Illustration: John T. Lewis
Illustration: John T. Lewis

Capturing flight data

It might not seem intuitive that a rugged utility airplane would need a sophisticated cockpit data recording system. The Cessna Caravan turboprop fulfills a lot of blue-collar roles, including carrying packages from remote regions to central hubs. Now available on the Caravan—as well as other aircraft, including business jets—the “Vision 1000” system from Appareo Systems “records inertial data, ambient and intercom audio, and high-resolution cockpit imagery,” providing “flight data analysis” for fleet operators’ Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) programs. Why would operators want to monitor every parameter of every minute of every flight of a Caravan or other plane? Partly, I’m sure, because they can.

In today’s data-centric culture, the more information that can be assembled, the better we feel we’re able to understand what’s going on—whether there’s a problem or not. Flying small cargo planes with solo pilots at night over inhospitable terrain is intuitively dangerous, so anything that can make it seem safer is worth the investment.

Beyond that, the data that FOQA collects helps streamline operations and can cut costs. For example, analysts can determine that average wind conditions on a particular route dictate that flying a few thousand feet higher or lower could save x amount of time and fuel. Multiplied over years, such a simple correction could save a lot of money and reduce the carbon footprint.

But back to safety: Do most operators suspect that their pilots are hotdogging and believe that the data recording system will snitch on them? No. But one charter operation recently found through its data-collection system that its pilots were regularly exceeding normal bank and pitch angles on empty positioning flights. That amounts to finding that limo drivers sometimes do donuts in snowy parking lots before leaving to pick up a passenger.

But more practically, the detailed data collected over time by the cockpit monitors can show that the usual air traffic control arrival procedure at a particular airport might require a steep descent—or a tight turn—that needlessly increases risk. An operator can go to the FAA with a request for changing the arrival protocol, preventing an accident before it has a chance to happen.

Most people think of cockpit voice and data recorders as the “black boxes” that investigators analyze to determine what caused an airplane accident. Owner-operated light aircraft don’t carry black boxes, so investigators have always had to do a lot of guessing about what was going on in the moments before a fatal crash.

In today’s data-centric culture, the more information that can be assembled, the better we feel we’re able to understand what’s going on—whether there’s a problem or not.

But today’s GPS navigators record flight data, such as speed, heading, altitude, and even pitch and bank angles, and engine settings. So if the data card survives, then it will be a lot easier to zero in on what happened. It’s like a de facto “black box.”

While that is a positive development for overall safety, it has further ramifications. A few years ago, there was a fatal accident involving a high-performance kitplane. The GPS navigator’s data card showed that the airplane had been performing extreme maneuvers low to the ground. An accident that could have been blamed on the airplane was instead attributed not just to pilot error, but reckless flying. The same could be said for the recent accident that killed baseball pitcher Roy Halladay.

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Moving forward, Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) equipment will be required on virtually all aircraft by January 2020. ADS-B transmits much of the same information that’s found on the GPS navigators’ chips already, so the data will be recorded whether there’s a crash or not. This is being touted as one way to analyze all the flying in the country and refine air traffic routes, instrument approach procedures, and scores of other operational parameters. It promises great advances in improving efficiency, saving flight time, and conserving fuel—not to mention cutting back on greenhouse-gas emissions.

As for supplying incriminating evidence on pilots who break the rules, it remains to be seen how that might play out. To put that in perspective, imagine if state troopers had real-time access to the Google maps or Waze data showing on your phone as you zipped past.