Flight Risk Assessment Tools – what are the software options for operators?
In the fast-moving world of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) and search and rescue (SAR) operations, doing on-the-fly risk assessments can make an already hazardous job all the more dangerous. Mandy Langfield asks what tools operators have put in place to identify, manage and mitigate the risk to crews, aircraft and patients
The US Federal Aviation Safety Administration (FAA) states that having a Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT) is one of the most important elements of developing a Safety Management System (SMS). “It is critical,” says the FAA General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, “that pilots are able to differentiate, in advance, between a low-risk flight and a high-risk flight, and then establish a review process and develop risk mitigation strategies. A FRAT enables proactive hazard identification, is easy to use, and can visually depict risk.”
The European Aviation Safety Administration (EASA) writes that its pre-flight risk assessment is not something done only by safety managers and professional safety gurus – it is a vital task for every pilot, and ensures that every flight starts in the right way. The plan has to take into account meteorological information, preparation of the cabin, briefing of the crew, and an understanding of the potential risks.
Scope of operations
So, how wide a spectrum of risk does an operator need to include? Well, really, this is going to depend entirely on their theatre of operations. A HEMS operation that flies in a relatively narrow geographical area, for instance, will have an easier time building a FRAT – they know their area, where wires are, where potential landing sites are and the hazards around them. For an international fixed-wing air ambulance operator, meanwhile, the job is a lot more difficult. They can be called to pick up a patient in a country, never mind a city, in which they have never landed before. That could be in a country where landing at night is dangerous, or not even allowed; there could be unmapped wires surrounding an airport, or local unrest could mean that landing at an airport could risk the crew’s lives.
So many variations in risks of operation mean that it is difficult to find one tool that works for every company, and there is now a proliferation of software companies offering their solutions to this complex – and individual – problem.
Generally, though, FRATs ask a series of questions that will help a pilot to identify and quantify a risk. The FAA’s safety team follows the PAVE approach – questions are on the Pilot, Aircraft, Environment and External pressures.
it is difficult to find one tool that works for every company, and there is now a proliferation of software companies offering their solutions to this complex – and individual – problem
Taking a relatively simplistic approach, though, said former FAA executive Robert Wright in his 2018 article on AVWeb, could encourage a ‘lazy and hands-off’ approach to risk management. “In other words,” he continued, “the pilot isn’t forced to consider all risk categories and fully analyze each of them to determine whether or not it requires action.”
FRATs, said Wright, should include a comprehensive analysis of all potential threat areas and how they affect the flight; they should not allow the pilot to ‘fudge’ a score; they should allow the pilot to specify mitigating actions; and they should ‘lead pilots through an intuitive process that accurately identifies, assesses and mitigates risk’.
Wright advocates the ruse of the National Business Aviation Association’s (NBAA) FRAT, which was developed (with Wright) by the Association’s Safety Committee’s Single Pilot Work Group.
Other FRATs on offer include ones from the European Helicopter Safety Team, Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo Helicopters, and Next Generation Flight Training. These last ones all come in the form of apps that are free to pilots because, to quote EASA, ‘when it comes to safety, there is no competition’.
Airbus’ offering is called Before your Flight, and evaluates the risk profile of a flight and then prompts the pilot or operator to take the appropriate mitigation actions. In extremely challenging situations, the app might even help with the decision making on whether it is safe to conduct the flight at all.
Leonardo Helicopters has developed a mobile solution called SkyFlight. This is designed to ease daily operations, increase mission effectiveness, optimize costs, reduce flight crew workload and help pilots and operators to perform an effective flight risk assessment. Human factors and other factors known to impact safety are combined into a total risk picture for ease of use.
Next Generation Flight Training (NGFT) Consulting Switzerland has developed a safety app geared to the needs of small operators and general aviation. Various additional functions are provided such as TST Briefing (TST meaning Task Specialist Third Party) targeted for aerial work operators that need to perform and document briefings with task specialists from third parties before commencing an operation. It includes safety reporting for sending safety reports to a safety manager for review and analysis.
International fixed-wing air ambulance experience
Germany’s FAI Air Ambulance makes use of the IQSMS (Integrated Quality and Safety Management System) software from Austrian firm ASQS. The web-based system was based on and is in compliance with ICAO Annex 19, EASA, FAA, Transport Canada and IOSA requirements. FAI is making use of three of the systems modules:
- Quality management
- Risk management reporting
- Airport and flight risk
Michael Wiegand, Safety Manager for FAI, spoke to AirMed&Rescue about the specific risks FAI faces on a daily basis, for which it makes use of the IQSMS. “Some of the risks are ongoing, such as diversion, manuals, duty time, crew-related issues, damage to aircraft, economic,” he explained. However, there are – as ever in aviation – more unusual flight risks that have to be taken into consideration. At the moment, one of the biggest risks the air medical crews are facing involve Covid-19 patient transfers. Wiegand said that there are often Covid-19 patient transports where on-site patient preparation was insufficient, and therefore the company can face knock-on problems with service time. “The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in massive flight restrictions worldwide, which make every flight more complicated,” he added.
FAI is one of only a few fixed-wing operators that can, and does, fly into conflict zones
Non-Covid risks take in the fact that the company is always flying to new and unknown destinations, and thus, these flights require swift and accurate risk assessments to guarantee the safety of the aircraft and crew before a flight can be accepted. And it’s not just new destinations that can pose unique problems. FAI is one of only a few fixed-wing operators that can, and does, fly into conflict zones. “Here,” said Wiegand, “there are new situations on the ground every day, and they require agile security assessments to handle the ever-changing nature of the destination’s risk.” He continued: “We have an adhoc operation that, in addition to VIP and VVIP charters, also operates medevac missions and services remote United Nations stations in crisis areas. We do not have any standard operation, but always adapt to an individual situation.
“The management team evaluates every operation anew and decides with the team how we can make a customer’s request happen. A risk assessment from many different directions and aspects is indispensable.”
Customization is key
Australian aeromedical organisation CareFlight uses Air Maestro’s operational risk assessment function to create both an online Shift Risk Assessment Tool (SRAT) as well as a FRAT. These two tools provide pilots with a systematic approach to identify, assess and mitigate risks during pre-flight planning.
“CareFlight selected Air Maestro’s risk assessment function because it allows us to customize the tools to include the assessment of crew dynamics (experience), pilot fatigue and flight considerations specific to the types of missions undertaken by the organization,” explained Piumi Holland, CareFlight’s Aviation Safety Manager.
“This includes the assessment of a pilot’s flight hours on type, expected weather conditions, as well as if a refuel stop is required during the mission. The built-in calculation removes the ‘guess work’ providing a rapid and accurate risk assessment.” In addition, the SRAT template includes potential risks associated with operating an aircraft post-maintenance check. Based on the selections made by the pilot, a risk rating is provided prior to proceeding with the flight. If either tool presents conditions that are high / extreme risk to the operation, the task is then reviewed by a Flight Ops Manager, Medical Crew and Logistics prior to proceeding with the mission.
Is SAR just too risky for a FRAT?
Airborne special missions cover such a wide variety of operations – medical transport, SAR, aerial firefighting and airborne police services. Each one will present a unique set of risks in their given theatre of operations as well – offshore SAR vs onshore, for instance. So, there’s a lot to consider – maybe too much for an algorithm to cope with.
Alex Pollitt, a SAR pilot with Babcock Mission Critical Services Espana, reflected on the myriad risks that a SAR pilot has to take into account: “In SAR, the bubble of potential resources, supporting services, and people that could impact on your mission tends to be much larger, and therefore exponentially more complex. These influences could include the Rescue Co-ordination Center; other rescue agencies such as coastguard, police, fire service, and ambulance; the presence of the public sometimes in large numbers; other SAR or HEMS aircraft at the scene; or multiple vessels involved in a search or rescue at sea.”
The risk in SAR missions can be harder to pre-judge and estimate before flight, because it is often the case that the highest risks come as a result of having to react to changing circumstances and external influences
And then come the questions – the answers to which all affect a mission’s risk profile: “Do you winch or land? Do you get a vessel to make way or heave to? Does the winch rescue call for a strop, rescue litter, or stretcher? Do you use a hi-line, a single lift, or a double lift? Which way do you point the aircraft to get the best tradeoff between the pilot and the winch-operator’s sight references and priorities? How is the downwash affecting the rescue effort below the aircraft?”
Above are the reasons why SAR operations do not – maybe cannot – mandate the use of FRAT planning tools, as Pollitt explained: “They (FRATs) are not as useful a risk model as they are for more routine flight operations because they can’t build in the level of variation and flexibility that a spread of SAR missions could present. As a result, they don’t give a convincing estimation of what the risk might be for any given situation.
The risk in SAR missions can be harder to pre-judge and estimate before flight, because it is often the case that the highest risks come as a result of having to react to changing circumstances and external influences. If the unforeseeable and unpredictable element of SAR is the highest risk factor, then a tool that determines the level of foreseeable risk is by definition missing a large chunk of its potential utility.”
Value of knowledge
While there are many software options available for air medical operators that are carrying out a daunting array of mission types, to assess the risks involved, the value of human knowledge and experience is more difficult to calculate. Pilots who have landed at remote airstrips before will know the peculiarities of that particular strip of land, and for those flying aerial firefighting missions in mountainous regions, knowing how the wind will change how an aircraft will perform will always be invaluable.
As Alex Pollitt concluded: “The ability to risk assess in flight and react to the changing risk landscape is recognized amongst crews to be a skillset that is particularly desirable and pertinent to SAR – that is what cognitive readiness describes. What has long been termed ‘dynamic risk assessment’ in this context and a flexible mindset to the art of the possible and the ‘many ways to skin a cat’ is what SAR training aims to give crews the tools to achieve when flying operational missions.”