Legislative and Political Report

ALPA Helps Steer NASA R&D Plan

Air Line Pilot, May 2004, p.32

ALPA doesn’t go just to Capitol Hill and Parliament Hill to influence the decisions and actions of the U.S. and Canadian governments. The Association also works directly with a number of other government agencies, from the FAA and Transport Canada, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board, to the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The four major focus areas that the government/industry meeting was addressing were (1) technologies that can be used—in the air or on the ground—to discover problems before they occur or become critical, (2) environmental and natural hazards (weather, wildlife, wake turbulence), (3) human factors, and (4) vulnerabilities in the National Airspace System.

ALPA has long had a keen interest in seeing that the budget for the "space agency" has included adequate resources for aviation research and development—and that that money is used where it will give the taxpayers and airline pilots the most bang for the buck. The Association has been represented on the NASA Advisory Committee for many years.

More than 20 aviation safety issues were on the wish list that ALPA gave NASA recently at a 3-day meeting that the agency hosted to field aviation industry input on how NASA should spend its $700 million budget for research in FY 2006-2011. More than 275 government and industry representatives attended the meeting, held March 2–4 in Alexandria, Va., near Washington National Airport.

Capt. Terry McVenes (US Airways), ALPA’s Executive Air Safety Vice-Chairman, was one of the speakers on the panel that opened the meeting. Nine ALPA staff engineers participated in four breakout groups that developed recommendations for NASA managers to consider.

ALPA’s priorities for NASA research include inflight fire detection and suppression, hazmat, aircraft wiring, portable electronic devices, aircraft and engine monitoring, aging aircraft, aircraft icing, cockpit weather information, turbulence, volcanic ash, wildlife hazards, wake turbulence, human factors, cockpit automation, upset recovery training, flight crew monitoring, National Airspace System modernization (NASMOD), FOQA and ASAP (and related data collection systems), quantifying "performance" in the NAS, RNP conformance monitoring, and communications.

Capt. McVenes cautioned, "Since Sept. 11, [2001], a tremendous amount of resources has gone into ensuring the security of our air transportation industry. In most cases, these resources have come at the expense of research and development, training, and the equipment necessary to meet safety challenges in the future. We must ensure that we don’t ignore the ongoing need to invest in safety."

After reviewing ALPA’s 2004 aviation safety activities, said Capt. McVenes, he found that more than one fourth of the 200+ currently approved and funded ALPA aviation safety projects relate to the four major focus areas that the government/industry meeting was addressing: (1) technologies that can be used—in the air or on the ground—to discover problems before they occur or become critical, (2) environmental and natural hazards (weather, wildlife, wake turbulence), (3) human factors, and (4) vulnerabilities in the NAS.

Capt. McVenes urged conference attendees to "stay aware of one critical common element" in those technological solutions intended to be installed on the world’s fleet of airliners: Those systems will be designed, installed, maintained, and operated by people.

"The human-machine interface must be accommodated," he warned. "History shows us that even those systems intended to be passive and invisible to the crew can malfunction or have consequences that their designers never intended or imagined."

Working Group 1 of the conference focused on ways to protect and prevent damage to an aircraft because of abnormal operations or system failures.

"NASA research into security issues such as aircraft hardening, threat identification, and management of the NAS in a national emergency," Capt. McVenes asserted, "is just as critical as research into the more traditional safety issues."

To reduce the likelihood of aircraft fires, he said, "we need to understand how aircraft wiring ages, how flammable materials are in an aircraft, and where the elements of the ‘fire triangle’—i.e., heat, oxygen, and fuel—can exist on an airplane. Research into technologies to detect and suppress fires must continue and be given a high priority."

Noting that government agencies and various industries already have been looking at how to manage the risk to aviation that personal electronic devices (PEDs) pose, Capt. McVenes cautioned, "The electronics industry is getting these devices into peoples’ hands faster than the aviation industry can perform accurate, individual hazard analyses of them." He said more research must be conducted to find ways to protect aircraft systems from electronic interference.

We need research that will lead to technologies aboard aircraft and in ground facilities that afford absolute confidence that pilots, controllers, and dispatchers have the same, accurate information all the time."
— Capt. Terry McVenes (US Airways), ALPA's Executive Air Safety Vice-Chairman

"ALPA applauds the NASA initiative to monitor engine health, while effectively and economically identifying potentially hazardous failure conditions in time to take timely corrective action," Capt. McVenes noted. However, he added, "Other technologies to provide for aircraft health monitoring are equally vital. Current efforts under way to identify hazards associated with aging aircraft and their systems must be supported with detailed research."

Working Group 2 looked at environmental and natural hazards, which include some subjects that have been of interest to ALPA for decades.

Capt. McVenes pointed out, "ALPA has been involved for many years in weather-related safety issues. Among these issues, aircraft icing has predominated. NASA can play a vital role in continuing this research by expanding the level of understanding of how ice and frost form on aircraft, and how that formation can be detected as it begins."

Moreover, he argued, "weather information of all kinds needs to be as available to flight crews in the cockpit as it is to the passengers on the same flight." For example, he said, "turbulence continues to injure, and even kill, airline passengers and cabin crews. Until research can determine the factors that lead to turbulence encounters, identify the location and severity of the turbulence, and provide that information in an accurate and timely fashion to flight crews and dispatchers, this trend will continue."

Another environmental hazard is airborne volcanic ash, which has caused all-engine flameouts on widebody jet transports and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to aircraft and their systems. This hazard "is not only real, it can be eliminated, given proper information," Capt. McVenes pointed out. "Much has been learned through research, but much remains to be done."

Another dangerous and expensive environmental threat to aviation is wildlife—especially the ever-growing problem of bird strikes, which cost airlines millions of dollars each year and have caused hull losses and fatalities. Research into technologies that would detect bird hazards and, "better yet, that would be a deterrent to wildlife interference with flight operations, would be a quantum leap forward in improving safety," Capt. McVenes said.

Also falling under the heading of environmental hazards is wake turbulence.

"Most, if not all, of the initiatives currently under study to increase the capacity of the National Airspace System involve placing aircraft closer together than is currently allowed," Capt. McVenes warned. "To understand how close we can safely put airplanes, we must have a far more detailed understanding of aircraft wake generation and wake behavior than is currently available. In addition, we need to develop a system to allow nonpunitive reporting of wake encounters in actual conditions."

Working Group 3 of the conference attendees looked at human factors issues. "Technology alone is not the solution to human-centered hazards," Capt. McVenes declared. "An airline must have a robust safety culture that includes fully implementing the principles of risk analysis. This must include hazard identification, human-centered design, and effective training." Noting that ALPA’s Human Factors and Training Group focuses on appropriate use of cockpit automation, he added, "Technology must be an aid to, not a replacement for, the flight crew, and must be accompanied by a robust training program that ensures the pilot understands all the assumptions and limitations of the system."

The ability to recover from an airplane upset "is a more focused example of how automation might be integrated into a flight deck safety system," Capt. McVenes said. "Loss-of-control accidents have resulted in more fatalities in the last decade than any other single cause.

"The only effective and realistic means to accomplish such training is in the actual airplane," he continued. "This is costly, impractical in some cases, and presents its own set of safety concerns. Additional research is necessary so that better simulators can be developed to provide a cost-effective means for airlines to better train flight crews for upset conditions."

Research, including some conducted by NASA, has shown that a clearly defined monitoring role for the nonflying pilot is just as critical to the safe conduct of the flight as is the proper execution of flight maneuvers by the flying pilot. That research, Capt. McVenes pointed out, "has also shown us that effective monitoring is a skill that must be developed through training and practice. We need to continue our research into the human skills and training needed for effective monitoring as well as into flightdeck layout and design issues that will promote this concept."

Working Group 4 looked at the overall U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) to find the areas in which it needs to be improved. "Most, if not all, of the NAS challenges that existed on Sept. 10, 2001, still exist today," Capt. McVenes asserted.

"Some are being addressed; others need work," he continued. "Systemwide capacity and traffic management initiatives are under way, and many will be mature or well into development before the 2006-2011 window that we will focus on at this conference. Government and industry together do not have the resources to accomplish all of these initiatives without cooperatively establishing priorities and carefully evaluating the research needed to support that prioritization."

Several existing tools—notably Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) and Aviation Safety Action Partnership (ASAP) programs—already are helping to detect hazards and vulnerabilities in the U.S. air transportation system. However, Capt. McVenes cautioned, "We have to do more than just collect data. We have to analyze and study that data, and we must provide feedback to flight crews and those within government and industry [who] can actually make changes to improve safety." Moreover, he said, "We have to continue our research and development in data collection tools and analysis techniques so we can more efficiently collect, analyze, share, and protect that data and information."

As ALPA and other aviation stakeholders work on shifting from an equipment-based to a performance-based NAS, research must continue on how to actually quantify performance, Capt. McVenes noted. Researchers also must find ways to measure performance limitations and reliability.

"We also need research into how to safely, efficiently, and fairly blend not only the flightpaths of various users to avoid conflict, but perhaps even the individual number of passenger ‘flightpaths’ to maximize that passenger throughput," he argued. "Technology that allows ever more accurate modeling of various traffic management scenarios must continue to be developed. And as we continue to develop Required Navigation Performance (RNP), we also are going to need research into technology that will monitor conformance with RNP."

The NAS is becoming ever more dependent on information exchange —between pilots and controllers, between air traffic control facilities, even between aircraft and their flight crews. Capt. McVenes stressed that improvements must be made in the accuracy and timeliness of this information, as well as its security and integrity. "We need research that will lead to technologies aboard aircraft and in ground facilities that afford absolute confidence that pilots, controllers, and dispatchers have the same, accurate information all the time," he said.

"One thing will remain constant," Capt. McVenes concluded. "The traveling public and the companies that rely on air transportation to carry their cargo will always expect us to maintain the highest possible level of safety. The ultimate challenge we all face is to continue to meet our customers’ expectations."