Former professor lands at NTSB

Jumping into the Washington, D.C., political scene from academic life in rural South Dakota may sound like quite a culture shock. But Vernon Ellingstad, director of the Office of Research and Engineering at the National Transportation Safety Board, said the transition has gone smoothly for him.

"In many respects the [NTSB] is more like an academic institution, particularly a graduate/research university, than a typical government agency," Ellingstad said. "The agency is small and comfortable, and everybody here shares an agreed-upon common purpose, so there isn't a lot of bickering about what we are all supposed to be doing. The working environment is comfortable for an old professor to function in."

Ellingstad was named director of NTSB's Office of Research and Engineering in 1996, after spending six years as its deputy director. Before that he spent about 20 years at the University of South Dakota.

At the university, he served as a professor of psychology, chairman of the psychology department and director of the human factors laboratory and graduate program. He received his master's degree and doctorate in human factors psychology from the university.

He admitted that the move to the NTSB, the primary agency that investigates transportation accidents, was more a coincidence rather than a carefully planned career progression. In 1990, when Ellingstad decided it was time to move on, the newly formed NTSB Office of Research and Engineering was looking for a deputy director with a background in research, statistics and computers.

"I was intrigued by the opportunity and challenge of a job that would expose me to other technical disciplines [and] also tap my research and human factors background," he said.

Human factors, in its broadest sense, studies how humans interact with machines. However, when Ellingstad started graduate school in 1965, it was not a well-developed discipline. He started graduate school intending to be a clinical psychologist.

After being exposed to research in human factors— funded by the Bureau of Roads (now the Federal Highway Administration) and the South Dakota Department of Highways— he was hooked. Ellingstad said the "emphasis on active solving of real and tangible problems" is what interests him in human factors.

After Ellingstad received his doctorate in 1969, he agreed to stay on at the university for another year to complete a research program and to manage the human factors laboratory.

"I never got around to leaving until 1990. It was a long year indeed," he said. "Over those years the human factors program grew and provided training to well over 50 Ph.D. human factors specialists who have been employed in a wide variety of government, research and academic organizations."

Well-Schooled for NTSB

Ellingstad said his varied background prepared him well for his current position.

"Human factors is a very eclectic kind of discipline that involves computer science, psychology and engineering. The situation we have here is also eclectic so it's kind of an advantage to have that breadth of exposure."

As director he is in charge of the six divisions within the Office of Research and Engineering, all of which provide a broad set of support functions to accident investigations in all modes of transportation.

The investigation into the TWA Flight 800 crash involved many people from Ellingstad's office, including fire and explosion specialists and materials engineers and cockpit voice-recorder specialists.

The TWA investigation also is the first time the NTSB used the Internet extensively to disseminate accident-related information to the public. "It's our job as an agent of the public to discover causes of accidents and safety issues related to transportation and make [them] available to the public," Ellingstad said. "So we take very seriously our obligation not only to develop that information but to get it out there in the public view, and the [World Wide] Web is a very effective way to do that."

In the next few months the NTSB will establish a standard way of publishing all of its reports on the Web, he said.

One of his biggest challenges, Ellingstad added, is to make sure "we are on top of technology both from the point of view of the technical tools we use and, even more importantly, the people skills that we make available to do the job. We have an advantage in that we are seen as a desirable place to work and that we've been fortunate to get a lot of well-qualified people."

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