Sept. 3, 2020

NBAA Safety Committee Chairman Tom Huff headlined a recent web discussion hosted by Wyvern Ltd. about flight data monitoring (FDM) systems increasingly utilized by both OEMs and business aviation flight departments to provide insights into the performance of both business aircraft and their flight crews.

To highlight this role, Huff’s presentation centered around the investigation of the May 2014 downing of a Gulfstream G-IV at Laurence G. Hanscom Field (BED) in Bedford, MA, in which the NTSB determined the rudder gust lock was engaged, preventing a successful takeoff.

While that accident, its cause and contributing factors as determined by the NTSB are familiar to many in the industry, Huff noted it was the manufacturer’s FDM program that revealed the crew had neglected to perform complete flight control checks prior to departure in 98% of the aircraft’s previous 175 flights.

“Frankly, that [finding] changed the complexion of this investigation entirely,” said Huff, who also serves as Aviation Safety Officer for Gulfstream, in the Sept. 2 presentation. “As opposed to a one-off, “Black Swan” type of event, now we were talking about a habitual non-compliance event.”

View the Wyvern Webinar, “The Power of Flight Data Monitoring.”

In addition to OEM flight data management programs, other FDM resources may include company flight operational quality assurance programs and participation in the FAA’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing service, in which operators are able to submit data anonymously.

Even with such protections in place, Huff acknowledged the “tightrope” that exists between the deliberately non-punitive nature of such programs with their inherent role in determining compliance with safety procedures.

“If not properly handled in a just culture sort of way, some of this data is obviously revealing issues with certain aviators,” added webinar host Andrew Day, senior director for quality and education at Wyvern. “That could be construed as a way to punitively react. Who’s looking at your data and what is it telling you?”

Despite such concerns, the lessons that data can offer even to experienced flight crews cannot be dismissed. “It’s heartbreaking to hear things said about [the Bedford accident] crew,” Huff said. “Obviously, they were very experienced … [but] I think if we’re all honest with each other, we’ve also missed steps on checklists.”