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Lorenda Ward

Samuel Ginn College of Engineering almuna

Lorenda Ward, '90 and '92 aerospace engineering, is a senior investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, in Washington, D.C. She investigates aviation crashes and incidents around the globe. Most recently, she traveled to Japan to assist the Japanese Transport Safety Board after an ANA-operated Boeing 787 Dreamliner's alarm system indicated battery discharge and the pilots noticed an unusual smell in the cockpit. Before joining the NTSB, Ward was a civilian aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy, working on F-14s and the EA-6B. She is a Dothan, Ala., native.

1. How do people react when you tell them you investigate airplane accidents?

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 I do the job. They'll ask about what I am exposed to while 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.

2. How do you prepare for and conduct investigations, logistically and emotionally?

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. The majority of the investigations I do are accidents. I would say a high percentage of them are fatal. I have done a few non-fatal, like with the recent Boeing 787 in Japan, where no one was hurt. I did an investigation in Puerto Rico where a plane landed hard, and it 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 still have to do a thorough investigation. With the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 that I investigated in 2000, two pilots, three cabin crew members and 83 passengers were killed. I was a structural engineer at the time, and the NTSB's safety board determined that a failed jackscrew, which helps to stabilize the aircraft, caused the crash.

3. How does your work improve air travel safety?

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 like the Federal Aviation Administration, and if they incorporate those changes, 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.

4. What made you decide to study engineering at Auburn?

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. I was born in Thomasville, Ala., but we moved around a lot because my dad worked in the nuclear power plant industry, so we moved about every three years. My dad 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. 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.

5. How did Auburn Engineering make an impact on your career?

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, because the professors were genuinely interested in their students' work and success. 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.

June 17, 2013