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Military FOQA Next Step in Safety

By Charlotte Adams | February 1, 2006
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Seeing is believing. That's the essence of the approach to military flight operations quality assurance (MFOQA) taken by the U.S. Department of the Navy. The technology enables an aircrew to visualize difficult moments in a recent flight by replaying recorded data on a desktop computer. In one window they can see a "movie" of the flight sequence from side, top or through-the-windscreen perspectives. In other windows they can see simultaneous depictions of control inputs, the head-up display, cockpit instruments, strip charts of data parameters, or the aircraft's location on a map.

Maintainers can replay a flight segment along with other data to understand what an aircraft was doing at the time a problem occurred. The data and the analysis derived from it offer an objective means of identifying and correcting problems.

"Readiness is the big thing we're after," asserts Connie DeWitte, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for safety. "We like to say, we want to get the most out of FOQA," she stresses, where "most" means maintenance, operations, safety and training benefits.

Although pilots generally dislike the idea of being monitored, Navy and Marine Corps leaders are convinced that aviators will accept MFOQA once they see the benefits and come to view it as a safety tool rather than a snooping device. Much is expected of four squadron-level MFOQA demonstrations employing Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, as aircrews familiarize themselves with the process and help define how the technology will be developed and used.

Unlike its commercial cousins, the Navy and Marine Corps operation is likely to be highly decentralized in structure, predicts Capt. Greg Silvernagel, head of the Common Avionics office, PMA 209, at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), where the new program resides. He envisions MFOQA as "capable of autonomous operations" at the unit level "under a variety of command sizes and structures." MFOQA tools will be used in land-based operations and deployable with squadrons and aircraft detachments on aircraft carriers and other ships supporting aviation.

Saving Lives

For at least three years the department has been studying how to use recorded aircraft data to improve safety and maximize maintenance dollars. Prototype technologies already have helped an SH-60B helicopter training squadron identify critical malfunctions, shorten maintenance cycles, and probably save lives.

David Haas, the technical lead for the department's MFOQA demonstrations, at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Carderock, Md., advances a broad definition of the concept. MFOQA, he says, is a "knowledge management process in which flight performance and aircraft systems data is collected, downloaded, analyzed and visualized," providing "quantitative data and actionable information" to assess aircrew performance, troubleshoot system malfunctions, and identify and address unfavorable trends. The key is to make the data available "in a timely, user-friendly manner, so that you can increase safety and postively affect operations," he concludes.

Aircrews already use hand motions and aircraft models on sticks to visualize aircraft movements in debriefings. Visualization software, available from multiple vendors, adds the ability to actually replay the event and see it from multiple angles in combination with other variables the aircrew may have been too busy to notice at the time.

The demonstrations will educate users, help develop procedures and adapt the technology, and answer questions such as:

  • What data needs to be collected and to what level of precision?

  • What reports should be generated?

  • How should the information be controlled, disseminated and protected?

  • What changes are needed to existing policies and standard operating procedures?

  • Which systems should MFOQA software pass data to and receive data from?

Early Results

Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 41 (HSM-41), a training unit based in San Diego, Calif., operates four SH-60Bs equipped with a preproduction version of the integrated mechanical diagnostics-health and usage monitoring system (IMD-HUMS). This system's architecture was expanded in an earlier demonstration--known as the Joint Advanced HUMS, or JAHUMS--to allow data visualization, real-time flight monitoring, and the tracking of structural loads.

Although the only operational Navy H-60s now using the equipment are those at HSM-41, future MH-60R/S aircraft are to be fitted with this flight data collection system. IMD-HUMS gathers data from the engine, main rotor, tail rotor, and flight control and navigation systems, while monitoring parameters like altitude, airspeed, bank angle, and rates of climb and descent.

IMD-HUMS data already has made an impact. Because it is accessible on a daily basis, technicians are able to spot trends before they can lead to an accident. Maintainers, for example, noticed that an H-60 tail-rotor drive system gearbox was trending out of tolerances. Detection would not have been possible, had maintainers relied on traditional test equipment that must be installed before use, a procedure that takes place at intervals of 175 flight hours.

"The CO [commanding officer] told us that, had he not had [the IMD-HUMS] data available to analyze the problem, he likely would not have had the information necessary to make the decision to ground an aircraft," recalls DeWitte. The CO credits MFOQA processes and IMD-HUMS with saving a $20-million helicopter and possibly the lives of three crewmembers.

At HSM-41, in a single SH-60B work center, maintenance man-hours for post-maintenance functional check flights dropped from 81.5 hours to 19.4 hours, using MFOQA data from IMD-HUMS. The data enabled workers to troubleshoot problems more accurately and confirm the effectiveness of maintenance fixes, so that the aircraft could be flight tested and returned more rapidly to routine flight operations.

In another case HSM-41 was able to avoid a lengthy maintenance procedure by discovering a procedural error, of which the pilot was unaware. A post-maintenance check flight pilot reported that main rotor rpm during an autorotation was outside of acceptable limits, Haas says. But an animation of recorded data for that maneuver indicated that control inputs did not reach the specified value required for a valid check. A second flight with the proper control inputs produced a successful functional check, he says.

A prototype MFOQA tool, providing information in real time to a ground station while the aircraft is in flight, has proved its worth, as well. It monitored systems and tracked the position of an SH-60B as it flew from the east coast to San Diego. The software automatically flagged multiple occurrences of excess engine torque during transit, which indicated low power margins. The information prompted the squadron to obtain two replacement engines in advance of the aircraft's arrival, Haas recalls. The squadron was able to avoid the lengthy downtime associated with ordering and delivering the engines.

Hornet Demo

The Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242 (VMFA [AW]-242) at the USMC Air Station Miramar, Calif., has turned MFOQA to advantage after only a few months of exposure. The 12 F/A-18D Hornets taking part in the demo employ an existing onboard memory unit to collect data, with only one procedural change required during preflight to ensure that all required data is recorded.

Prototype software tools helped troubleshoot an engine "rollback," or unexpected power loss, on approach to landing, says Haas. The maintainers' ability to "see" the anomaly in the context of other flight data by immediately playing back the event saved about eight hours in resolving the problem. The unit also had a video created from the computer-generated animation, which they incorporated into single-engine emergency procedures training. In this instance, MFOQA tools benefited both maintenance and training.

Push From the Top

MFOQA has benefited from the Pentagon's push to reduce the rate of Class A mishaps. (These accidents include either the loss of an aircraft, a fatality or repairs costing more than $1 million.) In May 2003 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called for a 50 percent reduction in preventable accidents over the succeeding two-year period. An energetic safety campaign involving a return to fundamentals and a renewed focus on operational risk management had, by the end of FY05, reduced Class A mishaps by 20 percent for the Navy and 46 percent for the Marine Corps, according to Kurt Garbow, director of aviation and operational safety on the staff of the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for safety.

Since then Secretary Rumsfeld has expressed the wish to see a 75 percent reduction in Class A mishaps by September 2008 from the FY02 baseline, Garbow says. The 2002 baseline for the Navy was 1.8 Class A mishaps per 100,000 flight hours; the 2002 baseline for USMC aviation was 3.9 per 100,000 flight hours. The goal for the end of FY08 is 0.5 or fewer Class A mishaps for Navy and 1.0 or fewer for the Marines per 100,000 flight hours.

"But to achieve a 75 percent reduction, we need a change in the way we're doing business," Garbow asserts. MFOQA is a big part of that change, DeWitte believes, a "concept to help us break through the mishap prevention plateau," particularly regarding mishaps attributable to human error.

As of press time in early January, the Department of the Navy had programmed more than $50 million across the future years defense plan (FYDP) to implement MFOQA on F/A-18C/D, T-45C, MH-60S/R and MV-22B aircraft. "We feel that the startup costs will be quickly recouped...in cost avoidance and other savings associated with improved maintenance and improved efficiency," DeWitte asserts. "We think it will definitely sell itself."

A demonstration involving T-45C Goshawks at Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas, is expected to commence in 2006. New versions of the primary jet trainer include an advanced signal data computer, which will collect the MFOQA data. An MV-22B Osprey demonstration is planned after that.

The T-45C demo will enable student pilots to see that what they did actually may have been a little different from what they thought they did, DeWitte says.

The F/A-18C/Ds were chosen because of their numbers in the fleet and their relative importance to the future of naval aviation, says DeWitt. The aircraft also have "robust digital data recorders already on board," she adds. "Our big push was to document maintenance savings because we thought that would show an immediate return on investment."

Pilots aren't uniformly enthusiastic about MFOQA, however. "The older ones have more questions," she concedes. A common concern in military, as in commercial aviation, is that the information could be used against the pilots. According to an Oct. 11, 2005, memorandum from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, however, MFOQA data "shall not be used...to initiate punitive or adverse action" except where "willful disregard of regulations and procedures" is suspected. But the data is not "deidentified," or stripped of personal reference, as it is in commercial aviation. "There's no intent to strike the names," says Garbow. "The actual uses for aggregate MFOQA data are still being evaluated, but individual pilot performance tracking is a possibility being considered."

Acquisition Program

In planning its program, NAVAIR conferred with aircrews and FOQA specialists at Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and British Airways, recalls Capt. Silvernagel. But commercial FOQA is centralized, whereas PMA 209 envisions a much more federated approach, he says.

Although MFOQA lends itself to analysis at higher levels of aggregation, "we see this as very much a squadron-level tool," he reiterates. "The squadron level is the best chance of influencing risk and risk mitigation," agrees Cmdr. Dan Doster, PMA 209's former MFOQA integrated product team lead.

Other differences between military and commercial aviation that will impact MFOQA design and practice are the military's need to fly multiple aircraft in formation, a configuration that is more challenging to visualize through software, and the need to separate classified mission data from unclassified maintenance data. The military also has a wide variety of aircraft and equipment. One of the assumptions going in, DeWitte explains, was that "we didn't want to put a new piece of equipment on any platform." So each aircraft type's MFOQA benefits depend on what it already can record. The MV-22B's recorders, for example, don't support routine animation of the entire flight.

NAVAIR's MFOQA program, still in concept development, is expected to reach a Milestone B decision in the first three months of FY07. Milestone B is the official kickoff point for a formal program, when it receives authorization to enter the system development phase. At that point PMA 209 will move from planning to actually developing products.

"It's like when the auto manufacturers come out with their concept cars," Silvernagel says. "We're looking at different ways this might be done. There are many things out there, such as COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] tools, that the Navy will want."

The ongoing demos are looking at how MFOQA works at the squadron level. They provide the operators' inputs about how they are using MFOQA technology and what types of reports they would like to see in order to ensure that the emerging program is based on bona fide user needs.

"There probably will be a Department of the Navy-wide policy," Haas advises. "But the demos allow the end-users, early on, to develop expertise and experience, so they have a way to contribute to that. It's a very important objective."

On the maintenance side MFOQA can help analysts detect trends regarding built-in test equipment (BITE), aiding them in diagnosing false BITE indications, where a system says it has a problem, but really doesn't. "The power of MFOQA is the trending of the data," Silvernagel explains. "It's like data mining."

The same thing is true on the operational side. MFOQA data may reveal that a squadron's standard operating procedure, requiring a certain maneuver, may be causing excessive g-loading. By modifying the procedure, it may be possible to extend the life of the aircraft.

The data also can indicate, quantitatively and unambiguously, what a pilot's actual airspeed or torque level was or how long an over-temperature or over-torque condition lasted.

MFOQA Tools

The demonstrations take a "spiral development approach" regarding software tools, Haas says. Operators work with prototype tools, which are gradually enhanced to meet their critiques. NSWC manages the demos' technical aspects, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Safety provides high-level oversight, and NAVAIR develops and acquires the technologies.

Although many COTS tools are available, NAVAIR expects to develop certain software in-house. There probably will be a mix of COTS and internally written applications in fielded configurations. The Navy and Marine Corps have numerous unique databases that could be more efficiently tied together with internally developed software, Silvernagel says. COTS applications such as visualization programs could plug into this environment. Some software will be selected competitively, he predicts. NAVAIR, for example, is looking at enterprise-wide COTS products for pulling together the data and analyzing it. Such products can "move that data up and down the naval aviation enterprise."

Unique military operations, such as formation flying, also may require specialized or modified COTS software. "When you start to look at multiship analysis--a single flight of multiple aircraft--that's a unique thing," Silvernagel says. COTS tools may or may not be able to handle it all that well. "And if you want to synchronize time and positional data, there are a lot of challenges in trying to figure out how to do that."

Visualizations of multiship formations have to be very precise, Silvernagel emphasizes. A low-resolution visualization might show one aircraft flying into another aircraft, for example. "You know that really didn't happen," he says. But such a representation would run counter to training.

Air combat maneuvering (ACM) also requires accurate playback. "One of the things you need to see is how close these aircraft are coming to one another during ACM engagements," their locations, closure rates and what they are doing in the airspace, Silvernagel says. It could be a training and a safety issue. Another point of difference, Haas notes, is that commercial jets fly well-defined profiles, using seldom-deviated-from procedures, while military aircraft may fly extreme profiles in combat. Sophisticated tools are needed because the analysis required "to define what's acceptable and what isn't is much more difficult."

GPS data ensures a replay's positional accuracy although dead reckoning, based on the takeoff strip coordinates and ground speed, also is used. Data such as aircraft attitude, airspeed, g-loads and pilot control inputs at the time of an event is extremely useful to replay without requiring an exact geospatial reference.

NAVAIR emphasizes its no-new-hardware mandate. The data is whatever is being collected already, Silvernagel says. "We're using the data they have in the way they collect it. The program won't cause aircraft mods or ask for data to be collected more frequently.

The MFOQA program then will develop the software that takes the data and puts it into a standardized format, "so that programs that plug in know what type of data they're getting out."

H-60 MFOQA Tools

Thanks to an earlier advanced concept technology demonstration, pilots of the four SH-60Bs from the HSM-41 fleet replacement squadron taking part in a military flight operations quality assurance (MFOQA) demonstration have the opportunity to evaluate the latest analysis and visualization tools. These include the following modules.

  • Post-Flight Animated Debrief (PFAD)--with 3D animations of aircraft, views of flight controls and cockpit instruments, and user-selectable display of available parameters in synchronized, strip chart format.

  • HUMS In-flight Reporting System (HIRS)--with real-time display of aircraft position (overlaid on satellite-based terrain imagery) and systems status during flight operations via an onboard, two-way transceiver.

  • Virtual Sensor System (VSS)--with post-processing of data from onboard neural networks in order to monitor structural and operational usage.

The squadron's MFOQA analysis and display functions are based on newly developed and modified commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) applications. It also has begun to use a 42-inch plasma wall display and an automated reporting tool.

PFAD, in one form or another, will be part of MFOQA, and HIRS and VSS could be adopted in the future. But the basic integrated mechanical diagnostics-health and usage monitoring system (IMD-HUMS), which will be fielded under a separate program, will provide H-60s the minimum recording ability that military FOQA needs.

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