The Nuts and Bolts of a Flight Data Monitoring Program: Part I

Submitted by Jeff Currin, FOQUA Manager, Life Flight Network

New to flight data monitoring? Thinking about equipping aircraft in your operation with flight data recorders to comply 135.607? This brief article will provide an outline of the benefits of an FDM program as well as the associated nuts and bolts of managing and making the program effective. Before getting too deep within the weeds, a definition is probably in order; Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) or sometimes Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA), or Helicopter –FDM (HFDM) is referring to an organized program analyzing detailed aircraft data. As I will explain, the analysis can take many different forms and should really start with what questions you would like to answer about flight operations.

Why FDM? 

Perhaps it’s a requirement for a contract or regulation or perhaps believe it’s the right thing to do. Either way, you’re embarking on a project that will provide a wealth of information about how work is done within your flying operation. Prepare to see lots of routine flying, prepare to be surprised, prepare to manage truckloads of incoming information as well as all the associated tools, hardware, software, and the organizational change that will accompany this initiative.

FDM will provide you with a view into your operation that you can leverage in many ways. On the surface, FDM can serve as a compliance gauge, like the radar gun that police use while inconspicuously parked by a highway waiting for the next BMW to drive by at 90mph. Though, I would say that this level of flight data use is the tip of the iceberg. Additionally, I’ve heard operations management excited by the opportunity to use FDM to catch the “rogue pilots” trying to impress med-crew or recreate aerobatics seen on YouTube. Again, while this is a capability of the FDM tool, don’t be surprised if you don’t see any flights like this.

So, what do you do with FDM data?

You now have objective flight data to the thousandth decimal about how your aircraft are being flown… think of the possibilities.

As I hinted at earlier, one of the most illuminating elements of flight data really comes from the ability to compare how you imagine pilots are flying your aircraft with what is happening, essentially gaps in understanding or perception. How do these gaps between imagined and actual look when compared to the flight training program? How do the perceptions of events differ between line pilots, management or check airmen? FDM as a tool can serve to illuminate varying perceptions and start conversations about safety and improvement for your organization.

Next, how about the business case for FDM; You have now gained the ability to track and trend engine performance (depending on recorder) or identify times where engine or rotor limits were exceeded or not. Additionally, you may have insight into routing, fuel loads, and flying that may create more wear and tear on an aircraft than you would like.

I should probably touch on 135.607- the Flight Data Monitoring rule, being relevant to the readers here. The regulation and the supporting guidance tends to focus on flight data as a post-accident tool that can help regulators sort out what the aircraft was doing. There isn’t mention of a requirement for continuous monitoring and there is some ambiguity about what qualifies as “flight performance data” per AC 135-14B and the subsequent clarification from AMOA. The Obvious advice here is to have a good chat with your POI/CMT about how your aircraft are going to meet compliance either via satellite tracking, onboard flight data recorder or through avionics data.

What do I need to do FDM?

At a minimum, you will need two things (not counting time): something to collect data from your aircraft and software to look at that data. Seemingly within the last couple years, there are several hardware options on the market for light aircraft. Additionally, as avionics packages become more glass and less steam, there are several possibilities of utilizing a Garmin flight deck or other avionics suites as a data collection tool. One thing to keep in mind is that all data recorders are not created equal and may not provide data that will answer your questions. E.g. if you really want to have a maintenance-focused FDM program, a self-contained GPS driven data recorder won’t provide the correct information. A quick google search or visit a tradeshow will provide you with several vendors for hardware and software that will assist in getting you the most from your FDM program.

The second part of the equation is the software or analysis tool. This tool along with your elbow grease is what will provide the ROI for the program. Insight is directly related to labor in the analysis phase and the more flight volume your operation has, the more time will be required to dig into the information. More flights equal more data; more data means more variance; more variance means more risk or hazard items to interpret. Maybe at this point if you have a complex organization, high flight volume and don’t want to devote funds for an full time employee you might want to look into a flight data analysis service. There are a few different options out there, though services with specific helicopter experience are fewer.

Overall, FDM is a tool which can provide data on operational risk, hazard and variation. The number of risks you identify is purely based on the amount of time you have to devote and creativity. Of course, like most people writing about FDM, I’m a believer in the program, I’d better be because I do it day in and day out. And of course, I may be a bit biased in my thinking…But really FDM is a unique safety tool, unlike the others in your toolbox; If as an industry we’re serious about reducing the accident rates, we need adopt new safety tools.

There will be more to come, in a follow-up column on software and data details – be sure to check upcoming issues of News on the Fly in May.