A member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for five years, Deborah A. P. Hersman took over the leadership of the NTSB for two years on July 28, 2009, at the relatively young age of 39. However, she was quite experienced with regards to transportation issues and Washington, having worked in Congress since the 1990s as a staffer in both the House and Senate.
Hersman is the daughter of retired Air Force Brigadier General Walt Hersman, who served two tours in Vietnam as a fighter pilot. She grew up as the eldest of three daughters and moved around a lot, spending time in places that included Amman, Jordan, and Madrid, Spain. Her family settled in Northern Virginia when Hersman was 17 years old.
She attended Chantilly High School, where she met her future husband, Niel Plummer, who is now a software engineer for Lockheed Martin.
In 1992, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degrees in political science and international studies from Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia.
After college, Hersman joined the staff of Congressman Bob Wise (D-West Virginia), rising from summer intern to office manager to senior legislative aide. While working for Wise, Hersman dealt with a series of coal-train derailments near Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
She also attended graduate school during this time, earning her Master of Science in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University in 1999.
That same year, she left Wise’s office to join the staff of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. She worked on the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999, which created a new truck and bus safety administration within the Department of Transportation. She also helped to pass the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002; the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century; the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act and other transportation safety and security measures.
In June 2004, Hersman was appointed to the NTSB by President George W. Bush. She has been the member-on-the-scene of ay least 17 major transportation accidents, including the crash of a Maryland State Police EMS helicopter in Forestville, Maryland (September 2008); the collision of two Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority trains in Washington, DC, that killed 9 people (June 2009); and a mid-air collision involving a sightseeing helicopter and a single-engine plane over the Hudson River that killed all 9 persons (August 2009).
Peter Rogoff, who heads the Federal Transit Administration and worked with Hersman in Congress, said people should not underestimate Hersman’s knowledge about transportation safety issues just because she’s young. “People don’t get into a conversation on substantive safety issues without realizing she knows everything there is to know on the topic,” Rogoff told The Washington Post. “She is one of the folks who knows the code back and forth.”