Helicopter flight data monitoring holds promise of safer EMS, offshore, LE ops

Identifying threats through objective flight data analysis.

By Stuart Lau
ATP/FE/CFII. Boeing 747/747-400, 757/767, CRJ, Saab 340

Cougar Helicopters monitors a large fleet of helicopters supporting offshore operations. Advanced analysis software provides animation tools to recreate flights that are beneficial to an organization's maintenance, operations, safety and training depts.

Helicopter flight data monitoring (HFDM) holds great promise to improve rotorcraft safety. Long considered a contractual prerequisite for large operators supporting the offshore oil and gas industry, HFDM is now making inroads with smaller operators around the globe. A number of industry groups and organizations are stepping up to lend a hand to those operators looking to improve their operations.

"The reputation of the helicopter industry as an unsafe method of flight needs to be challenged," says CHC Helicopter Services FDM Mgr Mike Pilgrim. "HFDM can give tangible evidence of safety levels and improvements. The helicopter industry needs HFDM now to demonstrate that it is serious about safety."

Based in Aberdeen, Scotland, Pilgrim is co-chair of the Global HFDM Community, a new international initiative founded to make it easier for helicopter owners, pilots and manufacturers to identify, quantify, access and address operational risks through flight data analysis.

Echoing this sentiment is Fred Brisbois—a longtime safety professional at Sikorsky—who co-chairs the implementation efforts of the Intl Helicopter Safety Team (IHST). He states, "Our industry has evolved to the point that helicopters are playing a vital role in society (eg, supporting infrastructure through military operations, law enforcement, fire fighting, medical services, electronic news gathering, etc).

With this comes increased visibility. When a helicopter crashes, it is news­worthy and portrays our industry in a very negative fashion. HFDM is essential to establishing rotary-wing flight to be as safe as fixed-wing."

IHST—a joint industry/government effort—was formed in 2006 to reduce the worldwide helicopter accident rate by 80% in 10 years. Following the analysis of 197 accidents from 15 different helicopter missions, IHST developed several intervention strategies to improve safety.

Topping the list of recommendations is the equipage of information-recording systems and the adoption of HFDM as an industry best practice. The challenge for IHST and industry is how to reach the small operator and adapt the program to fit all the various mission profiles.

Discovering the unknown

Lance Pitre of PHI downloads a Sikorsky S76C++ flight recorder. All new Sikorsky S76s and S92s are DFDR-equipped—the OEM is sold on HFDM.

According to The IHST HFDM Toolkit, "HFDM is a systematic method of accessing, analyzing and acting upon information obtained from flight data to identify and address operational risks before they can lead to incidents and accidents.

The information and insights provided by HFDM can also be used to reduce operational cost and significantly enhance training effectiveness and operational, maintenance and engineering procedures. Information from HFDM programs is unique since it provides objective data that otherwise is not available."

In the safety management system (SMS) context of risk management strategies, HFDM is reactive (past events), proactive (seeks identification of hazards) and predictive (identifies future problems/trends).

Safety risk management is ensured by using objective flight data to support an SMS. HFDM allows the operator to establish the context or level of risk objectively and then identify, analyze and evaluate risks. CHC's Pilgrim says, "[HFDM] is directly integrated into the SMS, with direct reporting, periodic meetings and management overview. HFDM will provide genuine first-hand oversight of the safety levels attained in your operation."

As described, HFDM has an integral connection to SMS and supports it by providing a systematic way to control risk and ensure that those risk controls are effective. Essentially, HFDM is the tactical component of a strategic SMS. By monitoring routine flight data, the organization can achieve greater insight into the flight operation and provide additional information to enhance safety.

PHI Line Activity Monitoring Program (LAMP) Mgr Jared Simon says, "HFDM provides an unprecedented level of assurance on so many levels across the organization. It's justification for needed changes and evaluation of changes made [through our SMS]." Simon, based at PHI's Lafayette LA headquarters, is a member of the IHST FDM Working Group and co-chairs the Global HFDM Technical Committee.

Required—a just culture

PHI's Carl Stelly analyzes flight data using CAE Flightscape Insight software. Several vendors provide traditional HFDM analysis software tools including Sagem Avionics, CAE Flightscape and Aerobytes.

The foundation of any successful HFDM program is upper management support and a healthy understanding of a "just culture"—one in which personnel are encouraged to feel comfortable disclosing errors, including their own, while maintaining professional accountability.

The organization itself must support a just culture, but support from upper management is mandatory. The leadership of the organization must communicate the expectations of the HFDM program clearly to frontline employees. Part of this message must stress the confidentiality and nonpunitive nature of the program.

In the same vein, according to James Reason's Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents, "A just culture is not ... tolerant of reckless behavior or intentional noncompliance with established rules or procedures."

The goal for any HFDM program is to maintain data security and crew confidentiality within a just culture. PHI's Simon says this trust is apparent, based on "overall acceptance by crew and management." He adds that this has been the most unexpected outcome of PHI's HFDM program: "Everyone has accepted the results of analysis and trending as 'gospel,' so to speak."

The concept of FDM or flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) programs is not new—it's a wide-reaching, accepted industry best practice. Many programs have been in existence for over 3 decades with large airlines worldwide.


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