Flight department managers need accurate information to determine whether their group's SOPs are logical, efficient and being practiced, and to identity, manage and reduce operational risks. One method for obtaining those data on a continuing basis is by instituting a Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) program, which uses actual flight data to identify and address operational problems before they lead to incidents and accidents.
FOQA proved its value long ago among airlines, but its adaptation to the helicopter sectors was slow due to the lack of availability of low-cost, lightweight, unobtrusive data collection hardware. However, within the past few years, such equipment costing less than $10,000 to install has come to market according to the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST).
Helicopter FOQA dates to late 1998 following the completion of an initial feasibility study by Great Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Shell Aircraft Ltd. Together, the CAA, Shell, Bristow Group and Smith Aerospace Electronic Systems with technical support from British Airways successfully demonstrated real safety benefits of flight data monitoring programs. Five Super Pumas equipped with flight data recorders were initially involved. Follow-up studies analyzed low-speed operations, pilot workload, mapping helideck environments and allocating severity values to events.
More recently FOQA — under a variety of names — has proved its value at a number of large and small helicopter operators.
The term FOQA is commonly used by the FAA in the U.S., while ICAO labels the process as Flight Data Analysis. CHC Helicopter calls its program Helicopter Flight Data Monitoring; Bristow uses Helicopter Operations Monitoring Program; and PHI entitles its the Line Activity Monitoring Program. Other operators now employing FOQA programs include Bond, Cougar Helicopters, ERA, Metro Aviation, Air Methods and Arkansas Children's Hospital.
According to these operators, the programs help them determine whether SOPs are being followed and pinpoint training deficiencies, provide early warning of maintenance issues and can result in lower operational costs. The actionable information derived from FOQA analysis can potentially provide a proactive means to prevent an accident.
Information from FOQA programs is unique since it provides data that are objective and available for root cause analysis. The data are also especially valuable for evaluating the effectiveness of any actions taken to correct a problem revealed by earlier analysis. Over the long term, FOQA reduces operational costs through a reduction in incidents and accidents and associated repair work, while at the same time highlighting inefficiencies and increasing aircraft availability and maintaining value.