Aviation Regulators Need To Embrace Technology

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I got an email the other day from Lou Churchville, a pilot in Oregon who works for a company that makes enhanced-vision systems for aircraft. He had read a story of mine about safety issues for emergency medical helicopters, and he felt compelled to write. "We're extremely frustrated -- all of us in this business -- because we know this enhanced-vision system could eliminate a major risk factor," he told me on the phone today. "We just don't know what to do to convince the operators and the FAA that this technology can save lives." Churchville went on to explain to me the difference between an enhanced-vision display and the night goggles that the FAA encourages EMS pilots to use.

I've seen these infra-red enhanced-vision displays -- maybe you have, too -- and they look like slightly fuzzy black-and-white TV images. It seems they really do have the power to "turn night into day," as Churchville says. When a pilot is operating in difficult conditions -- off roadsides, in forest clearings, at night, in low visibility -- it seems clear that such a system would be an assett. The images are easy to interpret and don't require special training or modified cockpit lighting, like night goggles do. They've grown in popularity with GA pilots as the prices sink. Churchville says an EV system for an EMS helicopter would run about $90,000. That seems like a lot, but then crashes aren't cheap, either.

In its May 2008 fact sheet on EMS helicopter safety, the FAA doesn't even mention IR enhanced-vision as an option for improving the safety record.

On a related note, a story in Reader's Digest turned up in my news scan today. It's an explanation to the masses about how air traffic control works. "The truth is, your car's GPS system has more precision than the air traffic control technology in use today," Reader's Digest says. As shocking as that seems, we all know it is essentially true. Last year, the FAA made a real effort to "fast-track" its approval of moving-map devices for airline cockpits -- but the agency's idea of fast was still close to a year.

The bottom line is, we all know that technology is moving way faster than the regulators, and we've gotten used to this being the case, but maybe we shouldn't be so complacent. It's a new century, and technology ain't what it used to be. Even the best analog system is useless in a digital world. Maybe it's time for us to demand that the regulators scrap their last-century ways and leap into the present with the rest of us.

Comments (3)

I was in the avionics business for many years. One of the hardest lessons to learn was that the "management matrix" the FAA uses essentially means that nobody can tell anybody else what to do within the organization. Even though "Washington" approves a device every little ding-bat inspector in the field is free to obstruct, delay, not sign 337s, add requirements, and generally exercise absolute power over his/her fiefdom. Add that to the fact that the FAA requires any number of items to be operable and maintained according to their plan (whether it is mission critical or even necessary) and you have a situation which leads operators from the major airlines right on down to those of us struggling to keep a basic single in the hangar to do only what is required rather than do the “really nice to have stuff.” W have a nice IFR panel in our Archer II and really want to add one of the dandy Aspen EFD 1000 Pro units but PA-28 panels are snug to begin with and meeting all the FAA rules for back-up instruments adds a significant cost to the installation. I guess it’s all “necessary” and, giving credit where credit is due, somehow Aspen got their first two units certified/approved in what seems to be record time (I’ve spent way too much time watching the glacial progress of the process) but until the disparate elements of the FAA start being accountable to customers and to top managers, and even communicating to each other within the FAA the situation isn’t going to change.

Posted by: Mike Thompson | June 23, 2008 1:32 PM    Report this comment

Mary, in case you have not noticed, the FAA suffers (badly)from "Old Fartitis." (I'm 71 years old)

Too many "old" people doing it "that way" because we have "always done it that way."

Or:

Why would we want to change the way we do things? Haven't the old ways always been 'good enough?"

Here is my suggestion: (sort of like a reality show)

Have every person in an office of 20 or less list everybody in the office (except themselves)in rank order from best to worst. Compile the lists and then fire the worst person. (Fired by their fellow workers!)

In large offices with many workers, divide the number of workers by 20 and then fire one person for each 20. (i.e. 140 workers divided by 20 = 7. Fire 7 lowest ranked employees.

Do this "every" year. The "good" will get better and the bad will disappear.

This system checks on a lot of wonderful (worker) traits. Knowledge, compatibility with others, excessive absence from work, attitude, originator of new ideas, ......etc

Sort of like the old kindergarten phrase: "Plays well with others." Or, "doesn't (and dgets fired)."

Posted by: fred wilson | June 23, 2008 1:35 PM    Report this comment

In aviation we practice risk management - not risk elimination. However, the FAA seems to find this concept incomprehensible. Hence, in an effort to prevent any conceivable problem with a new safety technology, the certification process gets drawn out to an absurd length of time, excessively delaying the availibility of such technology, and driving it's costs beyond the reach of many who could otherwise benefit from it. Ensuring the safe and proper operation of a new technology is absolutely necessary, but the unbalanced approach followed by the FAA, while perhaps well intentioned, likely results not in an increase, but rather a net decrease, in safety.

Posted by: Nathan Edison | June 23, 2008 1:56 PM    Report this comment

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