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

Identifying threats through objective flight data analysis.

HFDM moves the intervention point based on the analysis of hundreds, if not thousands, of actionable events. Prior to HFDM, safety analysts could act only on information from the rare accident—a singular event—often resulting in loss of life or aircraft. This "fly it, crash it and fix it" model is now replaced by "fly it, analyze it, fix it"— a far more effective, less tragic, strategy.

Today, most major airlines, as well as a growing number of regional airlines and corporate flight departments, have FDM/FOQA programs. In fact, since 2005, the number of fixed-wing corporate FDM programs has grown steadily and now includes several charter operators in need of FDM to access EU nations, such as France.

In the late 1990s, helicopter operators in the North Sea began investigating the use of FDM programs. Early HFDM programs monitored large, complex, multiengine helicopters such as the Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma and Sikorsky S76.

These aircraft were well suited for HFDM based on their flight data recorder (FDR) equipage. Today, nearly all the large offshore helicopter operators supporting oil and gas production (OGP) have formal HFDM programs. These include the Bristow Group, CHC, Cougar, ERA Helicopters and PHI.

As OGP missions expand further (and deeper) offshore, advanced aircraft such as the AgustaWestland AW139, Eurocopter EC225 and Sikorsky S92 enter service already HFDM equipped.

The uptick in OGP sector HFDM activity is not accidental—the requirement is often contractual. Shell Aircraft Intl has been promoting HFDM as a best practice to achieve the ultimate goal of an airline equivalent safety record for its contracted carriers. As a result of Shell's involvement in OGP and HFDM, nearly all other large energy companies now require HFDM.

In 2005, the Bristow Group spearheaded an effort—led by Mike Suldo, former Air Logistics unit president—to introduce HFDM to its Bell 206/407 fleet operating in the Gulf of Mexico. Significantly, this was the first concentrated effort to monitor legacy single-pilot helicopters using a lightweight, low-cost system.

Appareo Systems Vision 1000 LARS installed in a Eurocopter AS350. Vision 1000 records data, voice and video in a 10.5-oz package. All new AS350s are delivered with this system as standard. More than 100 Vision systems have been delivered.

In essence, HFDM gave Bristow a good idea of how its fleet of large multicrew aircraft were being operated—but it had no objective, actionable data on its single-pilot fleet.

At this point, it was not considered either technically or economically feasible to monitor these less complex aircraft.

Bristow commissioned Fargo ND based Appareo Systems to develop the GAU 2000 information recording system and associated aircraft logging and event recording for training (ALERTS) analysis tools.

In 2008, with the assistance of a third-party consulting firm, Bristow gained FAA approval of its FOQA program, becoming the first operator to achieve this status with a nontraditional lightweight recording system.

These developments permitted the expansion of HFDM programs to other segments of the helicopter industry served by lighter, non-FDR-equipped helicopters. Recently, FAA designated these new systems lightweight aircraft recording systems (LARS) and is proposing, through a recent NPRM, a requirement to install LARS in all HEMS helicopters.

PHI and CHC are good examples of mature, robust HFDM programs, but each organization is very large. Likewise, each company supports OGP as its primary business with a diverse client base. Each company has a secondary humanitarian business—PHI has an air medical division, while CHC operates aircraft configured for search and rescue missions.

CHC has embraced HFDM as a practice companywide, says Pilgrim. "The programs improve safety but add a tangible benefit of financial savings," he says. In all, CHC monitors 125 aircraft around the globe.

Like CHC, PHI began its HFDM program in 2004. According to PHI's Simon, more than 80 aircraft are currently monitored in PHI's LAMP (HFDM) program. Initially, only Sikorsky S76C++ and S92 aircraft were monitored, but over the past 3 years PHI has added several other fleet types—AW139, Bell 206/ 407 and EC135/145—to its LAMP program and thus growing from 30 to 80 aircraft. Current focus for PHI is to continue to add air medical helicopters into its program.

Strength in the program

Appareo Systems GAU 2000 LARS installed in a Bell 407. GAU 2000 was the first LARS to receive STC approval on a rotorcraft. More than 400 have been delivered.

Outside of the OGP sector, a progressive small HEMS operator led the way in implementing an HFDM program.

In Sep 2009, Arkansas Children's Hospital received FAA approval of its HFDM/FOQA program—the first and so far only approval for a dedicated HEMS operation.

Operating only 2 aircraft (S76C+) with 10 pilots, this organization dispelled many myths associated with HFDM implementation.

Over­coming several perceived barriers—being small, non-unionized and with no traditional FDR—this hospital-based flight ops program leveraged technology and a third party to solve its recording and analysis needs.


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