As most of us know, Lockheed Martin received a contract in 2005 to provide flight service for aviators as the FAA was closing down its many Flight Service Stations across the country. Lockheed Martin consolidated these services stations into three hubs, each of which covers a vast amount of real estate. Here on the Gulf we deal with the Fort Worth, Texas hub. I was interested in seeing just what they did for the helicopter community, so I called Lockheed Martin and was invited to interview Joe Derr, director of Flight Services, which is a separate division of Lockheed Martin, along with Joe Daniele, the operations engineer who is responsible for the helicopter operations centered on the Gulf of Mexico.
Primarily, I was interested in what they do that is different from what the government did when they had control of the business. Right off the bat, it is obvious that bureaucracy does not mire them down. This means they have a good bit of freedom to innovate and find new ways to perform some of the old services. A big focus is on integrating more technology into flight planning, information dissemination and search and rescue.
A welcome innovation for Gulf Coast helicopter operations is the addition of a lady named Martha Woods, who works out of the Fort Worth hub and has good connections with Houston Center and the helicopter community here on the Gulf. Martha is a Lockheed Martin operations engineer and she regularly attends Gulf Coast helicopter meetings and gives face-to-face updates and briefings on procedural changes, DVFR changes, radio frequency changes and also relays any changes that Houston Center may have that would affect offshore operators. Additionally, she gets feedback from the helicopter operators and brings those suggestions and requests back to Fort Worth and Houston centers. She acts as the lynchpin for a two-way learning experience. One example is the change from a regular flight plan to an ICAO filing that is now mandatory for all IFR aircraft using automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) navigation. Lockheed Martin states that FAA is pushing real hard to have all flight plans, VFR and IFR, changed to the ICAO format.
The advent of ADS-B capability in the Gulf has generated some creative thinking at Lockheed Martin. The company came up with an enhanced surveillance program that will activate an alarm for overdue aircraft cutting the search initiation from 30 minutes to just two or three minutes when an aircraft is overdue on a flight plan. The program is based on satellite communication and currently needs vendor equipment to implement it in individual aircraft. Mike Lasco, a Lockheed Martin communication architect, said this enhanced SAR capability was originally conceived to work with ADS-B but will work outside of ADS-B if the aircraft is properly equipped.
There is a capability for uplink-downlink using vendor equipment such as “Spyder Trac” that fits into a new program they call ACAS (translated to mean Adverse Condition Alerting Service), whereby instant updates on weather, TFRs or anything else that might affect a successful flight can be alerted. The messages will come in as text and the pilot can call Lockheed Martin Flight Service to get specific details, assuming he has satellite voice communication capability.
Joe Derr stated that Lockheed Martin is well aware that there are private vendors that provide flight filing and tracking services, especially here in the Gulf, and he welcomes them. Any kind of safety net is a good thing as far as they are concerned. He did go on to say that Lockheed is moving forward and will soon be able to equal the same degree of service with a big difference – no cost to the user. As of last February they opened a pilot web portal that allows flight plans to be filed via the Internet. He is proud of the fact that all of his briefers are FAA certified and highly skilled at their jobs, such as having to scan over a hundred pages of weather and NOTAM information and be able to translate all the acronyms and abbreviations into a three to four-minute briefing.
When asking about specific services they would like the helicopter operators to take advantage of, Lockheed Martin officials readily admitted that they would like to provide VFR flight following and communication service for all helicopters in the Gulf. I think that’s a noble idea and it would certainly relieve the helicopter operators of a large expense. However, Lockheed Martin would have a long road to travel to equal what is currently in place. Flight following helicopters for a flight duration of three minutes, times 300 an hour means intense communication, so they would have to get into the radio and satellite business in a much bigger way. It would also take considerable manpower. Good luck with that one.