Break a Rule? See a Safety Issue?
File a “NASA Report”
by Jennifer Caron, FAA Safety Briefing Copy Editor
It was early morning. The canopy of hazy weather and low clouds produced a steady drizzle of rain on the windshield of our cockpit as we waited for taxi instructions. We acknowledged the clearance to hold short of Runway 19R, and moved onto the taxiway. I looked over at my flying buddy and said, “Hey, can you see the ground markings at this airport? I know the surface is wet, but the markings are just too faded to see them clearly.”
Neither of us saw the hold short line as we slowly crossed over it. Quickly realizing our mistake, we braked. But it was too late to stop before entering the runway. Luckily, our story ended without harm to human or machine. But we just committed a runway incursion. It was clearly unintentional, but being human, we were worried about getting into trouble with the FAA. We also knew those faded ground markings were a safety issue that should be reported to keep other pilots from finding themselves, as we did, on the wrong side of the hold short line. What could we do?
Drum roll, please: We could (and did) file a NASA Report.
What is a NASA Report?
Commonly known to pilots and air traffic controllers as the “NASA Report,” its official name is the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS). ASRS is a voluntary safety reporting program funded by the FAA and administered by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It is a valuable tool in the safety culture toolbox for all users in the National Airspace System (NAS) as a way to report hazards and safety concerns. Even before the FAA Compliance Program began in its current form, ASRS also gave users a way to report mistakes without fear of punishment.
The popular “NASA Report” moniker arises from the fact that NASA, not the FAA, collects, analyzes, and responds to voluntarily submitted aviation safety incident reports and keeps them confidential. Confidentiality was essential to getting participation and, since NASA does not have enforcement authority, it became the program administrator.
Let’s say you unintentionally violated an airspace rule and you want to protect yourself from enforcement. Under the Compliance Program, the FAA is concerned not about passing out sanctions but rather with understanding why the violation happened and how to prevent it from happening again. If you are still nervous about ‘fessing up, filing an ASRS report offers a waiver of disciplinary action. Stay tuned for more about the waiver program.
First, though, let’s talk about the other benefits that ASRS provides. Its significance arises from its role as a living directory of invaluable information on all types of aviation safety data. It’s free, it’s confidential, and the database is available to the general public online. The key ingredient to its success though is hearing from airmen like you.
See Something, Say Something
ASRS welcomes all users to report any safety issue, especially information that could prevent an accident. From general aviation (GA) pilots, to controllers, to mechanics, anyone who uses the NAS can report any type of issue involving the safety of aviation operations. You can file a report about the faded ground markings at an airport, let them know about your airport drone sighting, or send in your reports about the wake encounter you experienced with another aircraft.
Contrary to popular belief — there is no limit to the number of reports you can submit. Report as many times as you need, as often as you need. It’s not just the pilot-in-command’s perspective. Whether you are in the left seat, the right seat or the rear seat, the ASRS wants to know about it if you see a safety issue.
“We want to hear all safety concerns,” says Dr. Becky L. Hooey, Director of the NASA ASRS program at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. “By submitting a report to ASRS, you can share your stories and lessons learned with the aviation community so that others don’t experience the same problem.”
Maybe you’ve experienced a signage issue or some confusing phraseology. These issues are not rule violations, and you don’t need a waiver for protection, but it is a valid safety concern. ASRS is the place to report it. “The bottom line — if you think someone else can learn from it — file a report. You may just save someone’s life,” says Hooey.
Your Voice Is Heard
ASRS receives over 100,000 safety reports a year. The lion’s share of these come from air carriers. ASRS receives only approximately 16,000 annual safety reports from the GA community. We can do better! It’s not uncommon for GA pilots, mechanics, flight instructors, and side-seat enthusiasts to see or experience some type of safety concern that needs to be reported. Speak up, let your voice be heard and file a report at asrs.arc.nasa.gov.
Your valuable reporting carries weight, and you can be assured that it is taken seriously. “Human eyeballs review every single report that we receive at ASRS,” explains Hooey. A minimum of two expert aviation analysts review your report to classify the aviation hazard, de-identify the report, and flag critical safety information for immediate action.
Confidentiality is a given. NASA completely removes names, N-numbers, dates, times, and anything that could identify those involved. ASRS keeps your de-identified report in its database so that others can learn from you and so that the data collected can improve safety for everyone in the NAS. When ASRS receives a high priority/safety critical report, an alerting message goes to the appropriate FAA office or aviation authority to address the safety concern. While the FAA gets the details of the incident, the agency knows nothing about you.
Your Information Directly Helps Your Fellow Aviator
Anyone can access the ASRS database online; visit asrs.arc.nasa.gov. Aviation safety researchers, the NTSB, GA advocate organizations such as AOPA, aircraft manufacturers, and others use this information to improve safety and training.
“We have used ASRS reports to look at a variety of different safety issues,” says Dr. Kim Cardosi, Principal Technical Advisor in Aviation Human Factors at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center. “Two important areas were runway incursions and incidents involving UAS (drones).” In each case, Dr. Cardosi and her team of researchers accessed the ASRS database to look at human factors issues, at the request of the FAA, to determine why these incidents were happening and what the agency could do about them.
“After studying the safety reports in ASRS, we found some interesting insights into the nature of problems reported with UAS activity. For example, there are differences between how the pilot of a manned aircraft interacts with air traffic versus how the operator of a large UAS does,” says Cardosi. “When a controller instructs a manned aircraft to do something, 99 times out of 100 they just do it. But UAS operators are often on a pre-programmed flight plan so they can’t always do what the controller wants them to do. As the reports described, sometimes the UAS operators didn’t even understand the phraseology that the controllers were using. This pointed to changes in training that were needed for both the UAS operators who communicate with air traffic and the controllers themselves. With small UAS, operators were flying their drones too close to an airport and interfering with manned aircraft operations. In other reports, controllers also pointed to specific information that they needed for every UAS flight in their airspace. The analysis of reports submitted to ASRS provided a roadmap for things that needed to change to ensure successful integration of UAS operations into the NAS,” explains Cardosi.
Here’s another example. “Until we studied the ASRS data, we had no idea why the most common type of runway incursion was occurring. In these events, pilots correctly read back the instruction to hold short of a runway, but then they would cross the hold short line (without getting onto the runway),” says Cardosi. Thanks to the voluntary input of pilots sharing their stories through ASRS, Cardosi concluded that the majority of these incursion incidents occurred because pilots were involved in heads-down tasks, such as reviewing the checklist or programming the flight management computer. These findings were shared at runway safety conferences and pilots were cautioned not to conduct heads-down tasks close to a runway. “In addition, the markings that lead up to the hold short lines were enhanced on a national scale, to give pilots an additional indication that they were approaching the hold short lines,” says Cardosi.
“ASRS is critical to our research, because in order to fix or prevent a problem, you first have to understand why it happened,” concludes Cardosi.
The General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC), the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, and others also use ASRS data to discover and resolve safety issues, such as when the GAJSC conducted a study of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). The GAJSC team used ASRS reports of events similar to CFIT, which did not result in an accident, to identify factors that kept the pilot and flightcrew from impacting terrain. This way, the study team learned what technologies, flight skills, or other factors could be promoted to prevent CFIT accidents in the future.
ASRS Needs More GA Reports
“We need additional information from the GA community on wake turbulence encounters,” explains Jillian Cheng, Wake Turbulence R&D Program Manager in the FAA’s NextGen organization. Currently, ASRS is collecting de-identified, confidential data to support the FAA’s wake turbulence study. This ongoing effort aims to document contributing factors, identify hot spots, and determine baseline separation metrics to avoid wake encounters using relative risk assessments.
“Whenever we have new wake separation standards, NASA sends weekly ASRS reports so we can get a baseline understanding of our current separation standards,” explains Cheng.
“It is critically important that we hear from GA pilots,” says Chris Lawler of Cavan Solutions, who is worked with Cheng on the wake turbulence study. “Tell us about your wake encounters and provide as much detail as possible. Let us know your perceived bank angle, pitch, details on the preceding aircraft, weather conditions, whether your auto-pilot disconnected, etc. All these details are extremely important for us,” explains both Lawler and Cheng.
Safety researchers also use your stories to develop the bigger picture about the safety issues. As Bill Kaliardos, Human Factors Integration Lead in the FAA’s NextGen organization explains, “Safety analysts can look at ASRS trends, and when they see signs of a systemic issue, they can look deeper and apply the appropriate mitigation to fix the problem before it becomes an incident or accident. The crowd-sourced and voluntary data that ASRS provides means that we can get safety information that we might not otherwise know about. It’s a critically important part of our safety tools.”
It’s So Much More
If you want a glimpse (or more) of ASRS value, take a look at NASA’s Callback newsletter (asrs.arc.nasa.gov) and be sure to subscribe. Then do your part. By sharing things you see or do, you may just save someone else’s life.
ASRS Waiver Program
No, I didn’t forget this part! If you unintentionally committed, or think you committed, a rule violation, fill out an ASRS report online, or download a paper copy and mail it in. You must file a report within 10 days of the violation or event in order to receive the protections of the program. Include your name, address, phone number, and a detailed description of what happened. NASA needs your contact details to send you an ID Strip. The ID Strip is your proof of submission; it’s what you need to present to the FAA for the waiver. NASA does not keep a copy of the ID Strip. The information you provide is not used against you; however, you cannot use the protections for an accident or a criminal act. To be eligible for the waiver of sanctions, the event must be unintentional, and cannot be due to inadequate qualifications. You can exercise this waiver only once in a five-year period. If two pilots are involved, each submits a report and each gets an ID Strip.
Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in aviation safety and flight standards.