Flight data monitoring (FDM) is an integral part of any modern aviation safety system. For the airlines, long track records of effectively using FDM information have provided clear evidence that flight data, when used appropriately, can greatly improve flight safety. Today, every major airline employs an integrated safety management system (SMS) powered by tools, such as FDM. It is no accident that scheduled airlines in the U.S. have evolved into the world’s safest mode of transportation.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has taken notice and is following this playbook, with the goal to reduce fatal accidents in other passenger-carrying commercial aircraft—such as charter operations. The agency’s only two aviation-related recommendations on its 2021/2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements is to (1) require and verify the effectiveness of an SMS and (2) install crash-resistant flight recorders and establish FDM programs.
FDM 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. Information from FDM programs is unique since it provides objective data that otherwise is not available.
Pioneering airlines—Scandinavian Airlines System and British Airways—began to dabble in the use of flight data more than 40 years ago to validate the performance of autoland systems. By the late 1990s, most airlines around the globe adopted FDM as an operational best practice.
Around that time, other segments of aviation began to explore the use of FDM to improve safety and operations. In late 1998, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority and Shell Aircraft commissioned a study that explored the feasibility of adopting FDM practices in offshore rotorcraft. This study laid much of the groundwork for today’s helicopter FDM (HFDM) programs. Today, most helicopter operators supporting the major oil and gas producers around the globe are required by contract to have an HFDM program.
In 2004 the Flight Safety Foundation and NBAA began their corporate flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) trial that has evolved into the GE Digital C-FOQA Centerline program. Since then, the acceptance of FDM—in particular, with larger Part 91 flight departments—has been steadily trending upwards and is now viewed as a best practice for most business aviation operators.
To better understand the challenges and benefits of implementing and operating FDM programs, AIN reached out to several flight departments and vendors to get the pulse on FDM in business aviation.
Based in Monett, Missouri, Jack Henry & Associates operates four Embraer Phenom 300s to support its business throughout the U.S.; it holds the distinction of being the second Part 91 operator to have an operational “FAA-approved” FOQA program. For the industry, this was a clear demonstration that implementing and operating a formal FOQA program was indeed scalable.
In the U.S., the term FOQA is often used interchangeably with FDM. In the eyes of the FAA, only those programs “approved” by the agency are considered a FOQA program. The primary motive to pursue FAA approval is the enforcement incentives for an operator and its employees as codified under 14 CFR 13.401(e).
Embraer Executive Jets is based in Melbourne, Florida—its flight department supports a large fleet of demonstration aircraft at three locations around the world. A goal of Embraer’s flight department is to serve as a role model for other flight departments to promote safe operations. As such, it embraces various safety programs such as a formal SMS, FDM, aviation safety action program (ASAP), and a fatigue risk management program.
Three vendors participated in this conversation about FDM in business aviation. Ergoss based in Toulouse, France, offers a comprehensive suite of cloud-based flight data analysis tools including SARA (FDM), SARA Pilot Web Interface (FDM directly to the pilot), and SARA Tech (maintenance analysis). GE Digital (aviation software) has roots in Austin, Texas—formerly Austin Digital—and has supported business aviation since 2004 with the FSF/NBAA C-FOQA trial. Scaled Analytics is based in Ottawa, Canada, and offers a cloud-based flight data analysis tool, Sky Analyst FDM and AOG, and other services such as FDR validation readouts.
AIN asked about the greatest challenges to implementing FDM/FOQA in business aviation. Of interest, the operators surveyed focused on data use and protections for the pilot, while the FDM service providers focused on technical and programmatic issues.
Jack Henry & Associates chief pilot Mike Whannell explained, “The greatest challenge to implementing FOQA/FDM in business aviation is defining use and data protections for involved crew. Business aviation is not afforded the scalability or union protections that you might find in a large air carrier, so it is very important that a FOQA/FDM program be embedded within the protections of an established SMS [or even better yet, FAA approval of the program] and that crewmembers are confident in how the data will be used and what protections they have as a participant in the program.”
Whannell, an NBAA Safety Committee member, added, “The key success for us to ensure this at Jack Henry were the ‘letter(s) of understanding’ that all of our pilots signed alongside our vice president in addition to obtaining FAA approval of the program to ensure legal and enforcement protection of the data. Much like ASAP, I think participants must know their involvement is meant to improve operations and make them safer.”
Embraer safety analyst Thomas Brodeur said, “I think one of the greatest challenges to the implementation of a FOQA/FDM program is the perception of its implementation by pilots. Nobody wants to have someone always looking over their shoulder while they are working—which is more or less how FOQA/FDM can be and commonly is perceived as. It is important to remind pilots it is an anonymous collection of data and it will not be tied to them directly. It is important that every SMS program has a just and positive culture surrounding safety. I think that greatly helps with a pilot’s willingness to accept an FDM program.”
GE Digital chief engineering officer Steve Tang echoes the operators’ sentiments while discussing some of the technical challenges. “We all know the usual issues faced when implementing a FOQA/FDM program; getting data off the aircraft, cost, and time to run the program. However, the greatest challenge lies in the way you introduce a safety program into a flight department. Creating a just culture while embarking down this path can only be done once. If an organization doesn’t have a solid plan in place and an open discussion with its pilot group before starting a FOQA/FDM program, then it will be hard to achieve the successful outcomes you strive for. Realizing the wealth of information that you have available to you with this data can help you not only achieve the highest standards of safety but also give you greater insight into operating more efficiently.”
Scaled Analytics president and CEO Dion Bozec believes that FDM is scalable to the smaller business aviation operator, but it is also well worth the investment. “I think the greatest challenge is convincing smaller operators, such as the typical business jet operator, that FOQA really does work no matter how small your fleet is,” he said. “I’ve seen operators with just one aircraft gain significant insights into how they can improve flight operations after just one month of monitoring their flight data. Your fleet is not too small to benefit from FOQA.
“A close second in terms of challenges is convincing operators that FOQA is worth the financial investment,” Bozec said. “I’ve said before that, unfortunately, safety doesn’t sell. It can be a challenge convincing those in the C-Suite that FOQA is a worthwhile investment, especially when we as an industry are already very safe. It can be difficult to get buy-in for ‘yet another safety system.’ Of course, there are many other benefits to monitoring your flight data than just improving safety, but it can still be a difficult business case for some organizations.”
A sample of a Scaled Analytics analysis of touch down distances.
Ergoss CEO Fabrice Tricoire identified some major differences between business aviation and the airlines as it relates to data formats and operations. “The first challenge is related to the collection and harmonization of decoded data, as systems and procedures within business aviation operators are not always as harmonized as in airlines.” He continued, “Secondly, there is the problem of small sample sizes, as executive aviation operations do not allow for a large number of flights to identical destinations, which makes it difficult to assess risk.” He gave an example: “If you only flew to a given airport once and made a long landing, then the statistic would be 100 percent long landings on that runway for your operations when this is not necessarily significant.”
Ergoss’s Tricoire further discusses challenges with data aggregation, “Some providers have come up with the idea of aggregating data from multiple operators on the same destinations—hopefully with the same aircraft type—to create more representative samples. This was without considering the differences—sometimes extremely important—in the standard operating practices (SOPs) implemented by the different operators. This was in some cases very counterproductive as it was comparing apples and cherries.”
When asked about the greatest benefit of FDM/FOQA in business aviation, both the operators and vendors were more closely aligned in their responses and felt FDM provides greater insight into a flight operation both on individual flights and the entire operation.
“Business aviation covers a wide spectrum of operations, from new pilots flying older aircraft to experienced pilots flying the latest generation of the most sophisticated aircraft,” said GE Digital’s Tang. “Unlike 121 operations, 135 and 91 operators are constantly changing. A robust safety program that includes FOQA allows operators to have greater insight into risks in their operation and uses data to focus on the highest priority risks first.”
Tricoire added, “The advantage of implementing an FDM/FOQA system in business aviation is to make pilots more involved in the respect of SOPs, by giving them the possibility to understand the ‘why’ of certain deviations, with analyses of the factors contributing to these deviations, to avoid that the accumulation of small exceedances leads to a large deviation with a threat to flight safety [Swiss cheese theory]. It also facilitates spontaneous feedback of operational experiences from flight crews if the tools and processes in place guarantee the anonymity of the exchanges.”
Bozec from Scaled Analytics summarized and simplified it nicely by saying, “The number one benefit is just getting visibility of your data. Flight data, for the most part, is very objective. An operator might have a ‘good idea’ of how safely they are operating, but data from your FOQA/FDM program will validate or contradict that hunch. It’s like the old aviation lie: ‘We fly every day. We don’t need recurrent training.’ Similar to recurrent training—but much more frequent—monitoring your flight data helps make an operator more aware of any developing weaknesses in their flight operations so they can correct them before they become serious issues or bad habits.”
Embraer’s Brodeur likes the proactive nature of FDM. “The greatest benefit of FOQA/FDM in business aviation is the opportunity it creates to be proactive rather than reactive,” he said. “Much of the history of aviation safety is one of tragic loss that results in regulations. As one of my old professors said, they are ‘written in blood.’ Modern FOQA/FDM programs enable us to predict accidents/incidents happening before they do, and create guidelines to prevent them—but now, in ink.”
Jack Henry & Associates FOQA manager and Embraer Phenom 300 captain Cody Hoffman brought practical insights and specific examples to the conversation by saying, “I believe that one of the greatest benefits of a FOQA/FDM program is simply continuous improvement. If a department is serious about safety and looking to constantly progress and improve, then FOQA is one of the best ways to do so. It allows you to see behind the curtain and understand the strengths and weaknesses of a department.”
Hoffman provided an example of a “FOQA win” stating, “One of the best examples of FOQA helping our department to improve has been through our stable approach campaign. A few years ago, we implemented all the stable approach criteria into our FOQA monitoring parameters. We were able to see at both the 500-foot and 1,000-foot gates our stable approach percentages. Understanding this data allowed us to set other practices in place to help bring our percentages up and fly a stable approach. A few examples of these practices include not flying tight-in approaches, putting a limit to tailwind approaches, and leaving throttles at no less than 40 percent N1 to keep engine spooled. FOQA has an accountability aspect that has helped us to be more aware of the situation on approach and strive to always be within parameters of a stable approach.”
Since the original FSF/NBAA C-FOQA trial in 2004, there has been a noticeable upward tick in Part 91 flight departments implementing and operating FDM programs. More detailed information on FDM programs is available online. In the U.S., FAA Advisory Circular AC120-82 is the go-to document. The U.K. CAA has produced a better, more useful, document (CAP 739) for the smaller operator. For helicopter operators, check out the HFDM Toolkit from the Vertical Aviation Safety Team.