Just the facts, ma'am

Safety Pilot

June 1, 2007

Bruce Landsberg has served as executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.

Jack Webb, who played the matter-of-fact Los Angeles cop in the long-gone Dragnet television series, routinely used to growl his line, "Just the facts, ma'am" to witnesses, solving some heinous crime quickly within the show's 30-minute running time. Wouldn't it be nice if safety matters could be so simply disassembled?

It's a well-known fact that human behavior changes, usually for the better, when people know they are being watched. There's nothing like a speed trap to help drivers suddenly remember the speed limit. Cameras and a variety of devices are watching us almost everywhere: automatic teller machines, banks, retail stores, gambling establishments, airports, subways, busy intersections, and soon, the cabins of airliners.

The data-recording evolution permeates our lives. Suppose there was a way to get just the facts? As general aviation cockpits go to glass and data are easily produced and recorded, flight data recorders may soon be coming to light GA aircraft. Would it cut down on the buzzing incidents or improper aerobatics if pilots knew that their activities were subject to review in the event of an accident?

Red light cameras have been around for about a decade and they are a topic of debate, especially regarding accident reduction, not revenue production — on that, there is no doubt. The U.S. Department of Transportation studied multiple cities and hundreds of intersections. The DOT found that the cameras reduce side-impact crashes (T-bones) but increase rear-end crashes as drivers slam on their brakes to avoid getting a ticket. However, those crashes tend to be less serious than the typical T-bone accident, and the net annual savings in injuries is on the order of about $39,000 per intersection. The typical answer is, "More studies are planned."

Flight data recorders (FDRs) and cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) have been around for decades on airliners and larger business jets to determine what went wrong after an accident. They measure flight path, aircraft attitude, flight control positions, altitude, engine output, cockpit and air traffic control conversation, and dozens of other variables. The concept has been taken even further to include the analysis of routine flight data to predict problems before they become accidents.

It's difficult to buy a new car these days that does not have an event data recorder, and this is indicative of how such a recorder might appear in our aircraft. You might check the vehicle owner's manual — that's the one nobody reads. A notice will likely advise you of the presence of the device and explain how it will be used. It tracks, among other things, speed, braking, steering, engine parameters, and seat-belt usage and air-bag status — very similar to an FDR. On some vehicles there is even a GPS-based location tracker that allows a central location to provide directions or, in the event of an accident, to summon help. Divorce lawyers and parents of teen drivers will love the tracking feature, if they can get the data.

Black box information

The data are used for maintenance diagnostics, accident reconstruction, and in court, settling product liability lawsuits. Several states have passed laws that say the data belong to the owner unless a court orders the data to be made available. Insurance companies are prohibited from speculative snooping as a condition of doing business with them, until after an accident, and then only with the court's blessing.

Since 1990, General Motors has equipped more than 7 million vehicles with monitoring capability. When the AOPA Air Safety Foundation was conducting research on technologically advanced aircraft two years ago we came across the following examples:

Data from a black box caused jurors to question the prosecution's argument that a driver was speeding recklessly before a fatal head-on crash with another vehicle. The driver was found not guilty after his truck's black box showed 60 mph at impact — not above 90 mph, as a witness had claimed.

A police officer won a major settlement for severe injuries he suffered when a hearse struck his squad car. The hearse driver claimed that a medical condition caused him to black out before he hit the police car. But the hearse's black box showed that the driver accelerated to 63 mph, about 20 mph faster than the posted speed limit, seconds before he approached the intersection. He then slammed on the brakes one second before impact. These are hardly the actions of an unconscious driver. The black box's information was an unbiased witness to the crash.

The family of a former pro football player killed in a car accident filed a $30 million civil suit claiming the vehicle's air bag deployed after the car hit a pothole, causing him to hit a tree. Data from the black box showed that the air bag deployed on impact, as designed, and that excessive speed was a factor pre-pothole. The family lost the case.

I've written before about some of the more creative interpretations of pilot-in-command responsibility that often result in large settlements to plaintiffs at the expense of manufacturers. In the vast majority of cases pilots create the problem, according to the NTSB, but its findings are not admissible in court. That encourages dueling experts and massive expense to revisit the issue. It seems to me that access to unbiased facts would be useful to both sides in getting to the truth, which is, of course, what we're all looking for. It's not about the money — much.

One aircraft manufacturer's liability insurance premium on newly built aircraft has increased significantly in the past few years because of lawsuits claiming defective equipment after accidents. The builder says that FDRs are a distinct possibility to reduce liability from speculative lawsuits and to improve the product. My sense is that it will only be a matter of time before this equipment is standard on some new aircraft.

Cirrus and Alakai Technologies Corporation recently announced that on the SR20 and SR22 it will provide engine and flight data monitoring, recording, and analysis systems. A few of the benefits listed by the company were: "Adherence to aircraft operating manual limitations, flight reconstruction and visualization for accident/incident investigations, enhanced maintenance records, with G-loading, flap overspeed, redline, and other warnings and fuel management reports."

Other positives

There are additional positives to FDRs outside of the wonderful world of law. A number of flight training institutions have specified or installed small digital cameras and FDRs on new aircraft to allow comprehensive reviews of training sessions on what actually occurred in the cockpit or simulator. There's nothing like seeing video or a flight path of a training scenario to guide instructors and students.

"I was right on the localizer."

"Really?"

"Yup — nailed it!"

"Were we in the same cockpit? If the approach had been to the parallel runway it would have been marginally adequate."

"OK, smart guy, let's look at the tapes."

ASF has been evaluating one of the GPS-powered units and, although the novelty still hasn't worn off, it seems to have some practical benefits in teaching.

Olympic athletes, skiers, golfers, and swimmers all use real-time monitoring to improve performance and to settle differences. Even that bastion of sports conservatism, the NFL, is now using instant replays when coaches challenge the ref's eyesight. It's making a difference in the outcome of games and, more important, real-time monitoring doesn't depend upon wishful thinking, a bad angle, or inattention.

Maintenance woes

Claims for maintenance and warranty service may be more fairly adjudicated with data from the devices. For example, suppose a cylinder goes bad and needs to be replaced. If a download of historical engine data shows that the pilot operated the engine well within tolerance, the manufacturer should replace the cylinder. Or, perhaps the data show that the engine was routinely run too hot and the valves are burned — sorry, owner, but you really do need to pay attention to those minor details on leaning.

FDRs rightly emerge as a two-edge sword, however, and in those cases when an aircraft or piece of equipment is shown to be defective, the manufacturer should settle the claim fairly, regardless of whether the defect resulted in an accident, and then quickly resolve the technical problem for the rest of the fleet.

In a statistically valid survey last year AOPA asked pilots what they thought about product liability and its effect upon the GA industry. Ninety-four percent of the respondents felt that frivolous lawsuits drove up the cost of aviation and they had some strong negative feelings regarding plaintiffs, their attorneys, and insurance underwriters. Defining frivolous, of course, depends on your perspective. However, when asked if they agreed with the statement "A flight data recorder to help determine the cause of accidents would be a welcome addition to the aircraft I fly," 56 percent disagreed with that statement and only 22 percent thought that FDRs would be a good idea. It seems that we'd like to have it both ways.

Despite clear pilot ambivalence on surrendering yet another bit of privacy, the advent of new production aircraft equipped with relatively low-cost FDRs may improve safety and bring some better science to the courtroom, where product-liability and tort-reform advocates have been unsuccessful. This has a chilling effect on new product development, insurance costs go up for everyone, pilots occasionally get tagged for something that really was a design or construction error, and plaintiffs are free to concoct a variety of hypothetical cases against manufacturers.

In my opinion, not AOPA's, huge amounts of time, money, and energy are spent improperly trying to shift the blame onto undeserving parties on both sides. It's time we had just the facts, ma'am, and made safety decisions based upon them. Instant replay works well in cars, sports, and criminal prosecution. Should we have FDRs and CVRs in our cockpits? What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg is the executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.