Flight department managers need accurate information to determine whether their group's SOPs are logical, efficient and being practiced, and to identity, manage and reduce operational risks. One method for obtaining those data on a continuing basis is by instituting a Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) program, which uses actual flight data to identify and address operational problems before they lead to incidents and accidents.

FOQA proved its value long ago among airlines, but its adaptation to the helicopter sectors was slow due to the lack of availability of low-cost, lightweight, unobtrusive data collection hardware. However, within the past few years, such equipment costing less than $10,000 to install has come to market according to the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST).

Helicopter FOQA dates to late 1998 following the completion of an initial feasibility study by Great Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Shell Aircraft Ltd. Together, the CAA, Shell, Bristow Group and Smith Aerospace Electronic Systems with technical support from British Airways successfully demonstrated real safety benefits of flight data monitoring programs. Five Super Pumas equipped with flight data recorders were initially involved. Follow-up studies analyzed low-speed operations, pilot workload, mapping helideck environments and allocating severity values to events.

More recently FOQA — under a variety of names — has proved its value at a number of large and small helicopter operators.

The term FOQA is commonly used by the FAA in the U.S., while ICAO labels the process as Flight Data Analysis. CHC Helicopter calls its program Helicopter Flight Data Monitoring; Bristow uses Helicopter Operations Monitoring Program; and PHI entitles its the Line Activity Monitoring Program. Other operators now employing FOQA programs include Bond, Cougar Helicopters, ERA, Metro Aviation, Air Methods and Arkansas Children's Hospital.

According to these operators, the programs help them determine whether SOPs are being followed and pinpoint training deficiencies, provide early warning of maintenance issues and can result in lower operational costs. The actionable information derived from FOQA analysis can potentially provide a proactive means to prevent an accident.

Information from FOQA programs is unique since it provides data that are objective and available for root cause analysis. The data are also especially valuable for evaluating the effectiveness of any actions taken to correct a problem revealed by earlier analysis. Over the long term, FOQA reduces operational costs through a reduction in incidents and accidents and associated repair work, while at the same time highlighting inefficiencies and increasing aircraft availability and maintaining value.

The components of the FOQA system include an onboard data recording and collection system, plus a means for transmitting the data, replaying and analyzing them, and visualization tools. In recent years new technologies have dramatically changed the recording systems. Quick Access Recorders (QARs) and Light Aircraft Recording Systems can capture essential aircraft state information including yaw, pitch, roll, altitude, climb/descent rate, rotor RPM and torque. The options for recording memory devices now include optical disks, PCMCIA cards, compact flash cards and solid-state memory. Many new aircraft can be ordered with this equipment installed at the factory.

Traditional equipment such as flight data recorders, QARs and multifunction data acquisition units are currently being used in FOQA programs for medium and large transport airplanes. These devices, which are often required by regulatory authorities for such aircraft, are beneficial in that they typically provide more parameters and data to support both operational and maintenance monitoring programs.

Retrieval methods also have evolved. Some operators have used physical removal of a disk or PCMCIA card. Electronic transfer methods now include the use of wireless systems, cell phone modems, VHF modems and satellite modems. Operators can weigh expense, in-aircraft equipment installation, availability of airport infrastructure, bandwidth and operating environment into consideration when deciding which technology best suits their needs.

Improvements in flight animation systems have greatly aided the ability to understand and analyze events. Instead of looking at a page of digital data read-outs, which can be tedious and difficult to interpret, animation software gives the reviewer high-fidelity graphical depictions of an event generated by those data.

FOQA analysis is derived from “Triggered Events” that occur outside the normal operating envelope and “Routine Operational Measurements.” The acceptable limits for each parameter are predefined by the operator, with some measures specific to make/model/type of aircraft, and an exceedance of a parameter trips the “trigger,” thus putting a special label on the flight.

It is equally important for a manager to get a summary of normal operations. These Routine Operational Measurements help to determine whether flight crews are nearing the extremes for normal operations, and if so, how often and to what degree.

At a Helicopter Association International workshop in 2009, Jim Morgan, flight data manager at Bristow, shared the experience the company's North American division had in implementing a FOQA program. In 2005, the division, then operating as Air Logistics, decided to put together a FOQA program as a proactive solution to improve the safety of flight operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the time, the division had a fleet of 124 small, single-engine aircraft, more than 80% of which were flown single pilot to remote locations and with limited oversight. The fleet also included 23 medium and large helicopters, which were flown from crews. However, the small aircraft accounted for more than 80% of the division's operations and flight time, and for most of its accidents and incidents as well. Accordingly, the division chose the small helicopter fleet as a priority for a monitoring program.

The operator researched the availability of an off-the-shelf flight monitoring device for small helicopters, but finding none suitable, it partnered with Appareo Systems to design and manufacture an event recorder for which it obtained an STC in August 2007 and began installations on its Bell 206 and Bell 407 aircraft. Once the recorders were operational, SOPs called for pilots to install an SD card during preflight inspection and remove it during postflight duties. At the end of the day they would upload the flight data into one of the kiosks installed in the pilots' ready room at each operations base. FAA approval for the FOQA program began in April 2008.

In defining trigger events, the division divided the operating parameters into general categories such as departure, vertical speed, attitude control, altitude and landing. For example, parameters on departure included excessive pitch angle on takeoff, excessive climb and premature turn before reaching 300 ft. AGL.

Vertical speed trends examined excessive descents and climbs. Further, an excessive descent at altitudes greater than 500 ft. AGL was 1,250 fpm and higher, while 750 fpm and above were excessive when the aircraft was within 500 ft. of the ground.

Attitude control triggers included excessive bank angle, steep turns, and yaw and roll rates in excess of 30 deg./sec.

Altitude trends included low cruise over land, low cruise offshore, premature departure turns and low turns to final.

Landing parameters included an excessive pitch angle on landing — that is, greater than 18 deg. nose up when less than 150 ft. AGL — and turns to final at less than 300 ft. AGL.

Since negative g loading that is less than 0.2 g is a concern for semi-rigid rotor systems because of the threat of mast bumping, that was also on the watch list.

So, what did the monitoring uncover? In January 2009, the fleet experienced a total of 784 trigger events. The most common was an excessive descent below 500 ft. AGL (256 events; 33%). Excessive descent rates are a symptom of settling with power, a situation in which the helicopter descends within its own airflow, or with the rotor in the vortex ring state. Depending on the type of rotors, settling with power can begin with as little as a 300-fpm rate of descent.

Other contributing conditions to the phenomenon include an airspeed less than effective translational lift and power between 20% and 100%. Common situations that often lead to settling with power include attempting to hover above hovering ceiling, steep approaches with tailwind and hovering OGE without precise attitude control.

The remaining trigger event, presented by total number at percentage they represent, were: excessive bank angle (133; 17%); low turn to final (105; 13%); excessive descent above 500 ft. AGL (95; 12%); excessive pitch angle landing (56; 7%), excessive pitch angle on takeoff (53; 7%); premature departure turns (41; 5%); and the remaining events (6%) scattered among the other categories.

Provided with clear, objective operational data, an operator and line pilots can learn and adjust policies and procedures. As a result at least in part from information gained through their FOQA program, the Bristow/Air Logistics pilots delivered a 95% reduction in low cruise events over a five-month period.

While flight visualization software is immensely useful in helping understand an event, to successfully analyze a lot of operational data, the analyst will need an inquisitive mind and a solid background in actual operations. This is why the involvement of active, scientifically savvy line pilots is important in evaluating FOQA data.

For example, a trigger event involving a yaw rate over 30 deg. per second would indicate a possible loss of tail rotor effectiveness. However, the data do not reveal what caused such an event to occur. In this case, having an Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) in place as well could reveal why the event took place. Alternately, an insightful line pilot might point out that the remote landing site involved is prone to hard-to-predict winds from varying directions and pilots are left without definitive wind information for landings.

The selection of trigger events will be partially dictated by the complexity of the onboard recording devices since the number of parameters can range from 30 being recorded to sometimes hundreds. Each operator, software setup, aircraft type, SOP and recording device will influence what can/should be monitored. Some operators have found that once they start a FOQA program they will narrow it down to some of the first trends they notice. A good FOQA program will evolve continuously, especially when combined with input from an ASAP or Line Oriented Safety Audit (LOSA) program as those point out areas of concern that should receive future emphasis.

As part of a just and safety-conscience culture, FOQA data — like reports submitted through ASAP — should be non-punitive and focus on identification of root causes and their correction, not on placing blame. According to the International Helicopter Safety Team, “A 'just culture' is absolutely mandatory for the success of an effective FOQA program. A just culture is a culture in which personnel are encouraged to and feel comfortable disclosing errors, including their own, while maintaining professional accountability. A just culture is not, however, tolerant of reckless behavior or intentional noncompliance with established rules or procedures. The target for a FOQA program is to maintain data security and crew confidentiality within a just culture.”

According to Bristow's Morgan, “In order to have a successful program it is imperative that open communications between concerned parties always be maintained. An agreement between the company [Air Logistics] and the pilots' union was completed to insure crewmember confidentiality and that except in the case of deliberate or illegal acts, the program would be nonpunitive in nature.”

If the program is managed correctly utilizing just culture, an improvement in trust and respect between stakeholders is possible and communication improves as a result. Increased communications leads to improvements not only in safety but efficiency of operations and customer satisfaction. Problems and deviations are more readily identified.

On the other hand, those companies that have used FOQA data for disciplinary purposes have come to suffer unintended consequences. Pilots have changed their flight behavior by concentrating narrowly and making decisions based solely on avoiding a FOQA limit rather than on the overall safety of the flight.

Another ploy that destroys a just culture is the misinterpretation or manipulation of data so that blame defaults to crew error rather than the company's role or other factors in the event. For instance, an analysis of airspeed deviations on final could simply blame the crew for failure "to observe stabilized approach criteria” while ignoring the fact that the speed deviations were caused by the ups and downs of strong thermals. Other examples include exaggerating the scale of a graph to make, say, a 7-kt. deviation appear to be severe.

At present, FOQA is a voluntary program in the U.S. and operators are not required to obtain FAA approval for implementing one. However, if seeking regulatory protection for FOQA data, an operator needs to obtain agency approval, as outlined in 14 CFR Part 13.401.

Under an FAA-approved program, FAR violations will not be pursued if they are revealed only by FOQA, receive corrective action and do not involve criminal or intentional actions. Also, the Safety Data Protection Rule in Part 193 protects FAA-approved FOQA data from release under the Freedom of Information Act and they are also protected from public disclosure. Approved plans require FAA access to de-identified aggregate and trend data, regular briefings to the local FAA office on adverse safety trends and notification of corrective actions planned or taken.

The discovery of common, systemic safety problems within the helicopter industry requires gathering and sharing as much data as possible. There is now an initiative through the FAA's Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing program that is coordinating this effort.

The FAA program uses the MITRE Corp. for analytical support to aggregate and cross-correlate safety-related data from multiple sources, including FOQA and ASAP programs, the FAA and the military. An operator signs an agreement with MITRE to assure the security of its data. The success of this effort requires wide industry participation, spanning multiple operators, fleets and regions.

Not only can FOQA programs help pilot performance, they can enhance mechanical reliability and safety while reducing costs. Overlooking vibrations in the main rotor, tail rotor and power train, as well as engine health can become costly and unsafe.

Operators who track these parameters from start-up to shutdown have been able to prevent catastrophic mechanical failures by collecting and analyzing the data from health and usage monitoring systems and FOQA.

A successful FOQA program requires a skilled team of professionals, an integrated step-by-step process and the proper tools, technology and support. Those interested in establishing a FOQA program can get more information from FAA Advisory Circular 120-82 (published April 12, 2004), which provides guidance on the subject. Other sources include the HFDM Toolkit at www.ihst.org, HFDM study reports at www.caa.co.uk and www.foqa-asap.com.