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

Identifying threats through objective flight data analysis.

A simplified HFDM process model lists each step of recording, retrieving, reviewing and reporting of flight data. Actionable results are obtained through this analysis process. Most importantly, intervention or mitigation strategies can be continually monitored by repeating this process.

In Aug 2010, former Dir of Aviation Ops BJ Raysor said, "There were several key components of our success with HFDM. We decided to contract a third-party data analysis company—CAPACG—based on their experience with the Bristow Group and other fixed-wing safety programs to develop the implementation and operations plan.

CAP­ACG was retained to provide analysis and reporting functions of the program."

Currently, several large HEMS operators such as PHI Air Medical, Air Methods and OmniFlight Helicopters (acquired by Air Methods in early Jun 2011) are in the early stages of implementing HFDM programs.

Air Methods is participating in a 2-year HFDM trial sponsored by the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF). Funding for this trial is provided to FSF by the estate of Manuel Maciel, founder of Manny's Sonoma Aviation in Santa Rosa CA.

Aircraft Type Appareo GAU 2000 Appareo Vision 1000 GA-FDM Digital Flight Data System North Flight Data System
Bell 206 X X    
Bell 407 X      
Eurocopter AS350 X X X  
Eurocopter EC135       X

Once considered the domain of large, sophisticated aircraft, new LARS equipment opens HFDM as a best practice for light or legacy aircraft. Some OEMs are developing and certifying LARS for turbine helicopters. Table lists current FAA STCs—other installs can be accomplished using an FAA 337.

The trial involves a 1-year period of data collection on 10 aircraft, followed by a similar period of analysis to identify and eliminate safety risks in HEMS operations. Air Methods has recently implemented SMS and considers HFDM a major component of that program.

As mentioned, PHI is beginning to monitor its HEMS aircraft, and Omni­Flight has purchased LARS equipment for a number of its aircraft with hopes of implementing a program in the near future.

Also, a growing number of smaller, more diverse helicopter operators have adopted HFDM as a best practice. These include Canada's Phoenix Heli-Flight and Skyline Helicopters (both utility) and Long Beach CA-based Island Express (OGP/tours).

Many of these operators used the free resources of the IHST (ihst.org) or the Global HFDM Community (hfdm.org). IHST offers several "toolkits" on its site—topics include HFDM, SMS, training and maintenance. In addition, the Global HFDM Community has several volunteers who provide mentoring services to the upstart HFDM program manager.

HFDM programs can only succeed within an organization that has adopted a nonpunitive "just culture" within a well-developed SMS. Likewise, HFDM should not be viewed as a singular program to improve safety—the greatest safety advances come from a multitiered approach incorporating several IHST strategies such as SMS, training, equipage and maintenance practices.

Both organizations offer complimentary workshops throughout the year, the largest of them at Heli-Expo.

As for the future of HFDM, CHC's Pilgrim predicts, "HFDM will continue to grow in the industry at a slow pace. [It will] eventually become the socially accepted norm and will expand quickly once it gets a firm hold of an operator's imagination."

Long term, Pilgrim adds, "There is the potential for HFDM mandates for commercial operators."

PHI's Simon sees evolving technologies such as advanced warning, predictive measures and real-time monitoring, leading ultimately to "lowered insurance premiums, more contract requirements and, above all, safer operations."

While a favorite quote related to FDM—"You don't know what you don't know"—is simplistic, HFDM is a tool that provides a window into your operation to discover the unknown.

Stuart Lau is a consultant. He leads the IHST HFDM Working Group and acts as an IHST liaison to the Global HFDM Steering Group. He is also a pilot for a large international airline and a safety and accident investigation committee member. Lau has been associated with Pro Pilot since 1996.


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