Flying in manual mode

 - May 8, 2008, 7:34 AM

Because corporate flight crews operate sophisticated aircraft in an ever-changing environment, a periodic review of the aviation department operations manual is a must. While some factors and considerations may be new, many specifics essentially remain the same but may require some minor adjustments.

Following a highly publicized corporate aviation accident in 1977, the National Transportation Safety Board gave impetus for the development of corporate aviation department operations manuals. NTSB said that this accident could have been prevented had there been written company procedures, including such policies as to when and how an instrument approach should be flown and under what conditions a flight should be diverted to an alternate airport. NTSB specifically recommended that an operations manual should standardize pilot and cockpit procedures for the entire flight.

Acceptance of operations manuals has grown slowly but steadily since that time. Insurance underwriters also recognized that having an operations manual would be indicative of professionalism by aviation department managers and aircrews. The underwriter’s evaluation of an aviation department then began to include an examination of the company’s operations manual, if one was in existence, to determine if it covered all the bases.

Initial internal opposition to having an operations manual came from some department managers and pilots who cited that a written manual would limit the decision-making capability of the pilot in command (PIC). To overcome that opposition, proponents argued that a manual would ensure compliance with pertinent aviation regulations, which are the basis for limitations. And by establishing company policies as to standard operating procedures, they said, crews would know precisely what was expected of them. These proponents also stressed that in no case would a manual usurp the ultimate authority of the PIC as to how to fly the aircraft safely.

Drafting the Manual
Without a doubt, the responsibility of creating and maintaining an operations manual rests with whoever manages the aviation department, no matter what title is used–aviation department manager, chief pilot and so on. That person also has to have a genuine belief in the value of an operations manual so that it permeates through all personnel in the aviation department.

“Flying by the seat of the pants” is no longer acceptable for casual adherence to unwritten policies and procedures that may be partially understood or misinterpreted, resulting in cockpit confusion rather than cohesiveness. The increasing emphasis on training for and the application of cockpit resource management has an implied demand for specifics.

Creating the manual is another problem that has to be addressed. Aviation department managers who may also be pilots are usually selected for their jobs because they have demonstrated management and piloting skills. Other lesser items on the job qualification list may be interpersonal communication skills, budget preparation and accounting and a basic knowledge of aircraft maintenance procedures. Writing and editing skills probably do not receive more than a passing mention. Manual preparation is also a factor since it does take a fair amount of time to develop an outline.

Putting a manual together is the primary objective and there are several ways to achieve that end. A manual that is developed and prepared in-house probably would be ideal for most flight departments. The hang-up is finding someone within the department who has the writing and editing skills, and the time to organize the concepts, policies and procedures. A large aviation department may find the personnel resources among its staff, but a one-aircraft, one-crew department would probably strike out for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, a manual is as important for the large as well as the small aviation department.

Finding Help
Workshops on operations manual preparation were initiated by NBAA in the late 1970s and they are still conducted periodically. If in-house personnel are to prepare a manual, a workshop is a good place to start to exchange ideas with a peer group and obtain a basic overview of what topics a manual should cover. However, attendees will not come away with a completed written manual. And there is a price–attendance at a two-day workshop requires course fees, time and expense for travel, hotel charges and other costs in addition to the employee’s salary and time away from the primary job.

If no one in the aviation department can do the job, the manager might be able to find someone in the public-relations department with a basic familiarity of aviation to translate talk into the written word. Barring that, a college or university close by that has students interested in writing careers may be a good source to help create the manual in-house.

If exploring all the possibilities for producing a manual internally results in a negative response, managers should then search the aviation consultant market for someone who specializes in preparing operations manuals. The usual company procedures for hiring an outside consultant should be followed, such as checking references, determining the time frame for completion, cost and what will be offered as the final product.

Content and Organization
Structuring the content of the manual should be thought out carefully, and logical sequencing of some portions can vary as managers might have differing thoughts as to what is most important.

Management and administration policies, for example, could be the first section in the manual. This section is devoted to subjects that do not have a direct bearing on flight operations or safety-of-flight issues.

A good opening page for this section would be a signed statement by the company’s CEO emphasizing that the manual has been read, understood and endorsed by the highest level of company management. This statement reinforces the manual contents not only for aircrews but for company passengers as well.

Normal management and administration subjects and a suggested order are: a statement as to the purpose of the aviation department; the structure of the aviation department, including the duties and responsibilities of each position; aircrew dress and behavior policies; aircrew training and currency; and aircraft security.

Included in this section or, as appropriate, an addendum to the manual, should be the procedures to be followed in the event of an accident involving a company aircraft. At one time accident procedures were given little attention on the assumption that corporate aircraft operations were inherently safe and there was no need to pay more than passing interest in what had to be done should an accident occur. In recent years, however, more attention has been given to what may be termed as “disaster planning” and several seminars are conducted on this subject.

Larger corporations sometimes indulge in disaster planning as it relates to hurricanes, floods or fires, and define lines of communication and individual tasks. But in many cases this planning does not include an accident in a company aircraft. Aviation department managers may want to consult with the corporate executive charged with disaster planning to determine whether an aviation accident should be included in the company’s master plan or stand alone as part of the aviation department operations manual.

Whether aircraft accident planning is part of the company’s plan or is delegated to the aviation department, the aviation department will probably be the initial focal point. In a large aviation department, it may be possible to designate some person and alternates to follow the plan. In a one-aircraft department, a corporate executive may have to be designated to follow the procedures.

If the company aircraft is in an accident, calls to the company can come from a variety of sources and should be referred to the person designated in the accident plan as the initial point of contact. That person should have a prepared form that lists all of the information that will be required–what aircraft, where, when, extent of damage, injuries and so on. The media is always news-hungry, particularly if there are prominent persons on board the aircraft, and press inquiries should be referred to the company public-relations department or the person designated by the company to respond to the press.

While the aviation department may be inclined to contact aircrew families, the company personnel department should be notified as to passenger injuries or fatalities so that next of kin can be advised of status and company plans.

Crewmembers and other company personnel should not make any statements about the accident to anyone other than representatives of NTSB and FAA, or equivalent agencies in other countries, after they have been properly identified.

Other subjects that can be listed in the management and administration section may be the company policies when crew-members violate FAA regulations or divulge company information (crews are frequently exposed to confidential information relating to corporate activities). It should also include policies on public statements or written articles, pilot qualifications, outside employment by aviation department personnel and other subjects germane to overall company policy.

Safety and Operational Issues
The second section in the manual should be devoted to subjects related to safety and operation of the aircraft. Logical sequencing of this type of information may present a problem.

A good approach might be first to discuss subjects that occur before a flight. This includes physical examination requirements; compliance with FARs relating to a pilot’s medical condition; drugs and medication; use of alcoholic beverages and illegal drugs; blood donations; flight- and duty-time limitations; aircraft loading; passenger briefings; designation of the PIC and the responsibility and authority for a flight; flight preparation; and aircraft preflight inspections.

The very heart of flight operations are the standard operating procedures (SOPs). If the company has time-sharing or interchange agreements with another company, it is imperative that the participating aviation department managers review their respective operations manual to resolve differences in procedures since it is possible to have a mix of company crewmembers.

While the aircraft manufacturer’s flight manual prescribes what the aircrew has to do to operate the aircraft and handle malfunctions, SOPs delve into how the aircrew will function as a team in every phase of flight. Normally, functions can be assigned to the pilot flying (PF) and pilot not flying (PNF) to interrelate those functions as integral parts of cockpit resource management and to establish SOPs that must be followed. The manual should make it clear that checklist use is mandatory for all phases of flight.

Cockpit operating procedures can follow logical steps, but in the first portion of this section crewmembers should be made aware of the company policies relating to use of the altitude alerter and the radio altimeter. New to this area are the automation policies developed by NBAA. These include a discussion of area navigation system operations, FMS/GPS approach operations, display and monitoring requirements, VNAV for nonprecision approaches and missed approaches.

From that point, the SOPs can then address before starting engines, starting engines, taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, VFR and IFR approaches, missed approach and landing procedures. Narrative works reasonably well except for crew coordination during takeoff, approach and landing. In most cases flight procedures match up well to the syllabus for simulator training, but there may be specific exceptions based on accepted company procedures (for example, callouts on final approach and a “quiet” cockpit).

When the cockpit operating procedures come to takeoffs in low-visibility conditions and instrument approaches, it is important to specify what is or is not permissible. Under FAR Part 91, takeoffs in zero-zero conditions can be permitted at the discretion of the PIC, but company policy might ban this option and specify the minimum visibility required.

In the case of an instrument approach, FARs permit the PIC to initiate an approach when the weather at the airport is reported to be below landing minimums. Company policies vary in this area and some dictate that the PIC cannot initiate an approach unless the airport has published minimums.

The cockpit operating procedures end with the landing. However, there are other factors that might affect the various phases of flight, and including them but injecting them into the operational checklists could possibly upset the sequencing. Some of those factors are deviation from prescribed procedures; pilot incapacitation; who may be at the controls of the aircraft and in the cockpit; severe weather restrictions and procedures; how to manage emergencies; and what to do in case of in-flight passenger illness. Also important are the post-flight reporting procedures so that malfunctions are clearly defined and discussed with maintenance technicians.

Maintenance Issues
A third section in the manual should be devoted to the maintenance department and how its activity affects operations. Large maintenance departments may need a separate document that goes into considerable detail as to the internal functions of that department. However, most aviation departments are limited in personnel and, consequently, what they do can be easily incorporated into the flight department’s operations manual.

Subjects that can be covered in this section include the duties and responsibilities of the chief of maintenance; maintenance record keeping; airworthiness releases; preflighting and post-flighting company aircraft; how logged discrepancies should be handled by aircrew and maintenance personnel; minimum equipment list (MEL) procedures; and so on.

It would behoove aviation department managers to include the chief of maintenance in the preparation and discussion of what should be contained in this section. Additionally, the chief of maintenance should be given the opportunity to review this section before publication.

International Operations

A fourth section in the manual, if applicable, should be devoted to international operation planning considerations. The diversity of international operations makes it difficult to be specific, but a general planning outline can be built around the preparation of a tentative itinerary. Items to be addressed include whether airports and their infrastructure are adequate; the requirements for crew and passenger documentation; flight-planning and ground-handling services; fuel purchase options; aircraft documentation; flight documentation; desired aircrew uniforms; and crew identification.

There is an important final point. A company operations manual that is prepared only to satisfy the overall requirement to have such a document and is not put into everyday use by crews is relatively useless. To be an effective document, the operations manual should be discussed with crewmembers before implementation, controversial policies explained and changed if necessary. A copy should then be given to each crewmember, and a copy should be placed on board each aircraft. Periodic reviews of the manual are necessary to ensure that changes in administrative policies and procedures are noted and that the flight SOPs stay current with the development of new equipment and systems. Crewmembers should be given the opportunity to recommend changes that will improve the safety of operations. In essence, the company operations manual is a management tool that can allow company aircraft to be operated safely and efficiently.