Planes, Trains and Automobiles


For Joseph Kolly ’88, a summer job at Calspan-University at Buffalo Research Center (CUBRC), in Buffalo, N.Y. — an aerodynamic research facility — was the throughway to becoming Acting Director of Research and Engineering at the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB).

In 1996, when Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight 800 exploded, Kolly was a senior research scientist at CUBRC. Now an eleven-year veteran of the NTSB, Kolly’s relationship with the agency began with a contract for him to do thermal modeling of the explosion. Impressed, the NTSB expressed interest in him joining their team, and in 1998 he did.

As a fire and explosion expert, Kolly was charged with completing the TWA Flight 800 fuel tank explosion investigation. He pulled together a team of experts and scrutinized issues including jet-fuel combustion, jet-fuel chemistry and fuel tank explosion dynamics. The team’s revolutionary findings led to new rules and millions of dollars worth of retrofitting to eliminate the possibility of future fuel tank ignitions.

A few years and several investigations later, Kolly was promoted again to national resource specialist for applied research. “I would go to the scene, sift through the evidence and assemble an expert research team from around the world to get at the root of the accident,” he says. “And not just for airlines, but for all forms of transportation.” Kolly investigated the 60-car CSX freight train derailment and resulting fire in the Baltimore Howard Street Tunnel in 2001 and the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in 2000 in which 88 people died.

“When Alaska Airlines [Flight 261] went down,” says Kolly, “it was thought that the premature wear of a vital flight component was due to defective lubricant.” But through simulated flight and environmental conditions, he showed that it was a lack of maintenance — not a problem with the lubricant — that caused the wear.

Kolly was even brought on to support the NASA investigation of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Tasked to track the two-million radar signatures from the explosion, Kolly assembled a team of aerodynamic and radar specialists. “We were tracking where the pieces fell to the ground so they could go get them.”

Kolly later served for three years as deputy director at the NTSB, and today he’s the director, responsible for the agency’s three labs: materials, recorder and vehicle performance, and their safety research program.

And, with his experience, Kolly has a wealth of knowledge to share. “I’d like to get back to academia; come full circle,” he says. “I have a real passion for transportation safety and can bring an awareness to the students.”

Last Updated: 11/26/13