The components of the FOQA system include an onboard data recording and collection system, plus a means for transmitting the data, replaying and analyzing them, and visualization tools. In recent years new technologies have dramatically changed the recording systems. Quick Access Recorders (QARs) and Light Aircraft Recording Systems can capture essential aircraft state information including yaw, pitch, roll, altitude, climb/descent rate, rotor RPM and torque. The options for recording memory devices now include optical disks, PCMCIA cards, compact flash cards and solid-state memory. Many new aircraft can be ordered with this equipment installed at the factory.
Traditional equipment such as flight data recorders, QARs and multifunction data acquisition units are currently being used in FOQA programs for medium and large transport airplanes. These devices, which are often required by regulatory authorities for such aircraft, are beneficial in that they typically provide more parameters and data to support both operational and maintenance monitoring programs.
Retrieval methods also have evolved. Some operators have used physical removal of a disk or PCMCIA card. Electronic transfer methods now include the use of wireless systems, cell phone modems, VHF modems and satellite modems. Operators can weigh expense, in-aircraft equipment installation, availability of airport infrastructure, bandwidth and operating environment into consideration when deciding which technology best suits their needs.
Improvements in flight animation systems have greatly aided the ability to understand and analyze events. Instead of looking at a page of digital data read-outs, which can be tedious and difficult to interpret, animation software gives the reviewer high-fidelity graphical depictions of an event generated by those data.
FOQA analysis is derived from “Triggered Events” that occur outside the normal operating envelope and “Routine Operational Measurements.” The acceptable limits for each parameter are predefined by the operator, with some measures specific to make/model/type of aircraft, and an exceedance of a parameter trips the “trigger,” thus putting a special label on the flight.
It is equally important for a manager to get a summary of normal operations. These Routine Operational Measurements help to determine whether flight crews are nearing the extremes for normal operations, and if so, how often and to what degree.
At a Helicopter Association International workshop in 2009, Jim Morgan, flight data manager at Bristow, shared the experience the company's North American division had in implementing a FOQA program. In 2005, the division, then operating as Air Logistics, decided to put together a FOQA program as a proactive solution to improve the safety of flight operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
At the time, the division had a fleet of 124 small, single-engine aircraft, more than 80% of which were flown single pilot to remote locations and with limited oversight. The fleet also included 23 medium and large helicopters, which were flown from crews. However, the small aircraft accounted for more than 80% of the division's operations and flight time, and for most of its accidents and incidents as well. Accordingly, the division chose the small helicopter fleet as a priority for a monitoring program.
The operator researched the availability of an off-the-shelf flight monitoring device for small helicopters, but finding none suitable, it partnered with Appareo Systems to design and manufacture an event recorder for which it obtained an STC in August 2007 and began installations on its Bell 206 and Bell 407 aircraft. Once the recorders were operational, SOPs called for pilots to install an SD card during preflight inspection and remove it during postflight duties. At the end of the day they would upload the flight data into one of the kiosks installed in the pilots' ready room at each operations base. FAA approval for the FOQA program began in April 2008.