Posts Tagged ‘NTSB’

Data, Data … Who Has the Data … and What Will They Do With It?

Monday, January 26th, 2015

Whether an airplane slides off the side of the runway during takeoff or disappears behind some tall trees on final approach, the reaction is pretty universal. People want to know, “what happened?” In the heavy metal airplanes like Boeings, Airbus’ or Gulfstreams, the investigation of what went wrong begins by retrieving the flight data and cockpit voice recorders that typically survive almost every kind of mishap. The data on those recorders help investigators re-create the moments before the chaos began … what control was moved in which direction, where the power was set or what one pilot said to the other. The data becomes the basis for the Board’s final report that offers valuable insights to the industry, many that quickly make their way to the pilot training providers.

But on the GA side of flying, that kind data and analysis is almost non-existent. We need to fill that GA vacuum for the same reason large aircraft carry data recorders … to prevent the same accident from reoccurring.

Stratus 2Thanks to the glass avionics now standard on just about every production airplane in the U.S., the job of capturing operational data is becoming easier. Unknown to may pilots, both the Garmin and Avidyne avionics offer downloads of operational data by simply inserting an “SD” memory card in a front panel. ForeFlight users can also capture their flights on their iPad. Add a Stratus 2 from Sporty’s and pilots can download enough data to create a simulation in X-Plane. Imagine watching your performance as if you’d been flying alongside as your own wingman. Hook up an Iridium Go! to a Stratus 2 and you can download the data via satellite while the aircraft is still airborne. The University of North Dakota is already deep into testing data capture systems on its flight training fleet to better gauge both aircraft and pilot performance.

And not a moment too soon since the NTSB reminded us a few weeks ago that loss of control inflight (LOCI) is enough of a GA to land LOCI on the Board’s Top 10 List of Transportation worries for 2015.

Of course the real value in trend analysis evolves by analyzing thousands or even hundreds of thousands of flights. But will the GA industry take the steps needed to capture more data and, after scrubbing it clean of any identifying tags, share it with the world for analysis? The airlines and business aviation are beginning to learn the value of identifying these kinds of trends before an accident occurs.

A few stumbling blocks to using the data from today’s airplanes include worries about cost, privacy and enforcement. The cost issue is actually an easy one though, despite the huge requirement for ADS-B Out looming in 2020, because data capture isn’t required by the FAA. It’s just valuable information. The equipment is either already on board, or can be added pretty inexpensively. A Stratus 2 that sells for $899 and an Iridium Go! listing out at $799 represent the top of the line for data capture options. The Stratus also gives an aircraft ADS-B In capabilities at no extra charge. Many data capture options cost much less. Don’t be surprised when insurance companies begin offering discounts to pilots who monitor their data like auto insurers are trying right now.Iridium Go!

Certainly privacy and enforcement go hand in hand with everyone worrying about who might view their last flight and what action they might take. For the commercial and business carriers, service providers already exist that scrub the data of identifying information while they focus on the issues the data identifies pretty much the way we’ve grown accustomed to using the ASRS forms through NASA.

With the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s 2012-2013 Accident Scorecard chronicling 948 fixed-wing accidents in 2013 that cut short the lives of 165 people, I’d say we have our work cut out for us. The question is whether enough pilots will gather together to take advantage of a system that might help GA vanish from the NTSB’s list in the near future.

Time for a Shakeup

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Last November the Federal Air Surgeon, Fred Tilton, unilaterally declared that mandatory screening for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in pilots would begin “shortly.”

The initial BMI threshold would be 40, with an ominous vow that “once we have appropriately dealt with every airman examinee who has a BMI of 40 or greater, we will gradually expand the testing pool by going to lower BMI measurements until we have identified and assured treatment for every airman with OSA.”

Tilton noted that “up to 30% of individuals with a BMI less than 30 have OSA”. Between the fact that people with normal-range BMIs have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and his apparent zest for uncovering “every” airman with OSA, logic dictates that the eventual threshold would be in the mid-20s, if not lower.

The aviation community was up in arms pretty quickly, and for good reason. For one thing, the mid-20s are the upper end of the normal BMI range. It’s also worth noting that even the World Health Organization acknowledges that the BMI scale was never designed for application to individual people, but rather for statistical modeling of entire populations. BMI is based solely on weight and height, so it does not account for differing body types. Nor does it obey the law of scaling, which dictates that mass increases to the 3rd power of height.

In plain English, a bigger person will always have a higher BMI even if they are not any fatter. This penalizes tall individuals, as well as bodybuilders and athletes who are in prime physical shape by assigning them absurdly high BMI numbers. Likewise, short people are misled into thinking that they are thinner than they are.

Nevertheless, Tilton declared his intention to press on anyway, without any industry input or following established rulemaking procedures despite the fact that this scavenger hunt would break invasive new ground in aeromedical certification.

Then, even the Aviation Medical Examiners objected to the new policy, noting that “no scientific body of evidence has demonstrated that undiagnosed obesity or OSA has compromised aviation safety” and that providing long term prognoses is not part of the FAA’s job. The medical certification exists soley to “determine the likelihood of pilot incapacitation for the duration of the medical certificate.”

Without the support of the civil aviation medicine community, Tilton was literally standing alone. At that point, Congress jumped into the fray on the pilot community’s behalf and eventually forced the Air Surgeon to back down… for now.

While the battle may have been won, the war is far from over. Mark my words, this is not the last you’ll hear about this bogeyman. Tilton may be forced to consult with the aviation community or follow a rulemaking procedure of some sort, but his zeal for the topic means OSA screening will be back in one form or another.

To effectively combat such overreach, we’ve got to attack the problem from its true source. In this case, the Air Surgeon’s ammunition came from National Transportation Safety Board recommendations issued in the wake of a 2008 regional airline flight which overflew its destination by 26 miles when both pilots fell asleep.

… the National Transportation Safety Board recommends that the Federal Aviation Administration:

Modify the Application for Airman Medical Certificate to elicit specific information about any previous diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea and about the presence of specific risk factors for that disorder. (A-09-61)

Implement a program to identify pilots at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea and require that those pilots provide evidence through the medical certification process of having been appropriately evaluated and, if treatment is needed, effectively treated for that disorder before being granted unrestricted medical certification. (A-09-62)

The NTSB serves a useful purpose in assisting transportation disaster victims and investigating accidents, but when it comes to safety recommendations, the agency operates in a kind of vacuum, divorced from some of the most pressing realities of the modern general aviation world. The reason is simple: their mission statement. It calls for the Board to “independently advance transportation safety” by “determining the probable cause of the accidents and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.”

While there’s nothing objectionable about their mission, note how there’s no mention of the cost these recommendations impose on those of us trying to make a go of it in the flying industry. Since it’s not part of their mission statement, it is not a factor the Board takes into account. It doesn’t even appear on their radar. The Board’s federal funding and their lack of rulemaking authority negates any such considerations. So a sleep apnea study costs thousands of dollars — so what? If it prevents one pilot from falling asleep in the cockpit in next half century, it’s well worth the decimation to an already down-and-out sector of the economy.

That’s been the logic for the NTSB since it was conceived by the Air Commerce Act in 1926. It worked well when aerospace safety was at its nadir — but that was nearly ninety years ago. As air transportation evolved during the 20th century, attempts at increasing safety have reached the point of diminishing returns and exponentially increasing cost. At some point the incessant press toward a perfect safety record will make aviating such a sclerotic activity that it will, in effect, cease.

It’s a problem for any industry, and it’s especially so for one that’s teetering on the edge of oblivion the way ours is. The good news is that this can be fixed. It’s time to shake things up at the NTSB by revising their mission statement to make cost analysis a major part of the Board’s function. They should work with stakeholders to carefully study the long-term effect each recommendation would have on the health and size of the aviation industry before they make it.

For what it’s worth, the FAA needs this mission statement adjustment just as much as the NTSB. More, in fact, because the NTSB can recommend anything it wishes, but the regulatory power to act upon those suggestions is outside their purview and rests with the Federal Aviation Administration. From medical approval to burdensome aircraft certification rules, the FAA is the hammer. We have to start somewhere, though, and the NTSB is in many ways the top of the heap, the place where these ideas get their start. It would be nice to see the industry’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C. suggest such a bill to members of Congress.

One final thought: if government’s power really does derive from the “consent of the governed”, this should be an idea even the NTSB (and FAA) can get behind. Otherwise, they may convene one day and find that there’s not much of an industry left for them to prescribe things to.