Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
When Seeing is Believing

March 26, 2012  By Paul Dixon

Safety in aviation seems like such a simple concept, yet we are constantly presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Safety in aviation seems like such a simple concept, yet we are
constantly presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Knowing
the right thing to do is not enough, nor is the act of passing laws and
making rules.

Several of CHC’s oil and gas clients are insisting on the inclusion of FDM systems on all aircraft. (Photo courtesy of CHC Helicopter)


As parents, there comes a time when we have to trust that our children
are ready to take that next big step. Maybe it’s the first time they
want to take the car on a Friday night. You paid for driving lessons and
they’ve endured the hours of shared wisdom that all parents dispense
free of charge. You ask them for a detailed itinerary, passenger
manifest and go over “the rules” one last time before they leave, but as
much as you try to project a cool and nonchalant image, you can’t help
remembering that it wasn’t all that long ago that it was you itching to
be unleashed on the family sedan.

Phoenix Heli-Flight owner Paul Spring in a strong proponent of HFDM systems.
(Photo courtesy of Phoenix Heli-Flight)


Now imagine you have a position of responsibility in a helicopter
company and maybe the feeling among the people flying your aircraft is
pretty much the same. What does happen to your helicopter once it
disappears over the horizon? Even if you are the most junior pilot in
the organization, do you even wonder about how other pilots treat the
aircraft? Especially the one you are scheduled to fly today?

It’s precisely the premise behind Helicopter Flight Data Monitoring
(HFDM) – a systematic method of accessing, analyzing and acting upon
information obtained from flight data to identify and address
operational risks before they lead to incidents and accidents.
Information gleaned from HFDM systems can be invaluable to operators –
not only to reduce operational costs, but also enhance training
effectiveness and operational, maintenance and engineering procedures.
Information from HFDM programs is also unique because it provides
objective data that otherwise is not available.

And while many operators have implemented HFDM systems into their
aircraft – often at the insistence of clients – others have yet to grasp
the need. Paul Spring, chief pilot/owner of Phoenix Heli-Flight and
Mike Pilgrim, flight data monitoring manager at CHC Helicopter, are both
huge proponents of the technology, and have donated significant time to
the Global HFDM Steering Group (see “Above and Beyond”).

Above and Beyond
Phoenix Heli Flight’s Paul Spring and CHC Helicopter’s Mike Pilgrim are strong advocates for HFDM systems, and each has donated significant time to the Global HFDM Steering Group. Flight data monitoring programs have been in common use by major commercial airlines for more than 30 years and, although in limited use by some helicopter operators for over 10 years, they have only recently become more widely used and available for the whole helicopter community.
HFDM is the systematic, proactive and non-punitive use of flight data from routine operations to improve aviation safety. It enables an operator to compare its standard operating procedures with those actually achieved in everyday flights and, armed with a better knowledge of how their aircraft are being flown, enables them to design more effective training and safety programs for their flight crews.
Global HFDM Steering Group has a number of set goals going forward, including:

  • Co-ordinate users’ requirements for HFDM systems and support and advise aircraft and equipment manufacturers in meeting those requirements
  • Provide a source of expertise, information and advice for users wishing to adopt HFDM systems
  • Development and communication of industry best practice on HFDM matters

Spring thought he had a good handle on his operation, though he will
tell you today that he was wrong; actually, “dead wrong” are his exact
words. He started Phoenix Heli-Flight out of Fort McMurry, Alta., with
one aircraft and today operates five machines. Back in the beginning, as
a one-man, one-machine operation, there wasn’t any need for concern
about HFDM, or how the aircraft was being operated. But as soon as the
second helicopter was added the problems started.

Spring remembers it well. “I had a pilot working for me that you never
knew what was going on with that aircraft – and the way I would find out
was through other members of the local aviation community. Fort
McMurray is a small town, especially on the aviation side. I was out of
town on holidays, and a friend said when I came back, I don’t want to be
a rat but while you were gone, your machine was out on the weekends
doing auto rotations over and over onto the infield.”

Not wanting to call out the friend who had witnessed the pilot’s
behaviour over the weekend, Spring asked the pilot to explain the number
of landing fee charges when there were no corresponding flight tickets.
The pilot’s response was that he had been feeling a little rusty and
had taken it upon himself to conduct some self-training. Spring
remembers thinking, “We don’t train ourselves, because that’s not
training; that’s goofing around – and number two, it’s not authorized.”
Phoenix already had a training program in place, with pilots from
Eurocopter and policies in place supporting the training and use of

Large companies like CHC depend on technologies such as HFDM to find and retain major clients. (Photo courtesy of CHC Helicopter)


“Right then, I knew I had a problem because I had a lack of oversight, a
lack of control unless I was physically there – and no one wants to
stay at work every day, every minute,” he says. In this situation, he
put the pilot in question under strict supervision and the pilot
resigned shortly thereafter.

In his distant past, Spring had come from the commercial airline world,
where the implementation of flight data management systems was part of
standard operating procedure. “I used to wrench on 737s for an American
carrier, so I’m well aware of flight data recorders, cockpit recorders
and knew that they didn’t fit in helicopters – too expensive and too big
to work.”

His epiphany came in 2007, when he read articles on Appareo Systems
before he attended that year’s Heli-Expo. Founded in 2003, Appareo
Systems, LLC, is an advanced technology business that designs and
manufactures electronic, mechanical and software products for aerospace,
defense and transportation applications worldwide. One of its
specialties is helicopter flight data management systems, giving
operators a glimpse into what happens in the cockpit. “I made a point of
going to their booth at the show and was so excited about the oversight
that it would give me that I pretty much committed to the equipment
right then and there.”

At that point in 2007, Appareo was still almost a year away from having
the equipment certified.  Spring learned as much as he could about the
equipment while he was waiting, but then events took a dramatic turn.
“Between the time I got interested and talked to them, got prices and
got the actual delivery, we had our first crash and it was a fatal. The
investigation was simple because there were five people on board and
only one was killed. The pilot was honest about the accident and exactly
what he had done. We knew he had got into servo transparency and we
knew why he got into servo transparency. If you saw the wreck, everybody
should have died, but the thing that saved their lives was they landed
in muskeg. If they’d all been killed, what would we have known about the
accident other than the location? Nothing, because with servo
transparency, once the hydraulic system quits functioning it goes away.
It’s one of those things that leaves no telltale indicators for the
accident investigators.”

Phoenix installed its first FDM recorder in January, 2008 and Spring
realized very quickly that the solution he had been seeking brought with
it an even bigger problem. What do you do with the data? “We weren’t
ready for that Pandora’s Box of information flooding us,” he recalls,
“but at least we knew that we had at the very minimum a crash recorder.
So, one of the checkboxes that I ticked off was that we now had a means
of insight if there was another crash.”

Appareo Systems, LLC is an advanced technology business that designs and manufactures electronic, mechanical and software products for aerospace, defense and transportation applications worldwide.
(Photo courtesy of Appareo)


Making Necessary Changes
The question of data collection and deciphering its contents confronted
Mike Pilgrim several years previously when he was implementing Richmond,
B.C.-based CHC Helicopter’s HDFM program for his group of Super Pumas
serving the offshore oil fields in the Shetlands.

“One of the problems I found in trying to implement the HFDM program at
CHC was that I needed certain information from the manufacturers of the
aircraft and manufacturers of the equipment – and in order to
effectively decode the flight data, you need to have the parametric data
to decode from digital into engineering,” says Pilgrim. “Some of that
information is proprietary and the manufacturers don’t like giving it up
to some upstart. So, we had trouble getting material extracted from
various sources. So, I thought wouldn’t it be a good idea if I got in touch with some of the other HFDM people [at other operators] because HFDM was just starting to take hold. Actually, it was becoming
contractually required by some of the oil companies we flew for, so I
contacted some of the FDM people in other companies and asked if they
were having the same problem in getting information out of the
manufacturers and yes, they were.

“So, we got our heads around making a combined and joint request to the
manufacturers – look, guys, we need this stuff. It wasn’t just specific
information we were after; there were all sorts of things that really
needed to be co-ordinated. Different aircraft record different
parameters and so you can’t have a standard event set in your HFDM
unless you have all the parameters to generate the events. And so, we
said, wouldn’t it be a good thing if all the manufacturers produced all
the same data, and the manufacturers said, that’s not a bad idea – tell
us what you need. So, we went away and talked a bit more.”

Phoenix Heli-Flight had a serious crash in 2007. Says owner Paul Spring: “If you saw the wreck, everybody should have died,
but the thing that saved their lives was they landed in muskeg.” (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Heli-Flight)


Jump ahead to the 2008 CHC Safety Summit. At the previous summits, HFDM
had been presented within the workshop presentations, but in 2008, a
full day was set aside. Pilgrim recalls, “we wanted to bring the
helicopter manufacturers, software vendors and operators together in the
same room for a day to talk about HFDM, asking people what it meant to
them when they heard the term HFDM, what does it mean to the
manufacturers, what does it mean to the software vendors? We had
Sikorsky, Eurocopter, AgustaWestland, Aerobytes and we also had Bristow,
CHI and CHC and they all did presentations on what they thought HFDM is
about. We had an audience of about 70 people and at the end of the day,
saw it as our opportunity to lobby the manufacturers together.”

The manufacturers, who had so zealously guarded their proprietary data,
realized that there were a lot of people using their aircraft out in the
world who really did have a need to know what was going on in the
cockpit. As Pilgrim remembers, the manufacturers didn’t quite understand
why people wanted the data or what they were going to do with it, but
they did realize that they were facing a very dedicated and passionate
group representing their biggest customers and something had to be done.
The result was the formation of the Global HFDM Steering Group.

Spring was in the room and found himself frustrated by the direction the
group was taking. “The big operators, the heavy iron, were right in
there,” he says. “These guys fly offshore, IFR, two pilots, Aberdeen to a
rig and back again or Lagos to a rig and back again. These guys aren’t
the [safety] problem; charter operators like me, we’re the problem. We
don’t have a standard job, single pilot, VFR.”

The HFDM program that fit the needs of the large operators, capturing
data over a period of days, weeks or even months, didn’t meet the needs
of an operator such as Phoenix that operates smaller aircraft in an
environment that can see pilots and aircraft operating in totally
different missions on a day-to-day basis, from SAR and EMS, wildfire
suppression, aerial survey and anything else that requires moving people
or cargo around northern Alberta.

“I understand where the big operators are coming from because their
world is that very succinct, controlled world of offshore IFR, it’s all
they do,” says Spring. “They can get away with trend analysis, they can
get away with group memos. But, if I’ve got one rogue pilot, why would I
wait until the end of the month and send out a group report showing a
trend analysis or bad behaviour? Why would the rest of my good pilots
even care about that if you’ve only got one guy? You go talk to the one
guy, because he’s your problem.”

Phoenix Heli-Flight owner Paul Spring maintains HFDM is a marketing tool that he can use across the broad customer base he serves. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Heli-Flight)


Spring walked away from the 2008 meeting, went back to Fort McMurray and
kept working his own program at Phoenix. In 2009, he came back to the
group at the Safety Summit, realizing that he either had to get involved
with the group for the “little guys” or walk away from it. He stayed,
and today is a member of the Global HFDM Steering Group, largely
because, in his words, “Mike Pilgrim has managed to find people from
every segment of the business who have the passion to push this (HFDM)

Pilgrim’s view of the situation isn’t that far removed from Spring’s
given the relative disparity of their operations and environments. “The
HFDM program will show you when pre-established thresholds have been
exceeded, it will show you the profiles that are being adopted by your
pilots in your everyday business. You can see when the aircraft goes
over the horizon; if it comes back, you don’t know what’s happened
between the time it disappeared and the time it reappeared. But with
flight data monitoring, you can see what’s been going on and know now
how your crews are flying your aircraft and treating your aircraft.”

So why is HFDM so important? It all comes down to meeting the
expectations and requirements of the customer. The larger companies such
as CHC and Bristow, have to meet the requirements of the major oil
companies on a worldwide basis, or risk losing their livelihood.

For Spring at Phoenix Heli-Flight, being an early advocate of HFDM is a
marketing tool that he can use across the broad customer base he serves.
He says being vetted by one of the major oil companies is something he
can use to his advantage. “There are companies who are interested but
can’t afford to send their own auditors, but they asked and they now
know we’re an Esso-vetted supplier,” says Spring. “These companies have
to have their own certification to go to work for the oil companies, so
they know we’ve done the same process, just an aviation process. But
that word hasn’t filtered down to a lot of these smaller companies. “If I
can’t get the word through to the helicopter companies, I’ll make them
get it because their customers think it’s a good idea.”


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