FSF Challenges Business Aviation on Safety Issues

 - May 12, 2012, 3:05 PM
Flight Safety Foundation president and CEO Bill Voss.

The Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) maintains that many safety challenges apply to the operation of all modern turbine aircraft, regardless of whether the logo on the tail is an airline’s or a corporation’s. The FSF is also no stranger to business aviation, organizing as it does each year in conjunction with NBAA the Corporate Aviation Safety Seminar; this year’s gathering was held last month in San Antonio, Texas.

From the perspective of FSF president and CEO Bill Voss, one of business aviation’s most glaring challenges is runway excursions, which have accounted for a growing number of accidents and incidents in recent years. “Business aviation is not doing well on runway excursions,” he said, “but they’re a major issue for all operations.”

Voss did, however, acknowledge that business aviation goes into shorter runways, often ones that an operator has not visited before. Unstable approaches are a factor, noted Voss, but sometimes this instability is driven by ATC and airspace design, which tends to favor the hub airline airport rather than the outlying business aviation center. “We see runway excursions to be a significant problem, and we’ve been working with 20 different organizations at ICAO on a runway safety initiative, bringing together pilots, operators, airports, [makers of] engineered material arrester systems, everyone involved.”

Another challenge, one that Voss sees as not yet receiving the attention that it warrants, is the go-around. “The FSF has long been a supporter of no-fault go-around policies and mandatory go-arounds following unstabilized approaches,” he explained to AIN. “We have better access to flight data now than we used to, and we’re finding that only about 3 percent of the time do pilots actually go around from an unstabilized approach. Clearly the advice wasn’t being heeded, but why?”

FSF researchers looked further and found that on the rare occasions when they do perform them, pilots aren’t actually doing very well with missed approaches. “For years, training has been preoccupied with the prospect of an engine-out go-around because at one time that was an extremely difficult thing to do,” noted Voss, “but now with the better performance of aircraft it’s almost easier to go around with one engine out than with all engines operating.”

The U.S.-based foundation has initiated some research on all the factors behind decisions as to whether or not to do a go-around. It intends to issue clearer guidance, based on input from several thousand pilots around the world.

Voss asserted that pilots’ reluctance to perform a go-around stems partly from fear of repercussions but also from acknowledgement that it’s not an easy maneuver. “Pilots don’t necessarily perceive a go-around as a low-risk maneuver, and the data suggests there’s a reason for that concern,” he said. “They actually do get in trouble when they go around, and not always from their boss–sometimes from ATC, and even gravity and the laws of physics. There’s less data available for business aviation because it has fewer FOQA data points, but there’s no reason to believe business aviation pilots regard a go-around any differently.”

Post-accident Criminalization

On the evergreen topic of criminalization in the aftermath of accidents and incidents, “We’re not seeing much progress at all,” lamented Voss. “In fact, it’s going in the opposite direction, particularly in Europe. We’re co-chairing a group working on the protection of safety information, and our work will probably be an appendix that goes on the new safety annex at ICAO.

“There are cases in Italy that no one seems to be covering but they’re fascinating,” Voss commented. “Two cases involve engine failures, after which aircraft landed in Turin and were seized by a judge. In one case the aircraft wasn’t even defueled. In another case it was an Antonov, and the seizure seriously impeded the progress of the investigation by Russia’s MAK and delayed the issuance of a safety advisory on the engine. In another example, an Italian controller cleared an aircraft for a visual approach and it flew into the side of a mountain on a clear night. The controller was convicted for not keeping the aircraft away from terrain even though he complied with all Italian and international rules.”

Functional Check Flights

Part of the Flight Safety Foundation’s charter is to look for things that others are missing in safety. “It’s getting harder to find them after 60-plus years,” conceded Voss, “but we found a good one for the airline industry–the functional check flight. It’s something that has to be done all the time for any operator, whether it’s accepting an aircraft on or off a lease or returning it to service after maintenance, and we found there was nothing out there to guide people through the process.”

Voss reported that the idea has been finding a warm reception at business aircraft OEMs. “It’s something that has been missed, a gap that should be covered, because to tell you the truth we have people sort of faking it,” he said. “There are no procedures or best practices for manufacturers. Is there an identifiable safety problem associated with these check flights? Other than instances of close calls, what we see is an extraordinarily high rate of accidents on nonrevenue flights, non-mission-related flights. There is a knowledge gap.”

Is business aviation better or worse than the airlines on this score? “Hard to tell because many of these are incidents that are typically not reported,” said Voss. “Such flights are treated as abnormal flights in the first place, and people don’t tend to disclose mishaps as well as they otherwise might. We just know that when we talk to operators and manufacturers we’re really hitting a nerve. The anecdotal evidence is substantial, even though we don’t have a strong quantitative base on incidents and accidents.”

Long-lost Stick and Rudder?

Perhaps one of the most troubling safety trends in 2012 is the doubt that the losses of the Air France A330 and Colgan Q400 cast on the core stick-and-rudder skills of pilots flying today’s commercial aircraft, many of them extremely automated.

“We keep trying to pretend this snuck up on us but it had all the stealth of a freight train,” said Voss. “Now we’ve had that event [the A330 accident], we have to have a serious conversation about stick-and-rudder skills, and we do see progress at airlines–notably Emirates Airline, which has inserted two days of manual simulator flying into its pilots’ recurrency training. This is an extraordinarily bold and expensive move; two days of sim is a big hunk of money. Other airlines are altering their automation policies to make sure there is more hands-on time.

“But at the end of the day you still have the fundamental problem that the system is moving ever further away from one where pilots can fly the airplane. Operations in RVSM airspace are expected to be flown on the autopilot, which takes away hands-on cruise flight from pilots pretty much everywhere in the world. Add to that RNP or GNS procedures off the ground, as well as continuous-descent approaches in the terminal area, which take you pretty much all the way down to final, flown coupled because they’re containment-based PBN apps, and we’re clearly going to a future where we can no longer pretend that the automation is there to help the pilot. The pilot is there as a backup to the automation. Those are two fundamentally different concepts, and they’re going to require us to fundamentally revisit our training.”

The FSF is involved more in redefining recurrency training than ab initio, and the foundation is working on pulling together some of the many efforts currently under way. “But this is not a training problem,” Voss emphasized. “The problem is that the operation of commercial aircraft has fundamentally changed. What you do every day when you fly 200 days a year has changed, and changing the curriculum of what you do two days a year during training is not going to fix it. You have to look at the entire system and find a way to reinforce the right behaviors 200 days a year, not just two. Those are the challenges we really have to strap on. It’s a fundamental change, and it’s time the world comes to grips with it.”