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On Final: A case for lightweight FDRs

Many accident investigations by the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) in recent years have demonstrated that without flight recording systems, critical information that can ultimately help prevent accidents is not captured and available for analysis.


July 10, 2013
By Mark Clitsome

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Many accident investigations by the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) in recent years have demonstrated that without flight recording systems, critical information that can ultimately help prevent accidents is not captured and available for analysis.

Unfortunately, companies who operate smaller aircraft in Canada and perform aerial work and air taxi operations are not currently required to have installed flight data recorders (FDRs) or cockpit voice recorders (CVRs).

Last year, 6,957 commercially registered aircraft were listed on the Canadian Civil Aircraft Register. Almost 80 per cent of those commercial aircraft operate under CAR subpart 702 Aerial Work and CAR subpart 703 Air Taxi. Over the past 10 years (2002 to 2012), those small aircraft accounted for 88 per cent of commercial aviation accidents and 87 per cent of commercial aviation fatalities. This is a very tragic reality.

Every large passenger aircraft built today has a number of devices that record thousands of bits of information covering every system aboard these complex machines. They also record conversations in the cockpit between the flight crew, the cabin crew and air traffic control. This information has been invaluable in determining what was happening in the aircraft in the hours, minutes and seconds before an accident occurred.

But for a significant segment of commercial air operations in Canada, when an accident happens, there may be no information, no recorded witness, to assist in telling the story of what went wrong – and that is a tragedy within the tragedy of the accident. Unfortunately, without accurate information from which to learn a lesson, the accident is bound to be repeated.

Of course, in large passenger aircraft, FDRs and CVRs that record large amounts of data are easily incorporated into the design. In smaller aircraft, such has not been the case, as weight and the integration of new equipment can often be limiting factors. However, lightweight flight recorder technology is now available for installation in smaller aircraft. These systems can record aircraft performance data, cockpit audio and image data and are increasingly being adopted by operators around the world. This can only have a positive effect on industry safety going forward. And the benefits don’t end there.

The TSB has asked Transport Canada and the industry to work together to remove obstacles and develop recommended practices for the implementation of flight data monitoring and the installation of lightweight flight recording systems. The information could be used by operators for internal flight data monitoring and flight operations quality assurance programs – programs that help airlines to manage safety in a proactive manner. With them, operators could have an opportunity to review objective data and to reduce risks before an accident occurs. With a much more detailed understanding of how aerial work and air taxi flights are conducted, operators and regulators can take concrete steps to reduce accident rates in this vital sector of the aviation industry.

It is understood that the changes contemplated here are not without obstacles. One major concern has been the possible misuse of CVR information for punitive or litigation purposes. Voice and video recordings are currently strictly protected in law. The TSB may look at ways in which this information could be used to make aviation safer – without being used to discipline employees or to take legal actions against them. In the meantime, there are no restrictions on the use of data for flight data monitoring to improve safety.

In fact, some lightweight recording systems can have restrictions built in so that voice and video recordings can be accessed only by authorized company officials, leaving open access to aircraft performance and flight data for monitoring or quality assurance staff.

Today, travel in large passenger aircraft is safer than it ever has been. This is due in large part to the way in which the passenger industry embraced continuous improvement in the early years. Globally, hundreds of millions of passengers depart and arrive at destination safely because airlines saw early on how knowing what went on in the aircraft, and in the cockpit, could inform and benefit the safety of future flights.

Now is the time for aerial work and air taxi industries to install lightweight flight recorders and implement flight data monitoring programs. Obstacles that stand in the way of this change must be eliminated to allow operators to access flight data recorders for legitimate safety purposes. I am certain that if this new generation of flight recorders is embraced by the industry, air taxi and aerial work flights will become increasingly safe. I urge you to see these recorders, not as a cost to be borne, but as an investment in your industry’s future.


Mark Clitsome is the Director of Investigations – Air Branch with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.


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