Business Aviation Insider

FAA's Michael O'Donnell

NBAA recently spoke with FAA’s Michael O’Donnell about the status of government-industry safety efforts, including the work of the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee.

June 18, 2018

Q: Reflecting on your first year as head of FAA’s Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention, what are some improvements we have seen in GA safety?

We continue to work hard with industry on a number of key initiatives to improve general aviation safety. The most important effort in my mind is the GA Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) which is a public-private partnership that combines the expertise of key decision-makers across different parts of the FAA, government agencies, and various stakeholder groups working to improve general aviation safety. The GAJSC uses the same model as the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), a data-driven, consensus-based approach to analyze aviation safety data and develop specific interventions that will mitigate the root causes of accidents.

The collaboration of government and industry over the last few years helped make 2017 the safest year ever for general aviation! In fact, we’ve seen a 57 percent decrease in the fatal accident rate since the early 2000s. What’s more, the GAJSC’s goal to reduce the GA fatal accident rate by 10 percent from January 2009 to December 2018, has already been exceeded a year early, and we are working on the new metric that will be shared at a GAJSC this summer.

Other safety efforts underway include: Equip 2020 for ADS-B Out, new airman certification standards, streamlining aircraft certification, the “Got Data?” external data initiative, and the Fly Safe outreach campaign on loss of control.

Moreover, the business aviation side is safer than ever. In fact, the fatal accident rate has been near zero for three years running. This is fantastic news and points directly to the successful outreach efforts of FAA and industry focusing on professionalism and safety.

Q: How has your previous work in GA airport management influenced or helped in your new role?

I consider myself a GA enthusiast. I’m a GA pilot and former GA airport manager, and as a state aviation director, my focus was the promotion of general aviation. I think the heartbeat of aviation in America is the local small-town airport. The United States has the largest and most diverse GA community in the world, with more than 220,000 aircraft, including amateur-built aircraft, rotorcraft, balloons, and highly sophisticated turbojets at 19,000 local airports all across the country. These airports are the “front door” of thousands of communities and provide local folks direct access to the national airspace system.

What’s more, business aviation plays a vital community service by moving people and goods directly where they need to go. The spectrum of GA activity and its diverse services means jobs and economic impact to local communities. This fact underscores the important role business aviation plays at an airport, where jobs and economic activity benefit the entire community.

Most importantly, GA airports provide entry-level careers pathways for professional pilots, mechanics, firefighters and other aviation professions. My goal now is to promote a system-level culture of safety by reaching folks early in their careers, so that when they move up they take valuable safety lessons with them.

Q: There’s a lot of collaboration taking place right now to address GA safety, particularly through the work of the GAJSC. Can you elaborate on some of those efforts?

The GAJSC was formed in the mid-1990s and recently renewed its efforts to combat GA fatal accidents. Recent accomplishments include more than 39 safety enhancements (related to training, procedures, and technology) to address loss of control and engine-related accidents. Some examples include a streamlined policy for angle of attack system approvals and outreach to the GA community on loss of control topics.

With powerplant system and component failures being one of the leading fatal GA accident categories, the GAJSC analyzed fatal GA accidents involving total or partial loss of engine power. The GAJSC approved and initiated implementation of safety enhancements directed at engine issues and focused on improving engine technology, aiding the pilot in decision-making post-engine failure, and improving resources available to mechanics, as well as their education and training.

Controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) is the second largest risk in GA, so the GAJSC recently began a study of CFIT accidents and will share the results with industry in late 2018.

Other achievements include several web-based resources, an FAA and industry campaign on flying and medications, and overall GA community coordination on loss of control and engine issue topics. Resources include targeted themes and articles in the FAA Safety Briefing magazine.

Q: Participation in the ASIAS data-sharing program is growing among business aircraft operators. How important is this to aviation safety, and how can the FAA best use this data?

The FAA and industry are focused on reducing general aviation accidents by primarily using a non-regulatory, proactive, data-driven strategy to get results – similar to the strategy the FAA uses in commercial aviation. Using data, the FAA and industry are working together to identify risk, pinpoint trends through root-cause analysis and develop safety strategies. The FAA and the GA community carry out this work through the GAJSC.

The GA community and the FAA are moving toward using de-identified GA operations data in the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) program to help identify risks before they become accidents. In March 2014, the FAA started a one-year project to illustrate the value, capabilities and benefits of the ASIAS program for the GA community. The project explored potential new information sources, such as general aviation flight data monitoring, voluntary safety reports, manufacturer reports, and information collected from avionics and using new common technologies such as iOS and Android personal electronic devices.

This project led to a broader expansion of GA in ASIAS. Tools are now available to the GA community to help explore and understand their own flight data and look for potential risks. Through this program, the FAA does not have access to any individual pilot’s data, as the system is hosted by a third party. However, the deidentified aggregated data will be used by the GA community through ASIAS to identify trends and look for system risks that may need to be mitigated. Also, data from these programs will be used for GAJSC safety initiatives. The GAJSC is working with the GA community to incorporate their data into ASIAS so that it may be used to identify risk.

Today, we have about 66 business aircraft operators participating in ASIAS. The business aviation community is now seeing benefits of sharing data, and NBAA now serves on ASIAS Executive Board as a new GA industry representative. But more work is needed, which involves informing operators of this great safety tool and how their participation in ASIAS benefits them.

ASIAS, CAST and the GAJSC also partner with the industry-sponsored Aviation Safety InfoShare meeting, which facilitates the sharing of safety issues and best practices in a protected environment. Infoshare enables early identification of emerging systemic safety issues. At each Infoshare meeting there are corporate breakout sessions where participants share important safety data. The data sharing idea is catching on throughout the rest of GA, and we just held our second “University InfoShare” by working with several flight schools like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of North Dakota.

Michael J. O’Donnell was named executive director of the FAA Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service in April 2018. Prior to that, he served as executive director of the FAA’s Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention, where his mission was to make air travel safer through investigation, data collection, risk analysis and information sharing. In that position, he served as the government co-chair of the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC), a public-private partnership (which includes NBAA) that is working to improve general aviation safety.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Business Aviation Insider. Download the magazine app for iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.