John Goglia, a rebel with a cause, reflects on NTSB tenure

Aviation International News » July 2004
April 3, 2007, 5:54 AM

You don’t expect to see a 59-year-old, gray-haired guy who looks like a middle linebacker choking up as tears well up in his eyes, but then this is John Goglia.

As a member of the NTSB, Goglia has spent years knee deep in the untimely end of airplanes, trains, boats and other forms of transportation. He has a well earned reputation for being tough, a quality that any middle linebacker would love to share, but he’s decidedly uncomfortable when knee deep in accolades.

At Aviation Industry Week in Las Vegas in May, he was given the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association/Flight Safety Foundation Joe Chase Award. It is bestowed annually on an individual or company that has promoted the tenets of professionalism and integrity on behalf of the aviation maintenance technician while exemplifying honor and diligence within the aviation community.

Immediately following the award, Matt Thurber, editor of Aviation Maintenance, announced that his publication’s annual Time Out for Safety Award would be renamed the John J. Goglia Time Out for Safety Award to “inspire and encourage future generations of mechanics to do the right thing. John is the patron saint of doing it right in this business,” Thurber said. Eyes cast down and visibly glistening, Goglia was too choked up to do more than utter a few words.

“You know, I have a big mouth and I will stand up for anyone, but I can’t handle the praise when it’s aimed at me. I can’t take the accolades. I don’t even know what to say,” Goglia told AIN after the ceremony was over. “If it means standing up for something or to somebody, I have plenty to say but I can’t do it for myself. I’ve had a mechanic’s attitude my whole life. See problem, fix problem; go on to the next problem and stand up for what you believe. Sometimes I have a tough time understanding why I get all the accolades for what I’ve done because I see all my friends doing the same thing.” Goglia’s temperament and work ethic are well known throughout the industry.

“The man’s like a pit bull,” one of the awards ceremony attendees said. “He flat out refuses to give up, and when he figures out what happened he flat out refuses to be politically correct. He’ll just blurt it out in front of God and television cameras with absolutely no concern for his own career or what cages he’s rattling. In the nine years he’s been on the Board, I don’t think he’s ever taken a vacation. He’s all work, 24/7.” On that score, Goglia set the record straight.

“It’s true, I really don’t have any hobbies or outside interests since joining the Board,” he said. “But it’s not true about the vacation. I took a week off once to take the grandkids to Disney World.” Prodding got him to admit he didn’t see much of the theme park himself. The kids had him in tow but he spent most of the time on his cellphone doing business. “It’s just the job, you know? Accidents happen day and night. You have to be flexible.” But how much of that is the job and how much is just  Goglia isn’t clear.

Goglia is a born and raised Irish Catholic Bostonian. He reflects the values of a close-knit family and wears his 1950s Catholic school education as a badge of honor.
Goglia is a handshake guy; you don’t need paper. He’d sooner die than break his word. “To this day I still live about seven miles from where I grew up,” he said, in his unmistakable Boston accent.

“Patricia lived around the corner from me and we grew up next to one another and never knew it. We even received our first communion at the same time but didn’t meet because I went to Catholic school and she went to public,” he explained. The two have been married for 39 years and have three daughters.

Marissa, their eldest child at 36, is a homemaker and lives with her husband on an island one hour off the coast of Bar Harbor. Michele, a year younger, is an agent for Air Canada. It was at Michele’s wedding that Maria, a middle-school teacher and the Goglias’ 34-year-old daughter, met the brother of Michele’s new husband. They were married two years later and both couples live in Milford, Mass. “The three M’s,” Goglia calls them with obvious affection. “They’ve done good.”

Hooked on Aviation

Goglia grew up in the shadow of Boston Logan International Airport and was drawn to it almost as soon as he got a bicycle. “As a kid I got to know some of the mechanics there and they were letting me climb all over DC-3s and DC-6s. I got hooked,” he said. It was a few years later, when he was 16, that an Eastern Airlines flight departing Logan crashed into the bay. Goglia had just finished learning to scuba dive and was working for his instructor when the accident happened. He was asked by the instructor to dive into the cold water with him to look for survivors.

In the murky, shallow water, the diving visibility was so bad that he had to feel his way around the wreckage, and that’s where he got his first exposure to death. He found bodies, and even body parts, but none of the 10 survivors that were eventually rescued by others. He was surprised to discover it didn’t bother him, but one thing about that day would stick with him forever.

“It was starlings,” he said. “The Lockheed Electra had flown into a flock of birds and the pilot lost it.” It was that accident that resulted in new federal requirements regarding the ability of an aircraft to withstand birdstrikes. To this day, Goglia warns anyone who will listen about the problem of birds and airports.

After high school Goglia enrolled in East Coast Aero Tech on Hanscom Air Field in Bedford, Mass., and graduated in 1963. “The program at the time was a very long day, nonstop for 15 months,” he said. “You entered the program and you just put your nose to the grindstone.” Later in life he would earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from Devonshire College.

A&P certificate in hand, Goglia signed on with United Airlines in New York City as a mechanic working in heavy maintenance. “In 1965 United laid off a bunch of us in New York but offered us jobs in Washington, D.C. In those days the three airports in Washington were considered the same for bidding purposes, so I put in for Baltimore and went to work on the line,” he said. It was then that he married Patricia, but she was very close to her family and was unhappy in Baltimore.

“I had dragged her away to Maryland so I was under a lot of pressure at home to return to Boston,” he said. “To make matters worse, United started another round of layoffs and the choice was San Francisco. Truth is, I didn’t particularly want to go to San Francisco but she was going nuts with the thought of it. As it happened, Allegheny Airlines was hiring in Boston, so I put in an application, got hired and we moved back home to Boston. That move made all the difference in my life. I doubt I would be sitting where I am today if I’d have stayed with United.”

Goglia said United tends to pigeon-hole employees and keep them in whatever job they have. “Culturally, Allegheny was a very different kind of company. I was hired to fix airplanes as one of 10 mechanics in Boston doing line maintenance. If you fixed their airplanes they didn’t care what you did after that. Of course, when we were young we did lots of things that young guys do, but as I got older the job became less challenging after I’d been around for a while.” He said the only real challenge was maintaining the airline’s diverse fleet of older aircraft. “I became a lead on the midnight shift for a while, but I wanted more,” he said. “The challenge was definitely gone.” And that’s when his life took a turn that would dramatically change his future.

“Around 1975 Emery Air Freight decided to start its own air force to compete with FedEx. It bought two airplanes from Allegheny, and to make the deal happen our sales department promised Emery we would support the aircraft,” Goglia said. “So Emery bought a couple of aircraft and converted them to cargo. After they got their pilots trained and were ready to go into service they called Allegheny and wanted to be supported at their new Boston base. Well, the answer was Allegheny wasn’t about to take people from their operation to support Emery,” Goglia laughed.

“I’m here to tell you the telephone calls went fast and furious between the two companies, especially because Emery was talking about buying more airplanes from Allegheny,” he said. “There was a standoff for a while between Allegheny sales and Allegheny maintenance until finally management told Emery they could go into the hangar and hire a couple of Allegheny mechanics to work on Emery airplanes part time in addition to working full time for Allegheny. So myself and another guy did just that, starting a company we called Air Carrier Support.”

Be Your Own Boss

What started as a part-time job developed into a thriving business. “You know, it’s funny how things happen. It started out we had to rent power units and other equipment because we didn’t have anything of our own. Eventually we decided to buy our own power unit and in no time at all it paid for itself because we started renting it out when we weren’t using it,” he explained. “Well, one thing led to another and we added another power unit, then a tug, towbars and the next thing you know we’ve got an operation going with 100 employees!”

Goglia sold the company in 1993 because it became so big he was forced to make a choice between running Air Carrier Support full time or working for what had become USAir. “I would have run the company, but my wife is a nester and kept asking how I could just leave USAir and walk away from my retirement,” he said. She just wasn’t comfortable with the idea, so I gave in on that one. You know I’m Irish Catholic–family matters.”

Over the years Goglia had gotten involved with some of the safety committees, and because he showed initiative and interest USAir started sending him around the country on various assignments. “At one point USAir was buying PSA, so a year before that deal went through I was in San Diego representing USAir and smoothing the way for the deal,” he said. “No sooner did I finish that project, I was home for a couple of months and they were buying Piedmont and I was off to Winston-Salem for almost another year. That wasn’t even finished when in the early 1990s the FAA decided to do a rulemaking review under a ‘zero accident’ initiative begun by then DOT Secretary Federico Pena. They wanted to review all the FARs pertaining to both flight crews and maintenance and wanted industry participation.”

USAir and the International Association of Machinists, Goglia’s union as a mechanic, jointly supported his participation in the FAA’s regulatory review process. “I actually sat on something like 22 different committees and chaired three of them,” he recalled. “That’s when I got my reputation about calling it the way I see it. I would alternately anger the union and then the company, but if you ask my opinion I’m going to tell it just the way I see it.” The reputation would lead to an unforeseen opportunity.

“When the opportunity with the NTSB came up, I knew that you don’t go anywhere in Washington without support,” he said. “I went out and got far more from the companies and trade associations than I ever did from labor. Far more, 10 to one,” Goglia said. He recalled that the Air Transport Association stated publicly, “It’s not that we’re in love with Goglia but we know he doesn’t blow in the wind like a willow.”

The Call

Reminiscing about how he went from USAir to become a Clinton appointee to one of the five NTSB board positions in 1994, Goglia said he’d been holding down a mechanic’s slot but hadn’t really been doing the job for 10 years. “I was doing everything else for the company you can imagine except working as a mechanic,” he laughed. “When the position opened up, my friends encouraged me to send in an application. I think it was probably because by then I’d been pretty active in accident-investigation work for USAir. A week later I happened to be in Washington when my pager went off at 10 a.m., and it was my home number. My wife never pages me unless there’s a real problem.”

Goglia said he found a payphone and called home. “I was standing right down the street from the White House and looking at it when I called her. She said the White House just called and they want you to call them as soon as possible so I hung up and called them. I got through to the person who called and she said they wanted to see me as soon as possible. ‘How soon can you come to Washington?’ she asked, and I asked, ‘Is five minutes too long? I’m at 17th and 8th Street looking at the White House right now.’ She laughed and said that was a bit too fast, so we set up an appointment for later that afternoon.”

Goglia said he really thought it was a courtesy call. “I went into that meeting not expecting anything and an hour-and-a-half later I walked out having had an interview with Elizabeth Montoya, head of White House personnel,” he said. “I knew then it was serious, and that’s when I went out and started gathering support because appointments are raw politics and, ironically, I’m not a political person.” He believes he was simply in the right place at the right time.

“The Clinton Administration was specifically looking for someone who wasn’t political. Clinton was in trouble with Monica Lewinsky and the White House was looking to make a nonpolitical appointment,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t want the job because they were concerned about being tarnished with Clinton’s problems. You have to understand the nature of a Board position.” Goglia said being a Board member is the perfect job for a lawyer.

“If you’re an attorney and you come to the NTSB as a board member, when you walk back out the door you’ve got a guaranteed law practice,” he explained. “People think NTSB board members are technical specialists who know how to investigate an accident, but that’s not typically the case. If you’re politically connected and your candidate wins, there’s a book of political appointments every President gets and it’s often referred to as the Plumb Book.”

The Plumb Book contains a long list of political appointments available to a newly elected president. The more you did for the campaign, the higher up the list you can go. The book has everything from ambassadorships to NTSB board member positions to rather mundane government jobs. “NTSB board positions have legs when you leave,” Goglia said. “But you have to be technically qualified for the position.” It turns out being technically qualified isn’t very difficult.

“If you have a private pilot certificate, you meet the technically qualified stipulation,” he said. “Well, there’s a transition period between the election and the time the President takes office. That’s plenty of time to get a private pilot certificate, so you fly out to Arizona, enroll in a flight-training course and within a few weeks time you’re a pilot. Presto, you qualify to be an NTSB board member.” Already qualified with his A&P certificate, Goglia’s convictions regarding safer skies overrode other concerns such as walking away from $3,500 a month in retirement pay and health benefits from USAir.

Inner Workings of the NTSB

Goglia stressed that the actual investigative work is done by a staff of highly qualified experts. The statutory duty of Board members is to balance staff. “We have a very loyal and dedicated staff, but they have a view that’s going to channel,” he said. “They’re engineers and their view of the world is very narrow. On their own they could come up with recommendations that make no sense or are too stringent. So the five Board members are supposed to strike a balance.”

Yet in an environment where most Board members aren’t technical experts, Goglia is. He is the first FAA-certified A&P mechanic to become a member of the Board, let alone have actual accident investigation experience. When Goglia speaks, everyone listens–airlines, unions, the media and his fellow Board members. And sometimes what he says is unsettling, such as the time he challenged a federal official for withholding a safety report. “This really smells,” he said publicly, refusing to pull his punches.

It is the role of Board members to make recommendations based on the reality of the findings tempered with the reality of the world, but Goglia admits some Board recommendations seem to push the envelope. “The reason is sometimes we have a problem with the agency involved, such as the FAA or Railroad Administration. What we’re doing is purposely trying to push in a given direction,” he said. “Congress looks at what we do too, so there are reasons why we sometimes make recommendations that appear extremist to the average person, but we’re making a point that isn’t being missed by the group in question.

“The system, after the issuance of a recommendation, is meant to be give-and-take,” Goglia explained. “For example, we’ll push the FAA and try to force them to come back to us with a compromise. The compromise will likely give us more than if we hit the point we wanted to hit in the beginning. We do that with the various agencies and Capitol Hill. It’s a dynamic most people aren’t aware of.”

What makes the Board work is that it is an independent agency. Board members report directly to the White House and it’s a no-interference agency, meaning the Administration is not supposed to interfere. “Congress watches closely,” he said. “The committees that oversee us, the House Aviation Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee, watch that like a hawk. If an Administration or Congress would dabble in our business, there would be serious repercussions. I can honestly say that I have never, nor do I know of anyone on the Board who has ever, received a call from the White House or the Hill trying to influence them.”

Literally Bushwhacked

Ironically, Goglia was not reappointed to the Board and left his position on June 20, because he’s not political. “I’ve been on the Board now for nine years and I’m going off simply because of my lack of politics. I’m unenrolled, as we say in Massachusetts, meaning I’m not Republican, Democrat or even an Independent,” he said. “When I worked on the Statute of Repose in the General Aviation Revitalization Act, I worked on both sides of the aisle. Being unenrolled was an advantage to me because I wasn’t partisan.”

Goglia takes a fairly pragmatic view of the transportation world after nine years on the Board. “Going in, my focus was narrow–I was very focused on the task level. You know, ‘This task isn’t right,’ ‘This paperwork isn’t right,’ that sort of thing. Now what I see is the problem really is the system. The problems I used to see still exist, but they’re much bigger and broader than I imagined. Somehow my eyes opened and now I see a global view with causes far broader than I envisioned when I started.”

Fixing Aviation Maintenance

He said today’s aviation problems are very systemic in nature. “Look, the FAA sets the minimum standards and somewhere along the line, in the last 30 years, we’ve taken a step back and begun looking to the FAA to run our business. We can’t do that anymore. We never did that in the past. The guys at the top today are bean counters, and the technical people are afraid to stand up to them. Maybe they stood up and got their knees cut out from underneath them, but whatever the reason the technical people are no longer able to influence the bean-counter mentality. So business is being run to satisfy the FAA, and everything else is designed to make a profit.”

Goglia said it used to be that everyone routinely surpassed FAA minimums, but today people do what’s required and that’s it. “One of the consequences of that is if the FAA’s minimum requirement is a five on a scale of one to ten, and you’re routinely operating at seven or eight, that means when you get the inevitable dip when someone screws up or something goes wrong, you dip down into the six or maybe even hit the five. But when you’re running at five to begin with, there’s no margin for error.”

When the subject of maintenance-related aircraft accidents came up, true to form, Goglia didn’t bat an eye. “You know, there’s been a lot of controversy about this, but I just had a study done by Purdue University. My gut kept telling me there’s more maintenance involvement in accidents than we believe,” he said. “I’m seeing this stuff come before me but I can’t get a handle on it. The NTSB database is disconnected and not conducive to getting your hands on material in any meaningful way. I couldn’t even get it to tell me how many accident reports had the word ‘maintenance’ in them.”

He said the NTSB is currently working to solve those issues, but in the meantime he had a Purdue student manually review 20 years of accidents and incidents. “I paid out of my own pocket for one student to come to Washington to review reports that were too thick to reproduce and send to him,” he said. “It was a simple stroke count–if the report listed maintenance we counted it. What we found was something like 16.9 percent of all accidents/incidents listed maintenance in one way or another.” Goglia stressed that the listing had to be a significant contributor, not something insignificant. “By comparison, maintenance has been considered to be a cause in 3- to 5 percent of all accidents, but no one has ever really done the research to find out for sure. To say the least, our findings have stirred up a lot of controversy.”

Goglia reflected on the state of the aviation maintenance community: “We’re severely behind the eight ball in the maintenance community. We’ve lost the battle of attracting good people. We’re going to have to suck it up, work short-handed, work smarter and build the prestige into the job to where we begin to attract new, qualified people. The way things are now, we’re not going to get enough good people in the system.

“There’s a common misconception that there’s going to be a massive shortage of maintenance personnel in the near future,” Goglia said. “Well, that was potentially true before 9/11, but post-9/11 something significant happened that changed the dynamic. All the airlines have broken their labor agreements in one form or another and are contracting out their heavy maintenance to FAR Part 145 repair stations.
The thing is, if you’re a repair station you only need one A&P. Everyone else can work under that person’s direction. Think of how many certified mechanics that eliminates. I’ve been on investigations where a given repair station has a 7:1 or 8:1 ratio. At some, nine out of 10 people working on the airplane turning wrenches were non-certified. The oversight is thin in the industry, but what can you expect? It’s happening because they’re paying wrench turners $10 to $12 an hour, and you’re not going to get an A&P who’s going to last for that kind of money. Disneyland hires more A&Ps than anybody; they love the fact that an A&P has pneumatic, hydraulic and other industrial skills. Where do you find someone like that these days? The railroads also love A&P mechanics.”

Goglia said it is imperative that the industry changes the perception of the job, and he emphasizes it’s going to take more than just paying maintenance technicians a competitive wage. “The automotive industry did it when they finally got motivated, and we can do it too.”

The Class of 1986 Theory

“These problems are affecting the quality of maintenance. Some friends in the business pointed out to me what they call the Class of 1986,” Goglia explained. “They claim that something happened around that time that no one seems to be able to identify, but there’s a marked difference in the quality of maintenance personnel trained after 1986. I didn’t believe it, but one day I was preparing for a class I was going to teach and was reviewing the report for the Continental Express accident over Eagle Lake, Texas. The one where the screws were left out. Well, the report had been opened and closed so many times that it naturally opened to the page that listed the five mechanics involved. I just glanced at the first one and he had gotten his license in 1988. The next one was 1989 and the next 1991. All five of them were after 1986. Then I took a look at the Beech accident in Charlotte and all those guys were post-1986, too. I’m beginning to discover there’s something to this Class of 1986 notion. Now I’m specifically looking at accidents with that in mind.”

Goglia said leaving the Board isn’t the worst thing that has happened to him. “To tell the truth, I think it’s time. I’m a little frustrated with government right now.” As far as what’s next, he said he’s been approached by a number of big companies but doesn’t know exactly what he’s going to do yet. “Working for a big company puts me back in that pigeon hole, and I don’t think I can do that,” he said. “I’m going to do consulting. I’ll stay plugged in, keep identifying problems and ways to solve them. The biggest issue we have these days in flight departments is communication. The guy who runs the flight department doesn’t speak the same language as the guy who runs maintenance; they’re talking apples and oranges.

“One of my interns was attending a function with me, and my old USAir boss who knew me well, Ed Colodny, retired chairman of the board, happened to be there,” Goglia recounted. “She told me that she asked him how he controlled me when I worked at USAir. He got this wistful look on his face, she said, and there was a long silence after which he finally said, ‘Nobody ever controlled him.’”   

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