July 21, 2022
Many business aircraft operators have adopted flight risk assessment tools (FRATs) as part of their overall safety management system (SMS) to help address and mitigate operational risk factors. In addition to providing an important safety check-up during normal flight operations, a FRAT may be particularly useful for pilots returning to the flight deck following an extended absence.
Dan Ramirez, general manager of GMJ Air Shuttle and a member of the NBAA Safety Committee, noted the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with regular scheduling for many flight crews.
“Most of us didn’t stop flying completely during the pandemic,” noted Ramirez, “but we weren’t flying as many hours as we used to, so competencies were becoming a question. You could have your 90 days and your three takeoffs and landings and be legal, but that doesn’t mean your skills haven’t suffered.”
“Maintaining pilot currency was a big challenge during COVID,” agreed Kevin Honan, senior operations advisor for AviationManuals. “Especially toward the beginning of the pandemic, many captains and first officers hadn’t flown for several months, while those who did fly were on the low side of type currency.”
An effective FRAT provides an objective means for pilots to assess risk and then determine possible mitigations by outlining several potential risk factors for a given flight, including weather conditions and trip length, as well as pilot qualifications and recent flight experience.
“Our FRAT asks pilots if they’ve flown the airplane in the past 14 days,” Ramirez said, “and responses to every subsequent question are then multiplied based on the answer to that question. Even for minor tasks you may think are second nature, it can take time to regain [proficiency] if you haven’t performed them in a while.”
Fatigue management is another important safety consideration.
“A FRAT can help account for the effects of a longer flight, particularly if challenging conditions are expected at your destination,” Honan said. “Especially if crews haven’t flown in a while, it’s vital that they are honest in scoring themselves on the FRAT to account for all potential risks.”
For that reason, Ramirez noted, dispatchers at his company will perform a separate FRAT for each flight, independent of the flight crew’s own assessment. Both sides then consult as the departure time approaches, with the chief pilot weighing in in case there are any concerns over potential risk factors.
“There are many examples in our industry where a FRAT may be ‘pencil-whipped’ because the pilot or flight crew feel pressure to make a mission happen,” he said, “but that is when it’s most important to follow the process as intended.”
“It’s always important to score a FRAT honestly,” said Honan, “but especially so when you haven’t flown in a while or haven’t recently landed at a particularly challenging airport.
“It’s just the tip of SMS, but it’s a critical first step in identifying risk,” he concluded. “We’ve seen operators really embracing that and utilizing it to its fullest, and it’s really a good steppingstone to start picking out risks and mitigating them.”