The corporate and business aviation sectors have posted strong safety numbers, recording few accidents, but that is no reason for operators to become complacent. That was the message from NTSB member Robert Sumwalt at the Flight Safety Foundation/NBAA annual Business Aviation Safety Summit (Bass), held in late April in San Diego.
Sumwalt, former manager of aviation for Scana and a retired US Airways pilot, is a man obsessed with the pursuit of improving aviation safety. He reminded the audience that leadership is about influencing others. “Your job as leaders in business aviation is to make sure accidents don’t happen on your watch,” he said. “You must also be constantly trying to improve, too. You need a leadership obsession.” Sumwalt said a real danger is that some people interpret the absence of an accident to mean everyone is doing everything right. “If you are on the right track, with a good safety record, pat yourself on the back, but don’t get too smug, too complacent,” he said. He challenged the audience: “Is safety the top priority at your company? Priorities come and go, but your [company’s] values are the heart of the organization. Those should not change. So do you want safety to be a priority or a value? That chronic unease [about all things safety] is what keeps us on our toes.”
Polling the Audience
In fact, Bass master of ceremonies Francois Lasalle, CEO of Morrison, Colo.-based Vortex FSM, raised questions about attendees’ perception of the support they receive from their flight departments. Although the members of the audience possess important industry insights, he said, they are often reluctant to share some of that knowledge in public. Using the “Poll Everywhere” online software, Lasalle anonymously gathered useful safety information from the Bass attendees. All of the online answers were simultaneously projected to the audience, and those answers made it clear why many attendees didn’t want to raise their hands to speak.
One of the first questions focused on the challenges to safety business aviation people face in their flight departments. Twenty-eight percent of the respondents identified gaining company buy-in as their greatest hurdle, with 21 percent revealing that the attitude of people back at home base was the problem. Approximately 19 percent answered that a lack of funding gets in the way, and 17.5 percent cited plain ignorance. Some 16 percent said their department displays a complete lack of will to change anything.
Lasalle asked the group how they convince senior management to implement safety protocols or equipment when the need is only voluntary. A sampling of the responses included, “Apprise management of the risk in writing…only writing changes their tune”; “Emphasize the downside of inaction”; “Highlight the final benefit and make them think it’s their idea.” Others included, “Provide data that supports my position” and “Wait until it’s mandated or there’s enough peer pressure to force their hand.”
In addition to establishing a culture of safety, operators need to familiarize themselves with day-to-day challenges that could pose a danger to the safety of flight. The FSF and NBAA released the 2014 version of their duty/rest guidelines for business aviation at the event. The previous guidelines were released in 1997. Although these new guidelines are not regulatory, they offer general and business aviation a consensus of operational and safety goals equivalent to the major airlines’ recently adopted Part 117 and help flight departments determine whether the current guidelines still provide the expected safety margins.
Leigh White, CEO of Alertness Solutions and the update coordinator noted that fatigue management is a shared responsibility between the pilot and the operator. “We wanted science to be at the core of this document, but we also did not want to create a negotiated, political outcome. We wanted a safety tool for business aviation that works and educates the people in the back [cabin] seat.” Despite a considerable amount of work being done in Europe about fatigue, this working group looked at the duty/rest guidelines from a U.S. science perspective, “as well as 17 years of operational experience to see what had changed since the 1997 guidelines were released,” White said.
Another goal of the duty/rest working group was to produce results that will blend easily with the international community guidelines being created by IBAC, ICAO and FSF. With advancements in fatigue management practices since 1997, the guide is expected to help operators understand where duty/rest guidelines fit into their overall fatigue management efforts and better understand what to do if an operator is required to operate outside the guidelines. The duty/rest guidelines were updated with input from a U.S.-based scientific panel experienced in laboratory research, medicine and operational research, as well as regulatory development and operational design. Aviation industry leaders from around the world served as observers.
Keep a Close Eye on Lithium Ion Batteries
“I never paid attention to lithium batteries before 1999,” Tom Anthony told the Bass audience, “until one day in April 1999 when one of my team told me a pallet of lithium ion batteries was on fire at LAX and they couldn’t put the fire out.” Anthony, now the director of the safety and security program at the University of Southern California (USC), was then the FAA’s Western Pacific division manager for the office of Aviation Security that had jurisdiction over hazmat incidents. He shared recent updates to the rules about lithium batteries, as well as the primary causes of failures and the lessons the industry has learned to date.
Lithium batteries come in two forms: lithium metal and lithium ion. The metal batteries are not rechargeable and are typically found in flashlights, while lithium ion batteries are rechargeable and often found in smartphones, laptop computers and iPads. “The battery incident last year aboard the Ethiopian 787 at London Heathrow involved a lithium metal battery in the ELT. The UPS 747 that crashed in Dubai in 2010 was carrying 80,000 lithium batteries.” He added, “The regulations are changing quickly. ICAO expects its dangerous goods council will soon prohibit lithium metal batteries aboard all commercial aircraft as we do in the U.S.”
Lithium ion batteries are typically organized in packs of individual cells containing a microprocessor to prevent the cells from ever draining completely, a condition that causes thermal runaway. Lithium ion batteries are also pressurized and should have a vent on the site to expel the flammable electrolyte should it begin overheating. Lithium batteries do not like being dropped or punctured. “When carrying spare batteries for laptops or phones, carry them in the cabin so an overheat can be detected quickly,” Anthony said.
Anthony also demonstrated one of the primary reasons lithium ion batteries are so popular today. “A commercial Anti-Gravity 16 lithium ion battery used to start racecars is physically 6 x 3 x 5.5 inches, about the size of a typical motorcycle battery. The Anti-Gravity 16 produces an incredible 720 cranking amps yet weighs just five pounds. By contrast, a Sears Die Hard battery delivering a similar current is much larger and weighs 48 pounds.” For readers who wondered, the cause of the fire at LAX that Tom Anthony mentioned was eventually tracked to the forklift driver dropping the pallet of lithium ion batteries not long before they caught fire.