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

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. The MITRE Corp. worked closely with the FAA to produce a handy app — called GAARD — you’ll find at iTunes store that is a pretty slick tool for basic data capturing just using your iPhone. 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.


  1. I want to go back to a world where there was no tracking. Since I can’t have that, I’d like for my flights to be left alone. Thanks.

  2. Robert Paul Mark

    January 27, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    So you wouldn’t be willing to share your experiences with a third party if no one knew who you were … even if your experiences might help keep someone else from making the same mistakes as you?

  3. This harkens me back to the line in the movie “A Few Good Men” when Jack Nicholson says “You can’t handle the truth!” Here’s a clip:
    I think it is time we start looking for all the facts rather than trying to sweep the not-so-complimentary ones under the rug.

  4. Dave Patricia Wilber Guerrieri

    January 28, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    I haven’t had much luck with my Iridium Go! I called Sporty’s and the rep there said I might as well send it back because there’s little chance things will improve. I’m starting to take it a little personally when I hear of others who seem to be able to make it work! Maybe Iridium, as a satellite Internet provider, doesn’t have to worry about net neutrality, so the reality is that I’m just not using the right apps. Apps built for Go! might work just fine, but trying to log into Forget it! Has anyone gotten any web sites to work in the recommended Opera browser? The Iridium e-mail seems to work OK, but it isn’t exactly convenient. For example if someone sends a message there, I don’t think it can be forwarded to gmail, in case you don’t have the Iridium turned on at the time. Maybe some veteran users can provide some tips and tricks. Is there a thread somewhere already devoted to using the Iridium Go! in aviation?

  5. Robert Paul Mark

    January 30, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    That’s an interesting comment about Iridium Go! – I know some folks there./ Let me see if I can find an answer.

  6. Robert Paul Mark

    January 30, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    And for people who don’t want to share data, that’s fine. On the business aviation side, the data is all what we call de-identified, or scrubbed so no one knows who said what. Kind of the way they do it if you file an ASRS report.

    I just happen to think it’s where the world is headed … kind of like drones, whether we like it or not. But I’ll save my comments on drones for next month.

  7. Tell you what – why stop at light aircraft? CARS have accidents, too – let’s install data recorders in them as well, so we can find out why car accidents (much, MUCH more common than aircraft accidents) happen, too, so that we can figure out better how to reduce the number and/or severity!

    Or, come to think about it, how about *bicycles*??

    Did you ever hear that wise comment that, IMHO, you’ve ignored here – “Just because something CAN be done doesn’t necessarily mean that it SHOULD be done”??

    • I’m curious what you think about police wearing helmet cams like the Army does? Some auto insurance companies do offer lower premiums if the driver agrees to monitoring. If you are a religious person, you might believe that someone is always watching you anyway. Do you not trust your fellow “children of God” to judge you as fairly as He does? That would be a pretty tremendous act of faith, wouldn’t it? Seems to me we could all use a little more faith and a little more Bible study. Then we might not be so afraid of being our brother’s keeper, or being kept by our brother. If we could get some benefit from increased surveillance, like not having to lock things up, I’m not so sure a surveillance society would be so bad. It will take a while to get used to, and appropriate protections will need to be in place like anonymizing data and better privacy protections, but I hate locks and keys and I hate the prevalence of being prone to distrust by default. We could do so much more and do it faster if we could all trust each other more. Trust but verify? The terrorists have us all on edge, don’t they? But we are probably learning a lot because of it — about what is the true meaning of Trust and Faith, and maybe we’re even learning how to love our enemy as well as our neighbor. I believe that is what Jesus would hope we do. I hope we can, in fact, handle the truth. And I hope we will all do the right things to seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me ______ (insert your guiding light here).

    • Giving up a lot of freedom to gain a tiny bit of security is very unwise.

      • Raising Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD as some people refer to it) is the easiest way to ensure no one moves beyond the status quo. It is an excellent tactic if the politics are heading in the wrong direction, if you can find something to scare people with. Simply delaying something you don’t think you like is better than letting it go, isn’t it? I see it done all the time in local politics when, for example, someone doesn’t want Bus Rapid Transit installed, or some other newfangled idea. It is the favorite tool of the luddite. We need faith in ourselves and our leaders that we will proceed carefully down this path so that we can ensure the benefits outweigh the costs.
        Your statement is absolutely correct, if it is sincere and not FUD. To sincerely move forward, we need to ask “How should we quantify freedom and security?”
        Perhaps freedom would be enhanced in a world without all the locks and keys required today. If we had better surveillance maybe we wouldn’t need all the barriers between airport and community, such as ominous tall steel fences and security codes that only keep honest people out. Freedom always carries a cost, however. Who would review all that video data to ensure nothing untoward is happening? Maybe every plane could have 4 inexpensive cameras mounted on the top of the vertical tail, one for each of 12,3,6,and 9 o’clock, so if anyone tried to steal the plane or its contents, it would take their picture and send the picture to the owner via text?! The owner could forward that on to 1-800-GA-Secure if it looked suspicious.

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