When Hersman took over as NTSB chairwoman in 2009, she prohibited her employees from talking on cell phones or texting while behind the wheel. “I often refer to this agency as the conscience and the compass of the transportation industry,” she says. “But we need to hold that mirror up and look at ourselves, too.”
As chief executive, Hersman has tried to make the independent federal agency more transparent by leveraging social media and posting investigative materials online. The safety board has more than 400 employees and an annual budget that tops $100 million. It investigates 2,000 aviation accidents and 100 surface accidents every year.
Hersman, who is serving her second five-year term, was appointed to the five-member safety board by President Bush in 2004 and nominated to be chairman by President Obama in 2009. Her current term expires this year.
Over the course of her tenure, Hersman has personally investigated 20 transportation accidents. “They all leave a mark,” she says, including a 2006 crash at Blue Grass Airport, west of Lexington, Ky., in which 49 people were killed when a medium-sized jet tried to take off from the wrong runway. “Being a part of the federal government, you don’t always get a ‘thank-you,’ ” Hersman says. “But the community worked with us, and we didn’t have any jurisdictional infighting.”
She arrived at the NTSB by way of Capitol Hill, where she spent five years as a senior adviser on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. From 1992 to 1999, Hersman served as a senior legislative aide to then-Rep. Bob Wise, D-W.Va.
Hersman was born on Edwards Air Force Base, in East Kern, Calif., and attended four different high schools—in four different countries. She received a B.A. in political science and international studies from Virginia Tech and an M.S. in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University.
The 43-year-old holds a commercial driver’s license and a motorcycle endorsement. As for her temperament, Wise has said of his former aide, “She has a backbone. Don’t ever think that you are ever going to push her over.”