At present, FOQA is a voluntary program in the U.S. and operators are not required to obtain FAA approval for implementing one. However, if seeking regulatory protection for FOQA data, an operator needs to obtain agency approval, as outlined in 14 CFR Part 13.401.
Under an FAA-approved program, FAR violations will not be pursued if they are revealed only by FOQA, receive corrective action and do not involve criminal or intentional actions. Also, the Safety Data Protection Rule in Part 193 protects FAA-approved FOQA data from release under the Freedom of Information Act and they are also protected from public disclosure. Approved plans require FAA access to de-identified aggregate and trend data, regular briefings to the local FAA office on adverse safety trends and notification of corrective actions planned or taken.
The discovery of common, systemic safety problems within the helicopter industry requires gathering and sharing as much data as possible. There is now an initiative through the FAA's Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing program that is coordinating this effort.
The FAA program uses the MITRE Corp. for analytical support to aggregate and cross-correlate safety-related data from multiple sources, including FOQA and ASAP programs, the FAA and the military. An operator signs an agreement with MITRE to assure the security of its data. The success of this effort requires wide industry participation, spanning multiple operators, fleets and regions.
Not only can FOQA programs help pilot performance, they can enhance mechanical reliability and safety while reducing costs. Overlooking vibrations in the main rotor, tail rotor and power train, as well as engine health can become costly and unsafe.
Operators who track these parameters from start-up to shutdown have been able to prevent catastrophic mechanical failures by collecting and analyzing the data from health and usage monitoring systems and FOQA.
A successful FOQA program requires a skilled team of professionals, an integrated step-by-step process and the proper tools, technology and support. Those interested in establishing a FOQA program can get more information from FAA Advisory Circular 120-82 (published April 12, 2004), which provides guidance on the subject. Other sources include the HFDM Toolkit at www.ihst.org, HFDM study reports at www.caa.co.uk and www.foqa-asap.com.