A year from now the FAA's new flight data monitoring (FDM) mandate takes effect for air ambulance operators. But how do operators use all that data as it relates to a flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) program? That was the question posed by Brian Mahoney, business development manager of Skytrac Systems, at a recent operators forum. "Are you just collecting the data to 'check that [compliance] box' or are you actually using it to advance safety?" Mahoney provided some basic guidelines for how to integrate FDM data into an organization's safety program.
Per FAR 135.607, after April 23 next year, "no person may operate a helicopter in air ambulance operations unless it is equipped with an approved flight data monitoring system capable of recording flight performance data." The system must: "(a) Receive electrical power from the bus that provides the maximum reliability for operation without jeopardizing service to essential or emergency loads, and (b) Be operated from the application of electrical power before takeoff until the removal of electrical power after termination of flight."
In Section 10 of the Final Rule, the FAA proposed that flight performance data include "a broadly defined set of parameters including information pertaining to the aircraft's state (heading, altitude, attitude), condition (rotors, transmission, engine, flight controls) and system performance (Fadec and Efis)." However, Mahoney acknowledges that the regulation is "imprecise," but pointed out that it gives operators a certain latitude to select recorders best suited for the types of aircraft they fly.
Trend Analysis Gains
Setting up a fully integrated program can be time-consuming and expensive, and that means the benefits have to be fully explained and sold to top management, Mahoney said. "The operators want it, the maintenance guys want it, but they have to go to their bosses and sell it. Half or more of atypical events can be eliminated with FDM data. G-force exceedance, over-temping... By looking at the data, operators can reduce the number of occurrences they have and that saves money. String together a few $40,000 incidents and it adds up," he said.
Beyond short-term maintenance gains, Mahoney points out that the data can be used to transform an organization's culture, to make it safer and more efficient, by using metrics such as trend analysis. "How can we use it to transform the culture? What kind of trend analysis are we doing? One of the things you have to do right off the bat is look at what kind of challenges your organization has. Where have you had problems in the past? What are your 'D' points? What are the things that are causing the most difficulties internally? Then you can figure out how this system can help you. You can figure out how to tie all the data points together to help maintenance and operations to make it work for you," he said.
Starting an integrated program can seem overwhelming, so Mahoney recommends a go-slow approach and counsels patience. It might take a year or more to have enough data before an organization can start applying meaningful trend analysis.
"We recommend starting with a targeted approach. If you have a mixed fleet, maybe start with one aircraft type and work your program through that and then roll into the next aircraft type and start developing that. If you try to jump in all at once, sometimes that can be a problem," he said, adding, "Figure out what events are affecting you and what you want to monitor. What things concern you every day, both on the maintenance and operations side? Commit to using the system and reading the data. Integrate it into a goals system. You have to figure out your goals and what you want to achieve. Obviously when you are just starting out you don't have a lot of data you can go back and compare against. It may take a year's worth of data—unless it is something really dangerous—before you spot clear trends. Then you can go back and look at what you are doing, see if it makes any difference, and if you are training for the right items. You can also integrate the data into an SMS [safety management system] and SMS levels. That has the added benefit of reducing insurance costs."