FOQA or flight operations (or operational) quality assurance is a buzzword in aviation, promising safety benefits based on analysis of flight data to identify issues and trends that are headed in the wrong direction. Many flight operations use SOPs (standard operating procedures or practices) to establish consistency in flying and consequently improved safety. But how to be sure that pilots are adhering to the SOPs? That’s the job of flight data monitoring and its analysis function FOQA.

The equipment needed to record flight data and the software for post-flight analysis is expensive and not available to many aircraft operators. Only airlines, larger fleet operators, and well-off corporate flight departments could afford to participate in a FOQA program. That is, until products like CloudAhoy came along.

For many years, CloudAhoy has been improving its post-flight debrief system, which recreates flight parameters based on a surprisingly slim set of data, starting with recorded GPS information. Since its launch in 2011, Lexington, Massachusetts-based CloudAhoy has helped pilots review their flights and over the years, CloudAhoy has added improvements and the capability to analyze the increasingly data-rich recordings from modern avionics. This led to the development of CloudAhoy’s next product, pilot-focused FOQA or P-FOQA.

Essentially, P-FOQA takes the CloudAhoy debrief system and adds, according to the company, “the additional capability to identify potential risk events, to analyze and visualize aggregated data, and to notify pilots, safety personnel, and fleet managers. The integration with CloudAhoy Debrief provides an efficient way to identify the root cause of potentially risky events, increase pilots’ awareness, and facilitate learning—resulting in becoming a better, safer pilot.”

The idea for P-FOQA came about because, said CloudAhoy founder and CEO Chuck Shavit, “We have all this data.” He wondered, “Can we look at it and analyze it?”

Early this year, CloudAhoy formed a steering group with the Citation Jet Owner Pilot Association (CJP), Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF), and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to examine the potential of P-FOQA. A group of nine aircraft operators signed up for a beta test program, including Houston-based flight school and charter operator Tidal Aviation. Charlie Precourt, a CitationJet owner and chairman of the CJP safety committee, test pilot, and former NASA Shuttle astronaut, has also been involved in P-FOQA development and testing.

CloudAhoy is now a provider for Textron Aviation’s flight data monitoring (FDM) and FOQA programs. A rich collection of flight data is available from modern Citations equipped with Textron Aviation’s AReS II hardware, and it can be automatically transferred using the LinxUs FDM program when connected to a Wi-Fi network. According to Textron Aviation, LinxUs is available for the SkyCourier, Longitude, Latitude, X+, Sovereign+, CJ4, CJ3/3+, and M2, and the company plans to make LinxUs available for non-AReS II equipped models. For the past few months, Embry-Riddle has been flying using P-FOQA with data from airplanes and simulators.

While CloudAhoy’s debrief service gives pilots a lot of feedback on their performance, including grading each maneuver, P-FOQA takes it a step further.

The main interface for P-FOQA is the dashboard, and this shows a summary of exceedances, flight parameters, data from each flight including block times, airports flown to, and scores for maneuvers and preset parameters. The customer can select which flight parameters to track and also set the boundaries for what counts as an exceedance, with whatever warning and critical limits are deemed necessary. There are dozens of flight parameters to choose from.

CloudAhoy dashboard for Tidal Aviation president Reid Nelson

In a sample provided by Tidal Aviation, its dashboard shows examples of exceedance tracking of a high or low indicated airspeed compared to Vref at 50 feet agl during landing, maximum bank below 1,000 and 200 feet, maximum bank in flight, and maximum sink rate below 200 or 1,000 feet.

For more information about a specific exceedance, the customer can view a debrief for that flight and see exactly where it went off the rails. In a fleet operation like Tidal Aviation, P-FOQA aggregates all of the flight data to isolate trends. For example, the touchdown distance parameter shows how many flights are landing in the right zone on the runway and also how many are landing short or too long. It is up to the customer to decide how to use this information.

Turning the Tide

“I firmly believe FDM/FOQA for general aviation is the next big play for driving down accident rates,” said Tidal Aviation president Reid Nelson. “We’ve had this data in small GA airplanes since Avidyne and Garmin started close to 20 years ago, however, the data is really only looked at…after the accident. With systems like AirSync and CloudAhoy, we in general aviation finally have the ability to detect an accident before it even happens.”

When tools like CloudAhoy came about, Nelson was an early adopter and tried to incorporate it into his flight school’s processes. This required that pilots and instructors capture the data from each flight and upload it to CloudAhoy, and this proved to be inconsistent. But then Nelson discovered the AirSync Bridge, a device that captures flight data and automatically shares it with services like CloudAhoy.

Bridge is a portable device powered by a USB port or cigarette lighter for most Avidyne IFD and integrated Garmin avionics suites. For Avidyne, the Bridge connects via Wi-Fi, and the Garmin avionics use a special AirSync SD card in one of the Garmin SD slots. A Bridge unit is also available to connect to Arinc 429 data from Collins Pro Line 21 and Fusion avionics. With a built-in cellular modem, the AirSync bridge automatically sends flight data after each flight to services such as CloudAhoy, SavvyAnalysis, and Flight Schedule Pro.

Nelson tested Bridge with one of his Cirruses and the results were better than expected. Not only was data offloaded from the avionics after every flight and automatically sent to CloudAhoy, but the CloudAhoy debrief was almost instantly available to instructors and students to review after each flight.

To make the debrief information available, Nelson installed a 75-inch monitor in the briefing room, where each flight was available for a detailed post-flight analysis. This greatly increased participation by instructors and students in using the CloudAhoy debriefs.

When Nelson showed this detailed information to the owners of the 18 Tidal aircraft (14 pistons and four Vision jets, all on leaseback to Tidal), they appreciated what they were seeing and also agreed to pay for the Bridge and CloudAhoy subscription, in exchange for gaining full access to the information.

Once CloudAhoy started signing up beta users for its new P-FOQA service, Nelson didn’t want to burden the aircraft owners with the additional expense. It turned out that revenue from the extra briefing time that instructors spent with the students after each flight easily covered the cost of P-FOQA.

The results during the beta have shown it to be well worthwhile. Tidal’s chief pilot and chief instructor look at the P-FOQA information at least once a week, which is more detailed than the information available from the Cirrus IQ data-collection system, according to Nelson. “We’ve been digging into the finer aspects, like bank angles below 200 feet. We’ve had one or two instances of that.” In this case, Tidal will speak to the pilot and ask why they felt a need to bank more than 20 degrees when below 200 feet and help them figure out a way to avoid that.

Another parameter is steep descent rates in the traffic pattern. Some instances have shown pilots pitching down 8 degrees when below 500 feet or descending at 1,500 fpm below 500 feet. “We talked to their instructor to see how they [could help their students] avoid that and what the circumstances were,” Nelson said. In one case, power-off approaches were on the menu, which in part explains the deviations. But in any case, having this information is helpful.

“Ultimately we could be preventing something that could be a bridge too far and inevitably cause an accident,” he said.

Looking back at two years of data in CloudAhoy, Nelson was happy to see that no one had done anything as stupid as trying aerobatics in any of Tidal’s airplanes. In a recent case, one renter was found to have violated the agreement not to land on runways less than 3,000 feet and not on grass strips. “Instead of saying, ‘we have this program, we caught you and saw you went into this grass strip, here’s a reminder of our agreement,’ we gave [them] a warning, and said, ‘don’t ever do it again.’ Everybody knowing we’re looking at the data is in and of itself a little bit of a deterrent.”

Nelson has been gratified to see that the students and renter pilots appreciate CloudAhoy. “As students become renters, they start competing with and scoring themselves when [they’re flying]. It’s exciting for me to see that. Renters are creating their own competitions and trying to improve themselves.”

Flight instructors also appreciate P-FOQA, and learning about it benefits their careers as they will likely encounter FOQA programs at future jobs with corporate flight departments and airlines. Nelson has also briefed his insurance broker on P-FOQA and thinks there may be some benefits on that front.

Finalizing P-FOQA

P-FOQA can be set up to automatically email reports to specific individuals. CloudAhoy can also integrate P-FOQA with flight scheduling software so it can connect flight data with the pilot who was flying the aircraft, although some companies may want to anonymize this information.

Avionics manufacturer Avidyne is also a supporter of the FOQA capabilities enabled by CloudAhoy and AirSync. Avidyne’s 10.3 software update for its IFD navigators and Atlas and Helios FMSs makes it easier to output data via AirSync and also adds new discretes such as flaps and landing gear position, fuel quantity, radio frequencies, and more.

“As we grow in the business aviation community, those are the kind of features we add that could benefit anyone,” said John Talmadge, Avidyne’s v-p of worldwide sales. “We’re focused on single owner-operators to the chief pilot of a 50-ship fleet. We give them access and allow them to choose their FOQA path.”

For operators of legacy jets, such as an air ambulance with a fleet of older Learjets, Avidyne’s navigators and FMSs provide access to LPV approaches, a key benefit but also a lower-cost way to participate in a FOQA program. “This is a very cost-efficient way to improve the operational efficiency of the pilot group,” he said. “When you start being able to drill down to that level of detail, you pay more attention to [things like] alignment, runway length, and stable approaches.”

CloudAhoy’s Shavit hoped to formally launch P-FOQA in the third quarter. The anticipated cost is about $5,000 per year per tail number, but that hadn’t been finalized at the time this was written.

“FOQA is coming to general aviation,” Shavit said. “Some regulators want FOQA, and this is the next step. We haven’t seen much of an improvement in general aviation safety. If you can’t measure it, you can’t change it. We’re in a revolution now for flight safety in general aviation.”

The FAA supports efforts like P-FOQA, and at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in July, acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen acknowledged this during his “Meet the Administrator” session.

“Every day we have to challenge ourselves to find even more ways to reduce and eliminate the risk inherent in aviation,” he said, “because we all know too well that it has little tolerance for mistakes. Rather than responding to incidents, we are getting better at predicting them through the careful analysis of data. But we need to do more of this—especially in general aviation—and we need to get better at it. Being preventative is no longer enough; we must become predictive.”


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