International Operations Special Report: Fatigue and security top issues on conference agenda

 - November 1, 2006, 3:53 AM

International flying is up, probably. While we can’t prove this precisely, many aviation professionals who attended this year’s NBAA International Operators Conference (IOC), which opened March 14 in Colorado Springs, told AIN their hours flown outside the U.S. are increasing.

Tracking the actual number of hours flown for international business aviation is tough because few people will provide much hard data. It was difficult enough to grasp the trends in international flying before 9/11. But now, it is next to impossible, with organizations often citing security as the main reason for the often vague figures.

As always, IOC chairman Roger Rose, a man who has spent most of his aviation career flying outside the U.S., is a wealth of information and always willing to go out on a limb with reporters. “I’ve been seeing lots more N-registered aircraft everywhere,” he said. At least that’s a start.

Although there is no direct correlation between the amount of international flying and the number of IOC attendees, the crowds have been growing each year and may suggest an increasing enthusiasm for international operations. There were 452 attendees at this year’s event, compared with 443 at the conference last year in Anaheim, Calif., and 370 in 2003.

Risk Management

Whether operators are flying domestically or internationally, the key is to “always keep an eye on the ball,” according to Rose. “It is a given that the boss is going to make the trip unless we can provide some compelling reason not to. So a pilot’s job is not simply to fly the airplane, but to correctly identify and mitigate risk. But we must also understand that technology is not a panacea in our industry. The human part of the equation, our intuition, is critical for success.”

Rose thinks intuition is what often saves a crew and passengers when the unusual strikes 10,000 miles from home. He thinks we’re actually lucky to have our failures presented to us in a fashion to learn from, so long as pilots can learn the lessons being taught. Another key question is how to feed the knowledge base that builds that intuitive filter.

“And how do we balance this international risk manager function with our pragmatic side? Fess up to a problem or a point of confusion early on,” he said. He added, “We can all be brilliant. But boy, we as pilots can also be dumb sometimes. We need to foster wry skepticism of self. We need to share the knowledge we’ve gained during our lives.” That’s what international training and conferences such as the IOC are designed to accomplish.

Handling Services

Some flight departments turn to handlers for every trip outside the U.S. while others prefer planning themselves. And then there are some that prefer a combination of the two. Greg Axton, Challenger 604 and Learjet pilot, is one such person. Axton’s principal makes frequent trips to New Zealand from Southern California as well as Costa Rica from South Florida. “Traffic in the South Pacific is lower-key than in Europe, so the more often we fly there, the less often we use handlers. It is becoming pretty much the same with South America.”

Axton readily admits that a good handler can make last-minute changes to a trip and get all the proper notifications to the right people in time. “One of the most important parts of an international trip is getting to know the people who will take care of us at the other end. I don’t mean having a phone number. I use the phone number to call the handlers everywhere we go, before we go. I want to be able to put a face to a name when I arrive.”

But for pilots who are either new to international flying or have enough experience in places such as the Middle East, China or parts of Europe to know that trying to make the trip happen on their own is too costly in time and effort, the big handling companies are there to help. Organizations such as Base Ops, Universal, Colt and Air Routing provide similar services such as flight planning, overflight and landing permits, fuel and hotel arrangements, weather and help navigating the ATC systems of countries off the beaten path.

Some handlers will have their own employees on hand to meet arrivals, while others use contract people in some locations. “When I choose a handler, value is important,” Axton added. “But I hate switching from company to company to save 10 percent. If you keep moving around, it is difficult to form any lasting relationships.”

And those, Axton added, are what can make the difference between success and failure when you’re out of the U.S. Axton chose his current handler, Pacific Coast Forecast out of Van Nuys, Calif., based on a referral from another pilot.

Fatigue and Scheduling

Jon French, a professor at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and an expert in sleep and fatigue issues, was the lead speaker on a crew fatigue forum on the last day of the IOC. He asked how much longer pilots can remain complacent about the issue of fatigue on long international duty days that often cross multiple time zones. “We’re suing doctors for mistakes made while they are tired. Can pilots be far behind? Bus and truck drivers’ work days are better regulated than those of corporate pilots.”

The fatigue issue pops up at every seminar on international flying for one simple reason: most accidents point to pilot error, not the airplane, as a cause. Fatigue only makes the situation worse. Each day that pilots cut themselves short on their overnight rest or shorten the time needed for a turnaround, they are laying the groundwork for a potential disaster.

But pilot egos still get in the way of sound judgment as crews feel the need to fly just a little farther. While many will acknowledge this fact, they still feel compelled to continue in the face of growing fatigue. And asking fatigued aviators whether they are too tired to continue only puts their egos back in motion since their brain is not functioning on all eight cylinders.

“Sleep debt costs us more than the national debt,” French said, referring to the reduced productivity of workers who attempt to work when they are sleepy. “Sleep deprivation takes an incredible toll on the human immune system too.”

French related stories of research he’s conducted with the U.S. military flying C-5s. “Some of those crews would ferry vehicles and personnel to Somalia from America only to be told they’d need to turn around and go right back to the U.S. because the aircraft were needed. The Air Force would tell them, ‘Don’t worry, this is a one-shot deal.’ But it wasn’t. Some of these crews are making these kinds of flights again and again.”

The textbook effects of sleep deprivation are lapses of attention, errors of omission, slowed reaction time, impaired short-term memory, irritability and depression. For flight crews, sleep issues play out as one or both crewmembers have difficulty focusing on a topic or problem, miss radio calls, make what we call “dumb mistakes,” have unclear speech or nod off in flight.

When NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System began tracking pilot errors in 1988, only 2 percent of the 60 incidents reported integrated fatigue into the stories. Ten years later, 12 percent of the nearly 200 incidents cited fatigue as a related factor.

Short naps of less than an hour can carry most people through the next three or four hours of work, while three or four hours of deeper sleep can carry someone through to the next regular nightly sleep period. French believes most people need eight hours of sleep each night whether they believe it or not. “If crews are tired, they’re not simply a problem; they’re dangerous. We must get into the mindset that sending pilots out tired is unconscionable.”

Ray Braddy, the assistant chief pilot for The Home Depot in Atlanta, understands international flight crew scheduling and the fatigue problem from the operational side. His flight department flies an international trip every other week. The well known home and builder supply house operates a Global Express, two Falcon 900Bs and two Falcon 50EXs.

William Costa is chief pilot for IBM. The flight department at his company and at The Home Depot operate more as a blend of a Part 121 airline and a corporate flight department than as a purely Part 91 operation. Each manager has helped foster a culture where the right thing to do on any trip, especially international ones, is to listen to the people who are actually performing the work. “What good is a book filled with company procedures if no one uses them?” Costa asked.

The goal for both flight departments began as a search for a way to safely quantify the duty day, which included delivering uninterrupted periods of crew rest. Braddy, in fact, acknowledged that one of the toughest duty days for crews is actually an ATL-LAX-ATL trip where the crews might sit around in Los Angeles for six or seven hours between legs.

The correlation to international trips was a simple one. Braddy said The Home Depot team used a combination of benchmarks from other flight departments along with bits and pieces of Part 121 and 135, as well as tips from the Flight Safety Foundation and the crews themselves to build its policy. The policy considered the circadian cycle of the human body to avoid scheduling crews for departures or arrivals during low times. “And I can tell you that we did not get it right the first time around either,” Braddy added.

To ensure the policy continues to work, The Home Deport continuously surveys both cabin and cockpit crews for no-penalty feedback. Their efforts resulted in a maximum 16-hour duty day with the flexibility for the PIC to set rotation policy with augmented crews, for example. To provide for the maximum duty time safely, the company began using other company pilots to perform the preflights on the aircraft before the operational crews arrived at the base. Relief crews must also be in place well in advance of the aircraft arrival to maintain adequate crew rest requirements.

“The Home Deport flight department wanted to be an industry leader in dealing with scheduling and fatigue issues,” according to Braddy. The goal was also to look for ways to say “Yes” to a trip but also to know where and when to draw the line.

The 77 people in IBM’s flight department operate eight aircraft. Costa conceded, “We were not always great at communications among our pilots. One trick IBM uses to avoid scheduling problems on international trips is to communicate individual crewmembers’ schedules to the dispatcher so they can see how a trip might affect us. Our GIVs have a curtained crew rest area, while the GV has a partitioned cabin with an extra lavatory.”

Costa said his group always tries to schedule on the conservative side and make the trip work by looking for new options that fit the current guidelines. “We also communicate to our passengers exactly what it is we can do, as well as what we cannot.”

Like The Home Depot, IBM wants to be certain its crew scheduling policy does not simply become a dusty book on a shelf, so the company also uses a risk-assessment system that allows anyone to file a safety report in the company database. The reports are also made available for everyone to review. “We encourage crews to say, ‘I’m not comfortable with this operation’ if they truly feel that way,” Costa said. If duty-day guidelines are ever violated, IBM also uses feedback forms to track the cause. “We have changed how we have crewed trips based on this feedback,” Costa said. “The trick is to get the feedback.”

Although not all flight crews have the luxury of waxing philosophical about their choice of international flight techniques, Axton said his boss prefers a few stops along the way rather than simply looking for the best way to make all trips nonstop, although Axton does make such trips when they’re called for. “If we can make a 13-hour day with just one stop and the weather is good, I’d probably prefer that to multiple takeoffs and landings that increase the risk of an accident. But then my boss believes we miss a large part of the world around us if we try everything nonstop.”

International Training

Surprise visitors at this year’s International Operators Conference were a flying couple whom almost every pilot today has managed to invite into their home at one point or another…John and Martha King.

They attended only as members of the audience, but when AIN caught up with them, they were clear about their goal. “We’re thinking about how to put together an international training session from our company,” John said. “As pilots, we always seem to make things like flying internationally complicated and it doesn’t need to be.” John and Martha recently returned from flying their Falcon 10 on a trip around the world. Both Kings are type-rated in the Falcon and previously spent many years flying a Citation 500.

“Perhaps we are so good at making business aviation flying look complicated because we were taught that way ourselves,” John asked. “But how many training sessions have you attended where the cause of the accident was that the crew lost situational awareness? The real question, the real topic should be how we train the crew to recognize when they’re losing that awareness before they have an accident.” No small task. Most training is focused on the nuts and bolts of navigating the North Atlantic or dealing with PANOPS or customs or a variety of other also important topics. But teaching people the “how” of the solution to human factors issues is seldom addressed.

Martha King, who holds every possible flight instructor rating, said, “We’re going to build an international training class that will keep the training ideas simple. We’re going to clarify the topics, simplify them and make the entire process fun at the same time.”

Known for the dozens of acronyms they’ve added to the aviation training environment, John said their newest for international training will be REM, “Make the topics Relevant, Engaging and Memorable. We need to show international pilots how to manage the practical side of the risk management task, not simply tell them what others have done wrong.” The Kings said they’ve had discussions with NBAA about possibly partnering to design an online international training class. “One way or another, though, we’ll put this kind of training together.”

Interestingly, for Part 91 operators no regulation currently exists that requires international training before leaving the U.S. shoreline. The word “knowledge” is bandied about in government handbooks, but not “training.” The Europeans, on the other hand, have strict international training requirements before pilots can make even the 16-mile flight across the English Channel.

As Dave Stohr, president of Air Training International, repeats at each IOC, “U.S. pilots may be licensed by the FAA and may need to follow ICAO rules when outside the 12-mile limit, but they’re beholden to the flag of each country they visit. And to fly there safely, they must prepare by learning the frequently changing rules each of those countries imposes on the international flying game.”

International flying is not simply about learning how to operate outside the borders of the U.S. It is also about passing on the information learned so that the next pilot won’t make the same mistake. It is an unwritten duty of all pilots to share the operational information they learn. Axton has found that some international training over the years has been more valuable than others. The main thing he’s concerned about is learning. “Communicate, communicate, communicate,” Axton said. Rose calls it “sharing the knowledge.”

The 2006 NBAA International Operators Conference will be held in Tampa, Fla.