FOQA Is Not A Four-Letter Word

By John Coft | September 1, 2005
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Proven in decades of airline use, flight operations quality assurance is slowly winning over those in the helicopter world.

Shell Oil likes to keep its employees out of the water. So when a multi-year U.K.-funded flight operations quality assurance program (FOQA) study in the North Sea ended last year, rather than waiting for the civil aviation authority to potentially mandate the practice, Shell took matters into its own hands and put a requirement in its contract with CHC Europe: Thou shalt operate a FOQA program on the S-92s and Super Pumas Shell uses in the North Sea.

The oil giant's interest came from some significant, but not unusual, findings from a multi-phase test that it sponsored with British Airways, the U.K.'s Civil Aviation Authority, Bristow Helicopters, CHC, Smiths Aerospace and others. Observations included instances of unstable takeoffs, excursions into the dynamic rollover zone, reduced takeoff power with cabin heaters left on, even occasions of "exuberant" flying. Along with pilot performance, the study used FOQA to get a better understanding of the obstacles the pilots were facing, including turbulence generated by wind flowing over the oil platforms and hot exhaust from rig turbines. In each case, Bristow and later CHC Scotia, now called CHC Europe, were able to give the de-identified data (that is, stripped of stuff that might identify individual pilots) to their flight safety officers and training departments in order to teach crews how to run a more efficient, safer operation.


Experts say Shell's sentiment is shared by other major oil companies, a consensus that will bring FOQA programs to the U.S. soon. "Some of the same people that are riding in the helicopters in the North Sea are riding in helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico," said Dick Healing, a longtime helicopter safety advocate and former head of the U.S. Navy's Office of Safety and Survivability who recently resigned as a member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. "It's being demanded by the people riding in the aircraft."

The action by oil companies highlights the benefits of capturing and analyzing operational data after a flight, a practice the commercial airline industry has been mining since the 1970s. Along with improving safety by uncovering potentially dangerous flying or flawed standard operating procedures, the data can also help operators save money on maintenance costs. Alaska Airlines, one of 13 U.S. airlines with FAA-approved FOQA programs, saved $1 million over the past year in inspections it didn't have to perform by using its FOQA data to educate pilots on how to avoid flap over-speed conditions. USAirways estimates it's saved more than $100 million in maintenance when FOQA showed that crews were operating engines hotter than recommended.

"The most beneficial thing we've done is raise the awareness of the pilot group," said Chris Nutter, director of flight safety for Alaska Airlines. Nutter said FOQA, which has been in place at the airline for about eight years, might also lead to cost savings by trimming the length of training programs. With FOQA data, including animations of actual operations, he said training sessions are "more relevant, more efficient." All pilot training at Alaska for 2006 will be based on two things: FAA requirements and "what (FOQA) data said we need training in."

The FOQA concept, first implemented by British Airways in the 1970s and now a mainstay for many major airlines, uses recording devices to tap into the aircraft digital performance data stream in the cockpit. After a flight, the data is downloaded to a computer and analyzed for, among other things, parameters that exceed predefined limits set by the airline. For air carriers, privacy concerns have dictated that the data is de-identified, and guarantees are often in place that the data won't be used to punish pilots. Despite not knowing which crews did what, the aggregated data over many flights allows an airline to figure out both broad areas that need work (like how pilots are treating the engines) and specific problem zones, like one approach at one airport.

FOQA for helicopters was born in 1999 when the CAA, in an attempt to reduce human factors-related helicopter incidents for oil operators in the North Sea, launched its helicopter operations monitoring program (HOMP). Under HOMP, the CAA and its partners integrated 20MB PCMCIA quick-access recorders into the health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) of five Bristow Helicopters Super Pumas. Officials analyzed the data using software programs developed by British Airways and Smiths for the airline's FOQA program, which in the United Kingdom is called operational flight data monitoring (OFDM).

After the initial study ended in 2002, the CAA decided to expand the program by adding another two S-76s at Bristow and two CHC AS332L Super Pumas. The trail started in October 2002 and lasted for six months. Results from both tests were encouraging enough that an ICAO study group in 2004 unanimously agreed to pursue making HOMP a recommended practice for all flight data recorder-equipped helicopters. Beginning Jan. 1 of this year, ICAO established a standard required FOQA programs for all aircraft with certificated takeoff weight greater than 60,000 lb. (27,000 kg). In the U.S., the FAA recommends but does not require FOQA for large aircraft, though regulatory protection from punitive action and data release to the public is provided to carriers with FAA-approved FOQA programs. Though any carrier or operator can dabble with FOQA, only those with government approval are protected by the Federal Aviation Regulations.

There's no question a FOQA program under the airline model can be prohibitive. "The major impediment is expense," said Don McClure, a staff engineer with the Air Line Pilots Assn. McClure said for a carrier with about 30 aircraft, a FOQA program would cost about $500,000 for the airborne and ground software plus about $500,000 a year to operate, with as many as six flight crew members regularly scouring the data for trends. At Alaska Airlines, Nutter said four employees focus on data analysis (for FOQA and four Aviation Safety Action Programs) and about 10 pilots are assigned to look at the data.

Despite the lingering issues, the potential for increased safety combined with new ways to outsource part of the process could lead to a tipping of the cost-benefit scales in favor of FOQA for a growing number of smaller corporate and helicopter operators. The CAA study, which used the British Airways FOQA software, required only one HOMP data analyst, a senior pilot designated as a HOMP manager and input from the flight safety officer. Assuming a helicopter already has a HUMS, a quick access recorder can be added for about $12,000. In terms of analysis, companies like Aerobytes Ltd., a U.K.-based provider of flight data monitoring software and services, now offer "power by the hour" contracts to process an operator's data, flag situations where parameters exceed predetermined limits, conduct investigations and send results back. Aerobytes is under contract to CHC Europe to supply its software for its Shell-mandated FOQA program in the North Sea. While CHC's fleet is sizeable enough to justify having its own analysis capability, Kevin Martin, Aerobytes sales manager, said it may be more cost efficient for operators with fewer than four helicopters to send their data to a third-party provider. Aerobytes charges $3-5 per flight hour of data.

The process works like this: After a flight, an operator pulls the quick access recorder and uplinks the data to Aerobytes' server. Aerobytes' software program then analyzes the data for exceedances, and if enabled, will automatically attempt to determine the cause of the event. Thresholds are set based on aircraft manuals and standard operating procedures. "A minor event can be when you get close to a limit," said Martin. "Pass a limit, and we send an email to `Joe Smith.'" The entire process can be quick. "If you knew something happened on a flight," he said, "you could pull the card, get it to our server and get it back in 5 or 10 minutes from touchdown."

Robert Sumwalt, a former US Airways pilot and member of the FOQA monitoring team at the airline, however cautions that the value of FOQA in part comes from the wisdom of the eyes looking at the data. "The biggest `minus' with FOQA is that it is very labor intensive to get the information that you want," he said. "You don't just push a button that said, `Tell me all of my problems.'" Sumwalt said US Airways had a full-time computer specialist constantly downloading data from PCMCIA cards that mechanics pulled from aircraft. Analyzing the data were four ALPA safety pilots assigned to the FOQA department, with each pilot spending one week a month looking for problem areas.

Either way, for offshore helicopters operators, the decision to implement FOQA could ultimately rest with the guy who's always right - the customer. "Providers are good," said Healing, "but like most people in aviation, they can be overly optimistic. Few of them really understand the tremendous value of downloading data and routinely analyzing it."


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