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As former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once notoriously observed, there are two kinds of unknowns: known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
If you are a helicopter operator who employs pilots to fly your aircraft, you have a lot of known unknowns. You know that your pilots are flying from point A to point B at some altitude, along some route, and at some level of compliance with the flight manual. What exactly those altitudes, routes, and levels of compliance are, are unknowns — unless you have flight data monitoring (FDM) equipment to tell you. Then those known unknowns become knowns, and what you learn might surprise you.
There are a lot of benefits to be gained from turning known unknowns into knowns. If you know that pilots are consistently flying too low or aggressively, you can address those practices before they result in an accident or excessive component wear. Alternately, if you know that a pilot really was flying responsibly, you can use your evidence to disprove noise complaints or allegations of recklessness. For most operators who implement FDM, straightforward known unknowns like these are usually their primary focus.
Once they’ve implemented a proactive FDM program, however, many operators find that having a record of every flight is also invaluable for discovering unknown unknowns — “the ones we don’t know we don’t know,” as Rumsfeld put it. And, in aviation as well as geopolitics, it’s the unknown unknowns that tend to be the difficult ones.
Take a recent example from Fort McMurray, Alberta-based Phoenix Heli-Flight, whose president, Paul Spring, has been one of the helicopter industry’s earliest adopters and most vocal champions of FDM. Two Phoenix Heli-Flight pilots aborted a night flight in an Airbus Helicopters EC135 when they noticed in flight that the rotor tachometer had failed. When questioned the next day, the pilots were certain that the tach had been working on takeoff. Cockpit video showed that the pilots had called it out as functioning on their pre-takeoff checklist — but incorrectly, as the tach had actually failed its startup self-test due to a simple electronic glitch.
Thanks to the cockpit video recorder installed in conjunction with FDM equipment, not only did Phoenix Heli-Flight save the cost of a new rotor tach, its pilots were made aware of errors in their own cognition (an unknown unknown). Now, Spring said, “that crew has it in their mind that they can’t just skim through their checks.”
FDM is not a new concept. Under the name of flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) it has been used in commercial airlines since the 1970s. In the helicopter industry, it was first introduced in large, transport-category helicopters in the North Sea with the Helicopter Operations Monitoring Program (HOMP) trial in the late 1990s. Since then, it has become a standard contract requirement for most offshore oil-and-gas operators, and operators including Bristow and PHI have been using it in their light helicopter fleets for a decade.
In recent years, the FDM technology available to operators of light and legacy helicopters has advanced dramatically. New FDM systems can monitor hundreds of parameters, and even transmit flight data via satellite in real time. Moreover, a number of third-party companies now offer flight data analysis services, making it easier than ever for small operators to start an FDM program.
While there can be legitimate concerns with the way in which any particular FDM program is implemented, the preventive safety benefits of FDM are widely recognized. In a worst-case scenario, FDM equipment can provide a wealth of evidence to accident investigators, eliminating uncertainty and allowing them to make informed recommendations on how to avoid similar accidents in the future.
Yet, outside of a handful of sectors, the helicopter industry has been extremely slow to embrace FDM. Even many operators who have FDM equipment installed as standard in their helicopters have no interest in using it. What accounts for their reluctance? And what will it take to change their minds?
Because FDM does have such low penetration in the helicopter industry, it’s worth revisiting what, exactly, it is. As the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) defined it in a 2009 “Helicopter Flight Data Monitoring Toolkit,” FDM is “a systematic method of accessing, analyzing, and acting upon information obtained from flight data to identify and address operational risks before they can lead to incidents and accidents.”
All FDM programs have a hardware component — equipment that collects and records flight data from the aircraft — as well as a software component, to turn that data into usable reports. Operators define the “events” they want to monitor in terms of specific parameters. For example, an operator might want to know when a pilot is engaging in sustained straight-and-level flight below 300 feet above ground level, or banking in excess of 30 degrees.
Once those events are defined, FDM software identifies when they occur. These occurrences are then validated by analysts, who confirm that the event was meaningful (and not the result of a recording problem or transient condition such as turbulence). Flight data can be used to identify specific unsafe incidents, but it can be just as useful in monitoring trends — for example, “normalizations of deviance” that occur when pilots consistently fly too low or push their fuel limits. These issues can then be addressed proactively with training or modifications to standard operating procedures, as appropriate.
For large, transport-category helicopters that are required to be equipped with flight recorders, FDM programs can use those recorders as a data source. For many years, those systems were too heavy to install on light helicopters, but compact, lightweight flight data recorders became available in the 2000s. The pioneer in the field was Appareo Systems, who came up with a small, self-contained unit that used internal gyroscopes, accelerometers, and GPS to measure basic flight parameters. With the addition of high-resolution image and ambient acoustic capture abilities, this became the Vision 1000, which has been installed on new helicopters delivered by Airbus Helicopters, Inc. since 2010.
According to Appareo sales manager Casey DeLanghe, although Appareo has made incremental enhancements to the Vision 1000 over the years, it is now a “mature product” that remains targeted to entry-level customers who are seeking a simple and affordable solution. “A lot of people are just getting into FDM,” he said. For them, “the fewer hours you have to spend with it, the better.”
Meanwhile, other companies have entered the market with more sophisticated hardware offerings that capture more parameters, more reliably. Modern digital aircraft have made it easier to record data from aircraft systems, allowing operators to leverage FDM for maintenance cost savings as well as enhanced operational safety. And, because many of the competitors in this space are established flight tracking companies, they’ve been able to bundle their FDM offerings with satellite connectivity, too.
For example, when Metro Aviation acquired the satellite tracking provider Outerlink in 2014, it combined Outerlink’s tracking capabilities with FDM technology developed by North Flight Data Systems (which Metro acquired in 2008). The result was IRIS, an all-in-one solution that provides voice, video, and flight data recording along with broadband push-to-talk voice over internet protocol (VoIP) radio and high frequency satellite tracking.
IRIS uses the ViaSat network to stream data at a cost of just US$0.15 per kB. That makes it practical to transmit 10-second chunks of position and essential flight data, as well as in-cockpit warnings, at 10-second intervals, providing a continuous picture of aircraft health and usage activity. For more in-depth post-flight analysis, more than 400 different parameters (depending on aircraft model) are recorded from the time the aircraft powers on until it powers off.
Latitude Technologies, which started as a satellite tracking company, also offers FDM through its IONode systems. According to Latitude sales director David Thomas, the company’s entry into FDM came when it began monitoring loads for the B.C. Ministry of Forests, and realized it could record and transmit virtually any parameter on the aircraft. As it expanded its hardware capabilities for FDM, it also began offering a web-based software solution in the form of Latitude Flight Data Analytics. Now, said Thomas, “We’re offering a well-priced hardware product with well-priced analysis tools.”
SkyTrac is another flight tracking company that has moved into the FDM marketplace, using its ISAT-200A data acquisition platform. SkyTrac vice president of sales Jan van der Heul said that the company focuses on providing customers with tailored, “end-to-end” solutions. SkyTrac offers full project management and implementation services, including data analysis through a relationship with the company Flight Data Services. For some customers who already had FDM programs in place, SkyTrac has helped them streamline those programs by eliminating manual data retrieval; rather than relying on quick access recorders, SkyTrac’s systems can transfer data automatically via satellite or wirelessly back at the hangar. “Leveraging connectivity is really a step toward streamlining the process,” van der Heul said.
Honeywell has also now integrated FDM into its Sky Connect Tracker III, which provides satellite-based flight tracking, text messaging, and voice telephone services. In late 2016, Honeywell announced a major agreement with Air Methods to equip that company’s fleet with the Sky Connect Tracker III system, upgrading Sky Connect Tracker II units and providing new units as required. In conjunction with that upgrade, the Honeywell partner Truth Data will be supplying Air Methods with FOQA and FDM analytics, information visualization, and reporting.
While early adopters of FDM had to develop flight data analysis capabilities in house, an increasing number of operators are finding it preferable to outsource analysis to third-party companies. “Over the last several years, I’ve seen people need this kind of service,” said Truth Data president Pete Henrikson, a former U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot who gained his initial experience with FOQA programs in the military. Truth Data is a relatively new company, and while it is launching its services with the world’s largest helicopter air ambulance operator, Henrikson said he aims to expand his business to smaller operators, too.
“I think the big thing for small operators is they assume this is for the Air Methods and PHIs of the world,” he said. “But it can be for everyone.”
If FDM really is for everyone, why haven’t more helicopter operators embraced it? There are several possible explanations.
Privacy concerns are often cited as an obstacle to FDM — the idea being that pilots don’t want “Big Brother” looking over their shoulders. Those fears are not unfounded. Without controls in place, flight data can be used punitively, and most of the airlines and offshore operators who were early adopters of FDM have had to negotiate privacy guidelines with pilots’ unions.
It’s relatively easy to guarantee anonymity in a company that operates hundreds of aircraft, but for smaller operators, this may be difficult or impossible. The success of a small company’s FDM program really comes down to its owner’s commitment to just culture — and many proponents of FDM say that if management doesn’t have that commitment, they shouldn’t bother with FDM. “The key always in an FDM program is just culture,” emphasized SkyTrac’s Jan van der Heul.
Provided that just culture is in place, however, many pilots find that FDM isn’t as intrusive as they might have feared. And, audio and video coupled with data analysis can be used to productively understand the interaction of the pilot and flight crew in reported deviations from standard protocol. “Combining all the available tools afforded by FDM ensures that the operator gets the story right,” said Metro Aviation managing director Milton Geltz. “Actions can then be taken to improve the safety and operation of future flights by re-training and re-establishing or establishing acceptable behaviors.”
The fact is, though, that operators rarely give top priority to pilots’ feelings when they’re weighing business decisions. A greater obstacle to broader implementation of FDM may be cost, and a general reluctance among operators to invest in expensive safety programs without a customer requirement or regulatory mandate.
“The cost justification is very important, and it’s very hard to nail down the return on investment,” said Latitude’s David Thomas. “FDM is a long-term payoff — you may not see the value of it for five or 10 years.”
Just how much does FDM cost? Phoenix Heli-Flight’s Paul Spring said that, while low-end installations are available in the range of US$15,000, some of his more sophisticated installations have cost around $60,000. “Still,” he said, “if you amortize that over five years, it’s not that much.” Taking into account that five-year amortization and the cost of a part-time in-house data analyst, Spring estimates that his FDM program adds about $12.30 per flight hour. (Because his oldest installations have required little to no maintenance for nine years and counting, the actual cost may be even less.)
While that’s not a huge additional cost, operators are unlikely to incur it unless they can see the value proposition — and most of them “lack the requisite imagination,” Spring said. “They just can’t get their head around, how is spending this money going to help us? You have to imagine the world with it and the changes in your operations and the benefits it brings.”
Consequently, most of the helicopter industry’s adoption of FDM to date has been driven by customer requirements, primarily in the offshore oil-and-gas industry. “Typically operators are unable to bid on offshore contracts unless they have HFDM programs in place,” observed Mike Pilgrim, a former FDM manager for CHC Helicopter who now runs his own FDM services company, Helinalysis. For most other operators, he said, “it really comes down to a question of cost — many operators just don’t seem to be able to see the benefits and therefore won’t make the investment. But if it’s a requirement, they do it and they find a way to do it.”
A regulatory mandate could also drive FDM adoption. In fact, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s 2014 helicopter air ambulance (HAA) rule does require HAA operators to install FDM systems in their aircraft by April 23, 2018. However, while 14 Code of Federal Regulations 135.607 mandates installation of an FDM system, it does not require collection of data from that equipment, or development of data collection processes. And there are no other regulations mandating FDM in helicopters.
Thus, for the time being, broader implementation of FDM in the helicopter industry will be up to those operators, customers, and insurance companies who understand it and see its value. However, Metro Aviation CEO Mike Stanberry is betting that the new generation of FDM technology — which offers more capabilities and opportunities for cost savings — will eventually become an industry standard. Metro was an early adopter of FDM for its HAA operations, and Stanberry’s belief in its potential has led him to invest millions of dollars in making improved technology a reality.
“There’s no one silver bullet, but there are a lot of bullets — night vision goggles, helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems, enhanced operational control centers and oversight — and if you use all of them you’re going to have a safer operation,” he said. “With the new IRIS technology, for the first time an operator will know in near real-time if the aircraft is being operated within [original equipment manufacturer] limits and specifications, and that the pilot is operating the aircraft within the [Federal Aviation Regulations] and company procedures. When our clients and the insurance industry understand what’s available, my prediction is it’s going to be a requirement.”