The Missing Link
by James Williams, FAA Safety Briefing Associate Editor
The search for the missing link in human evolution was one of the most well-known and yet least remembered events of history. One hundred years later, the phrase conjures mental images of dry text books and dust covered skeletons. What actually happened was a story of intense competition, worldwide adventures, and even scandal (see Piltdown Man). Researchers in the late 19th and early 20th century were frantically searching for a transitional form that would connect humans with our simian ancestors at a time when many people didn’t agree on such an idea.
After a century of reflection, we now know that there wasn’t a missing link, but several. In fact, the entire construct of a linear ladder of evolution turned out to be a misinterpretation caused by a lack of fossil records. The more we uncovered, the more we learned.
How we think about our safety in the air can work the same way. When we only have a small amount of data, we can only see a limited number of solutions. That’s why the FAA and the general aviation (GA) community have been working towards data sharing. As we’ve previously reported, earlier efforts led to establishing the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) system. Using a massive quantity of voluntarily-reported data together with other data sources, ASIAS created a warehouse for safety analysts to find problems and facilitate solutions. Initially, ASIAS focused on air carrier data mostly because many air carriers have implemented programs to collect flight data, to include Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) or Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) programs that provide a conduit to this data.
Making It a Million
Adding GA was the obvious next step, but it presented a number of challenges. One was the fact that GA, depending on destinations operators may be flying to internationally, may not be subject to data collection requirements. Compounding that issue is the operating reality. The air carrier world has a limited number of participants operating in a largely similar way. GA has a much larger number of participants who operate in a massively wider set of circumstances.
The task was enormous, but as the famous Chinese proverb says, the journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. For the FAA, that step happened in 2015 with a project based in Phoenix, Ariz. Phoenix provided a robust and diverse test bed for a GA ASIAS implementation. “We wanted to demonstrate how ASIAS could help the community,” said Corey Stephens, an operational research analyst in the FAA’s Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention.
This touches on another issue the FAA faced with attempting to incorporate GA into an FDM program; what’s in it for me (WIIFM)? “We wanted to demonstrate how ASIAS could help the community,” said Stephens. So the FAA turned to flight training organizations like the University of North Dakota, which had already established FDM programs and staff who understood systems like ASIAS and the benefits they could provide. Working with these partners and the MITRE Corporation, the FAA created a framework to allow collection of this data. The strong desire to open FDM to the widest possible audience led to the creation of the National General Aviation Flight Information Database (NGAFID).
This GA-focused FDM effort has been very successful. GA participation in ASIAS has grown since the effort began in 2013. To date, 118 business operators have joined ASIAS, primarily made up of business jets with traditional FDM programs. The NGAFID allows those aircraft not equipped to participate in those types of programs. Currently, 13 universities and flight training institutions make up the vast majority of the data in the NGAFID. In a few short years, this still expanding group has amassed more than 1,000,000 flight hours of recorded data. That’s a major milestone. As discussed in previous issues, (most recently, “Welcome to the Information Age,” Nov/Dec 2019, p. 18 (PDF download)) data compounds into information, and the more data you have, the better your information.
But there’s been a clear missing link from the NGAFID. You, the typical GA pilot, haven’t really been a factor in the NGAFID. Only about 200 non-business or university-related individuals have contributed. So how do we fill that gap?
First and foremost, contributing to the NGAFID helps collaborative government and industry safety teams discover risks and develop more effective safety interventions based on actual data. For the individual pilot, NGAFID allows you to track your own flight activity and analyze your own data. Part of the FAA/industry push to make FDM even more valuable is NGAFID 2.0. Much of the upgrade work focused on behind-the-scenes fixes to make NGAFID work better. You might not immediately notice, but they allow for a better overall user experience and the potential for enhancements down the line.
What this means for you is that detailed analysis and review of your flights is only a few clicks or taps away. In fact, there are even automatic alerts to highlight potential safety issues you may have encountered during your flights. You can also customize the parameters to alert you if you have a specific aspect of your flight(s) you want to monitor, in addition to those NGAFID researchers and others in the GA community have identified. Depending on your method of logging data, you can even use the NGAFID to monitor for airworthiness and maintenance concerns. Yet another benefit is the ability to compare your data to that of other operators in your class or type. Want to know how you stack up against other 172 drivers? Here’s your chance.
NGAFID 2.0 also offers some interesting options to “see” your flights. You can have them plotted on a street map, a sectional, a satellite view, and even Google Earth. You can recreate flights using commercially available software that allows you to animate from multiple viewpoints (e.g., in the cockpit, a chase view, etc.). This review capacity can also be really helpful in detecting subtle trends that can be hard to spot as they happen. Approach or departure speed is an example. You might be increasing your approach speed by just a knot or two per week (or the converse on your departure), but after a few weeks this habit could lead to an unstable approach. NGAFID lets you look back to search for the root cause. These are powerful tools once available only to pilots and operators of large and sophisticated fleets.
The Ways In
“We look at the NGAFID as a hub, and entry methods as spokes,” explained Stephens. “We are always looking for more and better ways to get data into the NGAFID.” Currently, the primary data source is modern avionics, like the Garmin G1000, which record a number of flight parameters. “Modern avionics allow us to collect all this data by simply using a memory card slot that’s already there,” said Stephens. “Some of our larger fleet users even have wireless options that automatically begin downloading data when the aircraft reaches the ramp.” He continued, “For folks with these systems, it’s easy to contribute, and they provide fairly high-quality data.” The downside? The cost of these avionics suites is an obvious limiting factor.
The next spoke is a combination of two things for pilots who aren’t on the cutting edge of avionics. If you have a portable Attitude and Heading Reference System (AHRS) in your aircraft, you may be able to connect it with the GA Airborne Recording Device (GAARD) app available on iOS and soon on Android devices. This allows the ever-increasing number of pilots with an AHRS to contribute higher quality data than would otherwise be possible. As with any FDM system, the better the data you put in, the better insight you get out.
Another spoke is the GAARD app itself. By using your device’s onboard sensors, such as GPS, the GAARD app is able to provide some basic data about your flight. It is low fidelity data in comparison to the previously mentioned options, but it has a zero entry cost for those who already own a smart phone or tablet. Even this data is enough to conduct a rudimentary unstabilized approach analysis. The app is free and it works in any aircraft regardless of equipment. That makes it great for renters who want the benefits of FDM. It’s also an excellent way to test drive the system to see if you like it. If not, just uninstall the app. No harm done.
“We’re also working on a method to import log files from popular electronic flight bag (EFB) programs,” Stephens said. “EFB programs represent a great opportunity because they have a fairly large install base.” EFB programs are also often combined with AHRS and ADS-B systems that allow for higher fidelity data while still being very easy to export and channel into the NGAFID. “It should work pretty well in concept, but we need to make sure the process is bulletproof before we release it to the public,” Stephens explained. “I’ve even been doing some test flights to help us move it forward.”
So here we stand: we know what the missing link is. We have tools to help us find it. The last thing we need is your help. “We know pilots are skittish about sharing data with others,” Stephens said. “But that also happened when we were launching ASIAS with the airlines. That’s why we make sure the data is de-identified before it’s viewable.” He continued, “We also know that the first person to abuse this system is going to set aviation safety back a generation and that’s something no one in the GA community or the FAA wants.” Additionally, the NGAFID is managed by members from the GA community and associations. This is the same model that has proven successful with the air carrier community for several years and the GA community since 2013.
So are you ready to contribute? As the saying goes, the life you save may end up being your own.
FAA Editor Jim Tise contributed to this article.
James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.