Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free trial today! Click here

Using aircraft data to manage flight safety

In the old days, flight training providers had few options to track how students, instructors, and/or renters utilized their aircraft. If they didn’t physically see an anomaly, a bad behavior, or a potential maintenance concern, all they had to go on was word of mouth.

Times have changed, and flight schools have many new options. Knowing what options there are and how they can be used can improve flight safety through data management, cultural change, or, if needed, removal of flight privileges for misuse. Modern aircraft, avionics, and even available aircraft tracking resources have given flight training providers significantly greater resource the ability to be more proactive.

What resources are available?

To begin the discussion, a flight training provider might start with basic tracking of its aircraft through services such as FlightAware or FlightRadar24. With most aircraft utilized in flight training operations equipped with ADS-B output data, a flight training provider can track its aircraft in real time in most areas almost immediately after takeoff.

Another available resource is data produced by the aircraft and its systems. Many modern aircraft have data collection systems that include multiple data points that range from engine data to GPS position and even data from accelerometers detailing multiple times a second G loading.

What can you do with the resources?

Watching the location of your fleet of aircraft can help ensure that students on cross-countries are not lost, or, if overdue a little bit, allay any fears when you see they are nearing the home stretch on their way back. In some cases training providers have even been able to see a student straying (who might be lost or going where they aren’t supposed to) and relay messaging through dispatch frequencies, through a contact with ATC if the student is using flight following, or relayed through another aircraft to “course correct” and avert a potential greater concern.

The first thing many people jump to when they think about using aircraft parameters data tracking is the “ah ha, caught you with the data doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing” scenario. And while that is one potential use, this data can also help identify potential safety trend concerns that can result in an opportunity to change training procedures and enhance safety.

Using actual aircraft parameter data can be used to identify common risk areas. In some operations it has even been used to help correct things that generate incidents or accidents. While no-one wants to have repeat incidents or accidents in their operation, if a training provider finds something specific seems like a trend, the data may provide insight into how such a trend could be addressed.

Aircraft—even basic engine data parameters—can also be utilized to verify a reported maintenance or system discrepancy. The data from these systems allows maintenance staff to track the overall health of the aircraft and identify potential developing concerns before they are full-blown failures.

Using data to enhance safety

Active aircraft tracking can be utilized to enhance safety in lots of ways. It might be used to spread aircraft between different practice areas during the dispatching process. It can be used to find a wayward aircraft. It might be used to even help debrief a student on the track of his or her last flight. Get creative here. The data is out there; use it!

On-aircraft data takes a little time to download and might not be reviewed after every flight, but in a bigger picture it can be used to track more general trends and then used to correct, improve, or enhance operational safety.

In one case, an operator shared an example of how they were seeing from data downloads that most of the stall and recovery sequences their instructors were demonstrating were generating significant losses of altitude prior to a final recovery (in the example, it was indicated that it was over 1,000 feet of altitude loss regularly!). When management noticed this, they dug deeper in CFI meetings and found the CFIs ``just thought that was what happened” with this make and model of aircraft. With some additional training, they modified their CFIs’ methodology for stalls and recovery demonstration. When the demonstration was conducted correctly, the aircraft required minimal altitude loss (less than 100 feet) for the maneuver. A data tracking point was able to be used to address something that had become a culturally accepted norm that could have resulted in much more dangerous outcomes had the data never been reviewed.

When I referenced above the ability to stop a trend in incidents or accidents, I think very specifically of how data helped one training provider identify a specific risk component related to porpoised landings that result in a prop strike. We all know that a porpoised landing is a bad thing. But after pulling data from multiple porpoised landings that resulted in prop strikes, the data was clear.

On the third “bounce” from a fast approach to a porpoised landing, the prop usually struck. The data showed very similar up and down G force moments relating to similar speed parameters. As the porpoise got worse, nose-down attitude gets worse and eventually the prop strikes and bad things follow. Students weren’t injured in any of these incidents, but it certainly wasn’t good for the aircraft or the flight training operation’s ability to keep full fleet functionality.

What safety enhancement was possible because of this?

Data showed without a doubt that when a student encounters a bounced or porpoised landing it really is time to go around. If a second bounce is encountered it is even more critical because a third one is going to do worse things. This allowed the flight training provider to focus briefing to the CFI staff on the danger who then could drive the point home in training with their students.

When a flight training provider uses data from engine monitoring or other systems from a reported anomaly, it may allow maintenance to identify a future failure point before it causes a worse condition on an actual flight.

Imagine a student or instructor who reports a “prop overspeed warning” that took place during a flight but then normalized and didn’t repeat itself. Bringing this report back in a paper form to the maintenance staff, who then goes out and runs the aircraft on the ground, or even in the air, and is unable to replicate the warning, leaves everyone in the situation of not knowing what caused it or if it will happen again. Pulling data from the aircraft may allow the flight training provider to more fully understand under what conditions the warning was generated and potentially address a developing concern before it becomes critical. This is not only a safety enhancement potential, but also can also provide an opportunity to fix a developing problem before it becomes critical or requires the aircraft to be taken off line for a longer period of time.

There are so many more options that are currently available and how it can be used. Some training providers (and their students and CFIs) are highly skilled technologically and go the extra mile. Data from a flight might be downloaded and input into programs such as X-Plane or even Google Earth. In skilled IT hands, the data might even allow a full “fly through” of a particular phase or an entire flight. What better debrief item could you think of than being able to watch what happened?

How deep into the weeds you dig might be a matter of what data your aircraft is capable of providing, how much free time you have, and if you have any staff that have the ability and desire to help with data tracking in your fleet. The ability to generate much more data now than was available in years past gives flight training providers new abilities to track their fleets and enhance safety. Don’t miss this opportunity if your aircraft have the ability. Take the time to work at least some of these tools into your operations. Efficiency and safety improvements are certain to be at least one of the results.

Jason Blair

Jason Blair is a National Association of Flight Instructors master flight instructor and a designated pilot examiner. 

Related Articles