By By Dale Smith | February 1, 2011
A friend of mine recently asked me why helicopters were so expensive to buy and operate. The simple answer to both parts of the question is complexity. Helicopters have a large number of moving parts, designed for minimal weight and high stress (fatigue) conditions. Even the ‘simplest’ light helicopter is a true marvel of mechanical engineering.
This, combined with a low tolerance for failure, results in high maintenance rates and costs. In a published report, the U.S. Army stated that its Ratios of Maintenance Man Hours (MMH) to flight hours for light turbine helicopters averages 4:1. Of course, not all of those MMH hours are actually spent on working on the machine. A good percentage is often spent just researching current maintenance information so a technician knows what to fix in the first place.
With apologies to Mr. Bernoulli, in today’s maintenance compliance and regulation-heavy world, it’s not lift force that keeps a helicopter in the air, it’s paperwork.
“The rotary wing industry is so complex. There are so many inspections. New dash numbers on parts that all have different life limits and that changes the inspection cycles on components. People can’t keep up with it all,” explained Jim Willis, chief operating officer for SkyBOOKS. “An electronic tracking system like ours will automatically update and keep all the maintenance requirements current.”
“When you’re talking about electronic maintenance tracking for helicopters, you have basically two types,” said Dennis Steinbeck, vice president of Avtrak. “One is what I call ‘Do It Yourself” software or a shell program. It’s up to the user to do all the work to populate their data and then to keep it current. That’s probably the most popular form used in the helicopter market today. Most of these programs run on the company’s PC or LAN [local area network].”
Many companies offer these types of programs, “but one of the best examples is a simple Excel spreadsheet,” he added. “There are several problems with this type of solution—one, there is no security with the information. Another is that there is limited access to the data and, last but not least, they are a lot of work to keep accurate. I also think they give people a false sense of confidence about how they are actually tracking the information. Most of these operators ultimately find that they are not tracking all of the information they need to be compliant.”
Steinbeck said that another option for electronic maintenance tracking is to use a complete service provider. “Avtrak is not a software company, we are a subscription service company—yes, there is software involved as part of our service, but more importantly we are staffed with A&Ps and IAs. People behind the screen who are helicopter maintenance experts,” he said.
“We provide more than just access to maintenance tracking, you get full service, which means when an OEM issues a revision to their maintenance manual or there is a service bulletin or AD, we incorporate that into our system and notify the user.”
While Steinbeck’s DIY and complete service solutions represent the far ends of the options for electronic maintenance tacking, there are other products that for lack of a better word, are referred to as “hybrids.” They are PC-based but offer some level of Internet connectivity. One example is the new Sentinel AD tracking product from Avantext.
“We were one of the first to pioneer the electronic distribution of airworthiness directives that allow people to rapidly search and aggregate data around the AD’s,” explained Avantext’s president, Kurt Schoenkopf. “I call this ‘AD tracking heavy.’ We provide users a dashboard that lets them track all the components they are responsible for during an annual inspection and notify them about what is coming due during the next annual. If there’s an emergency AD issued, we will be able to flag that for the maintenance professional’s attention.”
“We have built a lot of time-saving applications into the new program to allow people to pull information they need,” he added. “It lets them spend less time searching data and spend more time doing what they do best, which is repairing the aircraft.” While any type of electronic maintenance tracking is a great benefit to users, the web-based packages offer the added advantage of instantly sharing information with anyone around the world. Pilots can keep an aircraft’s flight time current and can be instantly notified of any changes to that machine’s status.
“You have total mobility worldwide to access the status of any of your aircraft,” Willis said. “For example, Heliservicio in Mexico is getting 100 to 150 hours per month utilization per helicopter, and they operate 40 of them at a time. Needless to say, they have crews coming and going all the time at different locations. Having access to current information is critical to their pilots and aircraft maintenance people.”
“When a pilot finishes his shift he updates all the hours and information for that aircraft,” he continued. “Then when the next pilot comes on his shift, he can instantly look at all the information about that helicopter’s condition. He can see if there are any MEL items or flight restrictions that pertain to that particular aircraft,” Willis said.
“Electronic tracking packages make this super easy by translating the information into our ‘stoplight’ indicators—green means life’s good, you can continue to fly. Yellow says it’s approaching a user-defined period until the next maintenance event. And red says there’s no flying that helicopter today.”
While it may seem that large fleet operators may benefit most from this type of technology, Steinbeck said that the smaller, one-technician/one-helicopter operations gain some big advantages too. “Large operators often have their own quality control department to handle this type work and we have services designed for them,” he said. “But the small single-aircraft operators can really benefit by the fact that Avtrak will assign one of our own people—we call them ‘Compliance Specialists’ to support them. These specialists become a literal extension of the operator’s maintenance operation.”
When it comes time to plan a maintenance event, operators “will have an expert available to help them,” Steinbeck said. “What do they need to plan for? What can they do to minimize the downtime and maximize availability? What can they do now to make the maintenance event more efficient? We are that second opinion that smaller operators often need.”
No Complacency About Compliance
Today’s electronic maintenance tracking tools are also proving to be extremely helpful ensuring that aircraft are up-to-date and compliant. “We have a product called NavigatorV that includes a ‘Profile & Compliance’ tool, where an operator can actually define their aircraft by its airframe and major components including part and serial numbers,” explained Bob Jones, product marketing specialist for Aircraft Technical Publishers (ATP). “It creates an electronic compliance record with one page for each component on the aircraft. The sheet shows all current ADs and SBs and you can easily keep track of your compliance status.” Because the information is updated every night, “the next time the aircraft comes in for maintenance, a technician simply opens that aircraft’s file and sees what needs to be done,” he continued. “It’s a real popular system.”
“Technically you could do all this manually, but that leads to errors and you really can’t afford to miss anything,” Steinbeck continued. “There’s just a lot to keep track of. Once you get your arms around the helicopter manufacturer’s current requirement you need to review the equipment installed through STCs, which often have their own inspection requirements and additional instructions for continued airworthiness (ICAs). People often forget to figure those requirements into their tracking methods.”
“Another critical matter is if you are a Part 135 charter operator and you get ramp checked and you are out of compliance, the cost per violation is probably two or three times the cost of an annual subscription to a tracking service,” he said. “So there are a lot of important reasons why you want to have all your ducks in a row when it comes to this stuff.”
Accurate compliance monitoring goes well beyond the financial penalty of a botched ramp check. According to SkyBOOKS’ Willis, active compliance monitoring can greatly improve safety.
“Eurocopter released a study saying that 75 percent of accidents were sadly, repetitively predictable and non-compliance related. They over-flew an inspection or the pilots missed the recurrent training required for whatever reason,” he said. “The surprising thing to me was that three out of four of the total accidents were because the operators failed to comply with known crew or maintenance compliance issues, airworthiness directives or service bulletins. They were running so hard they just inadvertently failed to comply with the requirements.”
SkyBOOKS provides “the capability for users to track crew currency simulator training for night vision goggles, auto-rotation requirements or whatever,” Willis added. “It’s all part of the value equation.”
ADs, SBs, compliance requirements, annual inspections and just your plain ‘ol maintenance practices—if you said that it all adds up to a pile of information for a technician to keep track of, you’d be right. But wait, as they say, there’s more.
“Unlike the majority of fixed-wing aircraft, which are a fixed overhead for a business, when you look at the rotorcraft industry the vast majority of all helicopters are flown for hire in one form or another,” Willis said. “As a result operators are very conscious about keeping their aircraft flying while controlling all the expenses associated with each one.”
That need to keep ‘em flying is why the significant majority of helicopter operators practice the art of “part swapping,” or taking a part off of one helicopter and using it on another. While it’s a perfectly legal and safe practice, it does however create a bit of a parts tracking nightmare, which, of course, can be significantly lessened with electronic maintenance tracking technology.
“With component tracking you can actually put on the details of all the components on a particular helicopter—anything that has a serial number on it,” Jones said. “Each of those components then carries a data record of its total time, cycles, landings, retirement index number (RIN) counts—all that kind of information and their limits.”
“Once they’re tracked, they become ‘smart parts.’ The aircraft may have X amount of time and the components may have Y and Z amounts of time on them individually—all have different requirements for time changes or inspections,” he continued. “The point is each part now has the information tagged to it. If the part is moved between ships, it takes its current data along with it. This eliminates the need to manually keep track of each component as it moves through the fleet.” (If the technicians remember to update the electronic logbooks.)
“We’re developing internal calculators that ensure we are helping technicians track the component and engine cycles correctly,” Willis said. “If you don’t the alternative is potentially violating life-limits or retiring a component at 50, 60 or 70 percent of its intended useful life. That’s an expensive mistake.” Another “expensive mistake” that proper component tracking helps eliminate is an operator’s inability to prove a component’s total time or cycles when it comes time to claim a warranty repair. Willis said that when SkyBOOKS started offering the component tracking capability, the company surveyed customers, who said this capability was the “impossible dream,” it was too hard to track manually.
“It is very difficult to do manually, but electronically it’s very easy,” he said. “If the operator keeps their records up to date it’s easy to validate the hours, calendar days and cycles for every part they install. They now have all the information and documentation about the component at the point of failure so they can return that part to the manufacturer for warranty repair or replacement regardless of how many airframe movements are involved.”
Willis also explained that SkyBOOKS (along with other electronic maintenance products) can enable operators to attach a digital copy of the original 8130, 8110 or historical service record to each part to show that they are using FAA-approved parts with the original documentation and certification attached. “Why is this important? Willis asked. “Because if you are a Part 135 operator you must not only have a document saying, ‘Yes, I did this,’ but you must be able to show the certificate of origin of that part. We can now do this within our system. We can tie in the original OEM warranty information.”
Of course all of these advanced search and notification capabilities wouldn’t be much of an advantage if the information were hard to extract from the software. Thankfully, that’s not the case.
“One of the things we’ve spent a lot of time doing is working with usability consultants and improving the fundamental usability of our products,” Avantext’s Schoenkopf said. “Improving the way people interact with the technology to get them around an application quickly and easily. We’ve done extensive studies from an end-user perspective to make sure we’re capturing the paths to information as quickly as we possibly can.”
“We’re working really hard to come up with what we call ‘Self-Directed User Interfaces.’ What that really means is someone can go in and use our program with very little instruction,” he added. “The workflows are very, very simple. Our system is designed from the perspective of the way people need to navigate as opposed to being design-driven to look pretty.”
“By and large we see this as an advanced research tool, but we know that research is not considered billable hours,” Schoenkopf said. “Anything we can do to shorten that cycle and help keep the mechanic focused on the process will benefit the end-user.”
“We’ve been helping technicians keep their information search accurate and efficient by automating the back-end process for 40-years,” Jones said. “Until you see it first hand you just don’t realize how much time your technician spends managing all the required paperwork and documentation—I can’t imagine doing it manually. There wouldn’t be time left to actually work on the helicopter.”