In the early days of flying, pilots relied on the "that looks about right" method to stay out of trouble. This approach meant that lessons were usually learned the hard way: from mistakes, close-calls, and years of hard-earned experience.
Fortunately, in addition to learning from our own mistakes, we can also learn from others. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself.”
Informally, we already do this with “hangar talk” when we get together with other aviators. But recollections are not always accurate, unbiased, and in some cases, unembellished. Fortunately, technology exists that allows us to replay our flights with accuracy and precision. This data-driven approach helps us better understand hazards, find the sources of safety issues, and develop practical solutions.
Flight Data Monitoring (FDM), also known as Flight Quality Operations Assurance (FOQA), gives us this ability.
This article will look at six different threats that organizations can identify with FDM technology and what to do about them.
But first, what is FDM? Let’s take a quick look.
FDM works by collecting vast amounts of inflight data from computers onboard an aircraft, just like those collected by flight data recorders (FDR). However, unlike FDRs, which typically only gets analyzed after an accident or incident occurs, FDM data is meant to be accessed at any time. After all, the intent of FDM is to identify unsafe trends before an accident or incident occurs.
Once FDM data is downloaded, it can then be further analyzed and studied to identify potentially unsafe trends. This technology has been used in the airline industry for decades but has only recently been popularized in the business aviation sector.
The program's purpose is to identify trending issues that may affect flight safety. Trends discovered through aggregate data are of far greater value than data collected from a single flight alone. By accumulating this valuable data, organizations can better enhance their standard operating procedures (SOP), maintenance procedures, and even improve pilot training.
As an added layer of protection, most organizations establish a written corporate safety policy statement in conjunction with their FDM program. This policy statement establishes protective provisions to their pilots against disciplinary or other punitive action from the company from data or information produced by the FDM program.
The motivation for these safeguards is to help ensure that the FDM program’s sole focus is to improve flight safety. And the way safety managers do that is to avoid pinning the blame on the “who” or “what” and instead focus their energy on fixing the “why” and “how.” By analyzing the deeper roots of problems, safety managers can make lasting safety improvements in their organization.
The purpose of FDM is not about accumulating vast amounts of data--it’s about finding effective solutions. And this is where the power of a forward-thinking and creative safety department comes into play.
By identifying unsafe trends early-on, flight departments can implement solutions proactively before an accident or incident ever has a chance to occur.
Let’s take a look at six unsafe trends that a new safety manager might discover using FDM while also offering some practical solutions to reverse those trends.
According to International Air Transport Association (IATA) safety data from 2005-2019 , runway excursions occur far more frequently than any other accident type. A runway excursion is when an aircraft veers off or overruns the runway surface. These events can occur while an aircraft is taking off or landing and involves many factors ranging from unstable approaches to poor braking performance.
While most of us may not have experienced a runway excursion ourselves, we may be surprised to learn how close to one we routinely get. Consider the compounding effects of a number of everyday occurrences: landing a few knots fast, a bit of tailwind, moderate rain on an un-grooved runway, and floating several hundred feet beyond the touchdown zone. Individually, these may not seem like significant factors, but when combined, they significantly increase the likelihood of a runway excursion.
There can be many more underlying issues that most pilots may be unaware of, as well. But with FDM, we can accurately identify and analyze these recurring issues and find ways to stop them before they escalate into an accident.
A safety manager could program their FDM software to recognize when an aircraft comes close to a runway excursion using performance metrics, such as where the aircraft touches down and precisely where on the runway they manage to slow to taxi speed.
Capturing that kind of flight data is invaluable in helping develop better scenario-based training for pilots. The training department could create scenarios that duplicate the data collected from a real-world flight experienced by their own aircraft and use that information during routine recurrent training.
As a result, pilots can safely experience situations that could ultimately lead to a runway excursion in a simulator without actually causing one in the real world. This experience can help them learn valuable lessons that can one day mitigate an actual runway excursion from happening.
According to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), business aviators have a tendency to carry excess speed and float into long landings. In fact, data shows that the average business jet touchdown point is around 1,600 feet beyond the runway threshold whereas nearly 20% of landings as far as 2,000 feet .
A long landing could be caused by many factors, such as a desire to make a smooth touchdown for passengers or accepting a tailwind on landing to facilitate a shorter taxi. But despite these perceived benefits, a long landing can significantly increase the risk of a runway excursion, particularly if the runway is short or contaminated.
Safety managers should connect with their training department to create a multifaceted approach to targeting this problem. Shifting operational norms, creating training material regarding aircraft landing performance factors, and emphasizing the dangers of runway excursions can help reinforce proper landing discipline and enhance situational awareness.
Proper landing techniques can also be better emphasized in the simulator during recurrent training. Even though landing the airplane in the real world is much different from the simulator, starting with good habit patterns and making tracking long landings a focal point to the department can help address this unsafe trend.
After implementing these solutions, safety managers can continuously monitor FDM data to see if their efforts are actually making a positive change in their flight operations.
According to a 2017 study by the Flight Safety Foundation , unstabalized approaches can significantly increase the potential for approach and landing accidents (such as runway excursions). Yet it is estimated that globally less than 3% of unstabalized approaches result in a go-around. This alarmingly low go-around compliance rate suggests that the issue is a complex one.
The expectation of regulators is that, should an unstabilized approach occur, a go-around is the appropriate and expected response. As a result, there’s an industry-wide effort to increase the rate of executing go-arounds due to unstabilized approaches.
But understanding why pilots hesitate to execute a go-around is a topic that continues to be studied closely. Nevertheless, the fact remains that continuing an unstabilized approach can create many undesirable outcomes. As a result, flight departments need to find ways to educate their pilots on the importance of go-around compliance.
By using FDM, safety managers can identify common causes of unstabilized approaches. Is there a particular airport where there are the most significant numbers of unstable approaches? Has the organization added a new type of aircraft to the fleet, and pilots are getting behind the airplane? Are pilots receiving enough training to feel confident enough to perform a go-around? Do pilots even know what the stabilized approach criteria are in the first place?
Whatever the contributing factors may be, FDM can be used to help pinpoint these areas for improvement.
It also bears mentioning that flying an instrument approach can be challenging, especially at unfamiliar airports and in poor weather. There are numerous “gotchas” to look out for, which is why studying approaches ahead of time and conducting thorough approach briefings are so important. Of the issues that can make an approach challenging, some can be more subtle than others.
With FDM technology, we can analyze runways with particularly high rates of unstabalized approaches and then identify some of the sources of those issues.
One example of a subtle threat is the final approach fix (FAF) location, which marks the start of the approach's critical final segment. As pilots, our standard operating procedures (SOPs) or personal preferences may be to use the FAF as a reference point to configure the aircraft for landing. If so, it’s important to remember that not all FAFs are alike.
Typically, a FAF is located around 6 miles from a runway. But some FAFs may be found as far as 10 miles from the runway, while others may be closer to 3 miles from the runway. If pilots don’t consider the FAF location and adjust their configuration accordingly, they may be caught by surprise.
The unusual location of some FAFs can present issues for pilots, mainly if their SOPs require that they reference the FAF as part of their standard approach profile.
A picture tells a thousand words. A safety manager can pictorially recreate actual flights and approaches from FDM data and show them to their pilots. Also, it’s important not to miss an opportunity to showcase well-executed approaches, too! It is beneficial for pilots to see how it should be done and not just how it shouldn’t be done.
Using FDM to monitor the way instrument approaches are flown, safety managers can identify “gotchas” at specific airports and alert their pilots proactively. This enables organizations to use actual data to drive better flight training and information to help reduce the number of unstabilized approaches.
In training (particularly in the simulator), pilots typically practice go-arounds close to the ground near “minimums” when the aircraft is fully configured for landing. A go-around would then require maximum available thrust to ensure a safe climb away from the ground.
But in the real-world, go-arounds can occur at any stage of an approach and pilots need to be ready for it. And if a go-around is executed close to the missed approach altitude, using maximum available thrust may not be appropriate. Pilots may need to modify their typical go-around profile to avoid overspeeding landing gear and/or flap speed limitations during these situations.
Although repetitive go-arounds in the simulator are usually a non-event, in the real-world every go-around is unique and presents unique challenges.
It's a good idea to use FDM to monitor how go-arounds are flown in the real-world to determine if existing procedures and training are effective.
If deficiencies are found, one creative solution for improving pilot training is through video. While a picture tells a thousand words, a video even more so. A creative training department can export FDM data into a flight simulator to bring their FDM data to life. These videos or animations can then be distributed amongst the pilot group for review and also be recreated in a simulator for recurrent training scenarios.
These videos can showcase how the typical go-around profile can be modified in certain situations and highlight potential pitfalls.
Since smooth landings are a source of pride for many pilots, a hard landing can hurt in more ways than one. Hard landings can put a tremendous structural strain on aircraft, which may require an unscheduled maintenance inspection.
Unfortunately, what constitutes a “hard landing” to some pilots may not necessarily apply to others (insert joke about Navy pilots here). The subjective nature of a landing’s firmness makes categorizing an actual “hard landing” a very imprecise science.
With the benefit of FDM, mechanics can quickly identify hard landings to determine what inspections (if any) may be required, thereby saving time while also managing maintenance costs.
Similarly, hard landing data can be collected over time to help determine common contributing factors. As a result, better landing techniques and training can be developed to help pilots reduce hard landings.
Typically FDM data can be downloaded in a matter of minutes. So if pilots suspect they may have induced a hard landing, a quick data download is all that’s necessary to determine what maintenance action may be required.
As with hard landings, the “smoothness” of a flight is also largely subjective. With FDM, passenger comfort limits can be programmed to help identify areas where these limits may be exceeded.
Although ensuring passenger comfort must never come at the expense of safety or compliance, there could still be room for improvement. Since it is our responsibility to care for our passengers, it’s essential to make sure they aren’t unnecessarily subjected to discomfort.
For instance, if passenger comfort limits are routinely exceeded due to descending too steeply, the indication may be that pilots are getting behind the airplane and not calculating their top-of-descent appropriately. Similarly, departures with early level-offs can also be discomforting to passengers. A rapid climb followed by an aggressive level-off can cause passengers to float out of their seats. And not only does this create discomfort to passengers, but it also increases the risk of an altitude deviation.
If passengers don’t feel safe, a company’s reputation could eventually be at stake. With FDM, safety managers can track these issues and develop departure profiles or recommended techniques for what automation modes to use. This way pilots can brief it, practice it, and plan ahead to balance their passengers’ comfort while also ensuring safety and compliance with all procedures.
Trending FDM data is a critical starting point. However, it's important to understand that not all events are alike. For example, your department may have accumulated ten unstable approaches for the quarter, but each may have its own unique causal and contributing factors. A problem that many departments encounter when managing their FDM program is fuzing FDM data with SMS software. Traditionally, these are two different software solutions, resulting in siloed data and difficulty processing events beyond the basic trending level.
We are shamelessly biased in stating that VOCUS by Polaris Aero is the best safety software ecosystem on the market. VOCUS' FOQA integration seamlessly syncs FOQA data into the SMS, allowing safety personnel to perform the same root cause analysis process with their FOQA events as they do with traditional reports. Not only does this ensure safety personnel are creating meaningful risk controls, but it is also a tremendous time-saver. Contact Polaris Aero to learn more!
As pilots, we take great pride in overcoming complex challenges. But having access to the best information and training available allows us to do so safely and consistently.
FDM is a powerful resource to help safety managers better understand the real world environment. But ultimately, FDM is just another type of data collection tool. It’s what a flight department decides to do with that valuable data that makes a difference. Used appropriately, a data-driven approach is an effective way to help pilots make better and safer decisions every time they fly.
Are you interested in integrating FDM into your flight department? Or already have it and need help figuring out what to do with the information? Contact us today to learn more or get help!
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