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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bringing Benefits to the Masses:   

An FAA-sponsored research project aims to make the benefits of flight data monitoring available to helicopter operators small and large.

By Keith Cianfrani

An R66 Turbine Marine.
Photo courtesy of Robinson Helicopter Company
Helicopter operators, manufacturers and university researchers are collaborating in an FAA-sponsored project to lay a foundation for broader use of flight data monitoring (FDM)—and the safety management systems it supports—to improve rotorcraft safety.

I belong to a university research team from The Florida Institute of Technology that is participating in the initiative, Rotorcraft Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (Rotorcraft ASIAS).
(From top to bottom):
An AW119. Photo courtesy of AgustaWestland
An H225. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters
An H120. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters
A Bell 206L4. Photo courtesy of Bell Helicopter
The project aims to push the boundaries of FDM technology while avoiding undue cost or resource demands on participating operators. Its goal is to develop baseline flight-parameter sets that operators—particularly those with smaller fleets—might use to compare their flights with those of other operators in the same market segment, and use those comparisons to identify best practices.
To date, FDM generally has focused on parameters selected by individual operators to reflect their own management needs, though some other efforts have been launched to broaden its use.
“The challenge really is making FDM more of an enabler to the average pilot, the average operator, as well as the manufacturers,” Cliff Johnson, Rotorcraft ASIAS’ FAA project manager, told a June 2 Rotorcraft Safety Seminar in West Chester, Pa., hosted by AgustaWestland, Helicopter Association International (HAI) and the FAA Safety Team. “We’re trying to expand the use of flight data monitoring out to the helicopter community.”
Johnson is a research engineer in the FAA Technical Center’s NextGen Aviation Research Division.
The multi-year research project began in September 2013 and draws on the ASIAS initiative to improve further commercial airline safety. Itself an outgrowth of the highly successful Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) effort to drive airline accidents toward zero, ASIAS promotes the open exchange of safety information to continually improve aviation safety.
Operators in that initiative contribute flight data and other information to a third party, which strips it of information that might identify its source, aggregates it, and makes it available for analysis to identify common issues and trends among airline operators. The third-party arrangement is intended to safeguard the source information from public disclosure through Freedom of Information Act requests and other actions. In addition, it precludes the FAA from viewing the data; only researchers or operators are permitted to analyze the data.
Compared to commercial aviation, general and helicopter aviation have higher accident rates (even considering their higher numbers of flight hours). Concerned at a lack of steady progress toward reducing the number of rotorcraft accidents (both fatal and non-fatal), the FAA established a center of excellence for general aviation called the Partnership to Enhance General Aviation Safety, Accessibility and Sustainability (PEGASAS). Rotorcraft ASIAS was set up under PEGASAS to pursue the application of ASIAS’ philosophy and practices to helicopter operations.
“We want to help to reduce accident rates,” Johnson said. “We can do that by proactively analyzing information and using it for training purposes, to pinpoint hazards and risks and to make us more aware of how we fly.”
With that in mind, HAI agreed in 2013 to collect data from volunteer operators, “de-identify” that data, store it in a secure, online repository and make it available to researchers for analysis. The Rotorcraft Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (Rotorcraft ASIAS) was established.
Under it, operators individually sign agreements with HAI to provide their data, with the agreements to preclude public disclosure through HAI’s status as a non-profit organization. Each agreement governs what data the operator will provide to the database and how it will be used. It also defines the data-retention policy.
An operator only has access to its own raw data; all data is de-identified before being used by researchers, who work under separate agreements with HAI to access and analyze the data.
“The FAA never sees the data,” Johnson said. “I’m with the FAA and I don’t get to look at the data.”
Once its data is analyzed, an operator receives custom reports on its flight operations. The aggregate results used by the researchers also are available to operators, allowing an operator to compare its flight practices with the industry as a whole or with operators in its mission segment.
There is no cost to participating operators other than the small amount of time to upload data to the database.
As the project enters its third year, a growing number of helicopter operators have agreed to participate and voluntarily submit their FDM data.
Flight data once was considered only a reactive safety tool used after an accident or incident. That began to change in the mid-1990s, as operators and regulators began to embrace the value of voluntarily sharing and analyzing data in non-punitive environments.
The airline-focused CAST was created in 1997. Two years later, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority launched its Helicopter Operations Monitoring Program (HOMP) to reduce human factors-related helicopter incidents for offshore support operators in the North Sea. That led to an International Civil Aviation Organization study group unanimously agreeing in 2004 to pursue making HOMP a recommended practice for all flight data recorder-equipped helicopters.
In 2009, offshore support operators serving the U.S. Gulf of Mexico undertook closer, more organized discussions on safety matters based on their individual and collective FDM and Health, Usage and Monitoring Systems (HUMS) data. In 2011, they formed HeliShare with aeromedical operators to share FDM and HUMS data. The group’s goal is to collaborate in enhancing safety and compliance among its members by sharing knowledge and experience in processes, equipment and regulatory matters. The group also shares FDM/HUMS case studies.
In 2012, the Global Helicopter Flight Data Monitoring Community was set up to help operators solve the practical problems of applying FDM to their businesses and missions. One of those problems is cost. Setting up an FDM program requires labor and time that small operators might be hard pressed to find. That is one reason that Rotorcraft ASIAS is pursuing an automated means of compiling a large base of data from multiple operators in the same mission segments.
 If parameter sets highlighting precursors to an accident or incident can be built into a tool that lets an operator “take a look at those things in automation,” Johnson said, “that can save you time and effort.”
Operators today use a variety of tools to perform flight data monitoring. Some of the more popular devices are the Appareo Vision 1000, ISIE Helicom, Latitude ION100, SkyTrac ISAT-200A, Wi-Flight GTA02, and the NorthFDS/Outerlink.
These devices inform the operator about the helicopter’s state in the air via parameters such as GPS tracking, ambient air temperature, heading, airspeed and even audio and video. The information they gather can help mitigate hazards to helicopter flight and identify anomalies in flight.
Subject-matter experts from the FAA confer with researchers from the Florida Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology and Purdue University. Other participants include CAE Flightscape, several helicopter operators and manufacturers, the International Helicopter Safety Team, the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, and MITRE Corp.’s Center for Advanced Aviation Systems Development, a U.S. federally-funded research and development center and the repository of flight data for the commercial airline ASIAS project.
The Rotorcraft ASIAS initiative is eliciting support from commercial operators to provide their FDM data, and harnessing the results to improve industry-wide mission safety.
Image courtesy of the FAA
Rotorcraft ASIAS is looking for more helicopter operators to volunteer to share flight data and support its analysis.
“What we are undertaking right now is the research into how to build the system and how to analyze different things,” Johnson said. “The universities are helping us come up with the algorithms, the events, the trends, the statistics—the things we want to monitor to help reduce the factors that are the root causes of accidents.”
A focus of the research is to determine which parameters are common to particular mission segments, and create a tool that a small operator might use to compare flights and trends with those of other operators in that same segment.
For example, “can we compare like operations between a Bell 206 JetRanger being flown in New Jersey with one that’s being flown in California or somewhere in between?” Johnson asked. “How do I rack up and compare my operations with others in the aggregate to make me a little bit safer?”
The current work includes devising FDM data-mining techniques and tools for safety analysis, generating a minimum list of safety events and identifying their metrics, as well as identifying appropriate boundaries for those metrics whose breaches (or in FDM parlance “exceedances”) may be precursors to an incident or accident. Rotorcraft ASIAS researchers also are working to identify events, metrics and precursors for specific helicopter mission segments and develop data-enhanced simulation models.
“We’re trying to evolve the state of the art in standard processing of flight data,” Johnson said, “and then provide some tools within FDM that can actually go out to the community for it to use proactively, on a regular basis, before an accident occurs.”
Rotorcraft ASIAS’ outreach activities have included presentations at Heli-Expo in 2014 and 2015—which included several FDM presentations during the Rotor Safety Challenge—and at other events worldwide.
In arguing the benefits of FDM, advocates don’t limit themselves to safety, but highlight operational and financial issues.
One commercial operator that has an extensive and effective FDM program is Phoenix Heli-Flight. FDM has helped it gain transparency throughout its operations when practicing safety management and has helped it save hundreds of thousands of dollars with accurate maintenance and flight information.
Shortly after its decision to incorporate FDM in 2009, Phoenix Heli-Flight had an accidental over-torque on departure in an Airbus AS355 TwinStar. The pilot could not recall what the airspeed was during the over-torque. Phoenix Heli-Flight contacted the manufacturer, which indicated that the type of inspection that was required depended upon the airspeed.
The company used FDM to determine the airspeed. Since the airspeed was under the limitation required for an OEM inspection, Phoenix Heli-Flight only had to perform a minor inspection. The aircraft was returned to service with a logbook entry. The owner of Phoenix Heli-flight, Paul Spring, estimated the savings from a total OEM inspection at $250,000. This surely was a good return on his investment in an FDM program.
I would like to thank Cliff Johnson, Hernando Jimenez of Georgia Institute of Technology, and the entire Rotorcraft ASIAS team for their support in this article. For more information, or to participate in the project, please contact me at: http://safety4pilots.com or go to rasias@rotor.org.


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