which a plane landed hard, and bounced three or four times down the runway. There were some injuries, but no one was fatally injured. Those are a lot — well, easier — to work because there aren’t any fatalities. But, even when no one is injured, there’s still concern about safety, and you have to do a thorough investigation.
CO: How do you prepare for and conduct investigations, logistically and emotionally?
LW: When I’m on call, I have to be able to launch within two hours. I’ve had lots of plans with family and friends get canceled or changed because I’ve been sent to an investigation. I was just recently in Japan for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner incident, and I spent my birthday there, as well as a couple of holidays.
CO: Were you involved in investigating the 9/11 attacks?
LW: The FBI led the investigation because it was a criminal act, and the NTSB supported its investigation. I was working in our D.C. office at the time, and we could actually see the smoke coming across the river after the plane hit the Pentagon. I was first asked to assist at the Pentagon, mainly to identify airplane parts. It wasn’t a typical investigation for me because it was controlled by the FBI, and there were many agencies there on the scene. Our immediate objective was to locate the front and back ends of the airplane to try and get to the recorders, but our access was limited in that the fire department was still assessing what parts of the site were safe. We worked 12-hour shifts with three days on, three days off. After our assistance there, I was asked to travel to New York and assist the FBI in a similar capacity. The whole experience was very sad.
CO: How does your work improve air travel safety?
LW: We produce a number of recommendations that come from our investigations. We try to have our reports and presentations best communicate how and where changes need to be made, so that our recommendations can be integrated easily and effectively. With major investigations, there are anywhere from 22 to 25 safety recommendations issued to agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration. If they incorporate those recommendations, I think it does help make us safer. That’s what we hope for, anyway. When you know what went wrong, you can better prepare for it, and often prevent it in the future.
CO: How did you become an NTSB investigator?
LW: When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree, there were corporate recruiters coming to campus and interviewing, which was great, but by the time I got my master’s, they just weren’t hiring as much. I became a civilian aerospace engineer for the Navy first, working on F-14s and the EA-6B prior to joining the NTSB in November 1998. Then I became a structures engineer, and I really enjoyed putting aircraft back together and examining their components to determine the cause of a malfunction. In
May 2001, I was promoted to investigator-in-charge.
CO: What made you decide to study engineering at Auburn?
LW: I became interested in engineering in part because of my obsession with numbers. I have a geeky sort of ability to remember and retain data. My father played football for Auburn a long time ago. I grew up on Auburn football. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I knew at some point I was going to go to Auburn. My dad worked in the nuclear power plant industry, so we moved about every three years. He is from a family of eight and my mom is from a family of 20, and everybody’s either an Auburn or Alabama fan, which makes for an interesting holiday.
CO: How did Auburn Engineering make an impact on your career?
LW: The professors’ involvement and interest in their students had the biggest impact on me. The individual attention I received from faculty is one thing that really prepared me for the working world. Case in point: it’s been more than 20 years since I’ve been to Auburn, but maybe a year or two ago, one of my former professors happened to be in D.C., and we ran into each other. He came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you Lorenda Ward? Weren’t you in my class?’ And I remembered him — Dr. Cicci — from aerospace engineering. In my mind, the professors took an interest in their students, wanted them to succeed and were very involved. To them, it was more than just a job.