Flight-Data Monitoring: Equip for Safety
All U.S. air medical helicopters are required to equip with a flight-data monitoring (FDM) system by April 24, 2018 — and that day is fast approaching. The HEMS (helicopter emergency medical services) rule, as it is often referred to, was released on February 21, 2014, after more than three years of study and comment.
Although some elements of the rule are aimed specifically at the helicopter air ambulance sector, the final rule is applicable to most helicopter operators in one form or another. In addition to the FDM requirement, it calls for safety enhancements that range from basic visual flight rules (VFR) weather minimums to operational control centers, over-water requirements, radio altimeters, and flight risk assessments. These requirements came about as a response to helicopter accidents and an honest attempt to improve future safety.
Putting Data to the Test
HAI embraces the use of FDM technology. Capturing flight data — and mining that data for information that can improve operational safety — is now a widely accepted practice. In fact, analysis of flight data is one of the reasons the FAA’s Commercial Aviation Safety Team was able to reduce the fatality risk for airline transport operations by 83 percent in 10 years.
For the past three years, HAI has been working with the FAA on Rotorcraft ASIAS, a program to research and develop flight-data monitoring for rotorcraft operators. The program is voluntary for operators, who agree to equip their helicopters with FDM equipment.
HAI provides a neutral portal, where the data is de-identified before it reaches the FAA or academic researchers working on the project. While operators have full access to their own data, they only see other operators’ information as de-identified, aggregate data.
Parameters being tested include airspeed, altitude, rate of climb or descent, temperature, density altitude, and video and/or audio. The end goal is to turn the immense amount of data available to FDM users into usable safety indicators and encourage every operator, large and small, to install FDM to enhance safety.
A Zero-Accident Culture
However, equipping for FDM is only one aspect of our journey toward zero accidents. One of the challenges we must overcome is the very versatility that makes helicopter operations so exciting.
Some say that helicopters are the Swiss Army knife of aviation. Equipped properly, the aircraft can accomplish a number of missions. Attach a Bambi bucket, and it’s a firefighting vehicle. Equip with stretchers and medical devices, and now it’s an air ambulance. Law enforcement, heli-logging, agricultural spraying, construction and heavy-lift — there is no end to the uses of rotorcraft.
In most missions, we don’t take off from established infrastructure and fly predictable routes each day, like airlines do. Instead, we are landing off site, perhaps at night, in a location that we have never been to before. Each day’s flying can be unique. The variety and variability of helicopter operations means that establishing appropriate safety practices will be harder for us than it was for the airlines.
It’s Up to You
The most important safety equipment for any aviation operation are the people in it. Many accident reports tell the story of pilots, operators, and maintainers failing to follow safety procedures or dismissing automated warnings. No piece of hardware or software can ensure safety; that’s still up to us humans.
The FDM equipment only tells us how the aircraft was being operated in day-to-day operations. It does not repair or fly the helicopter; it does not manage personnel or equipment for the operation.
What FDM does do is give operators, pilots, mechanics, management, and leaders another tool in their bag to evaluate how, when, and where we fly. It is up to us to utilize that data so that we can get closer to our goal of zero accidents.
Zac Noble is HAI’s deputy director of flight operations and technical services