First Air to equip fleet with automatic black box streaming

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Canadian carrier First Air is equipping its fleet with a new capability that allows for automatic streaming of aircraft black box data, says the carrier.

The airline, which specialises in passenger and cargo flights to remote areas in Northern Canada, says it expects its entire fleet to be outfitted with the capability to start automatic black box streaming and downloading by “the middle to the end of May,” says Vic Charlebois, First Air’s vice-president, flight operations.

First Air will add the function, called FLYHTStream, to its Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) provided by Calgary-based FLYHT Aerospace Solutions. The airline finished installing the system on its fleet of 22 aircraft in January, says Charlebois. It has been using the AFIRS system for tasks including tracking flights and monitoring engine trends since first rolling out the system about 18 months ago.

First Air will be the first of about 40 airlines using the AFIRS system for performing real time data downloads of the black box data while the aircraft is flying, says FLYHT. The streaming would only begin if the AFIRS system receives alerts from aircraft systems that there could be an emergency, which is another function that FLYHT is working to provide.

“All we’re doing in its basic form is taking the black box data and putting it in a file on the ground so it can be analysed not post-crash but in real time,” says Matt Bradley, president of FLYHT Aerospace Solutions. He notes that the data arrives to the dispatchers in its raw form from the aircraft's flight data recorder.

The new features will now allow the black box data to be recorded automatically based on certain triggers, or even by a dispatcher on the ground. When certain parameters could signal an abnormal event—such as an engine failure or fire, cabin depressurisation or loss of a hydraulic system—the FLYHTStream system would trigger an emergency alert for flight dispatch and automatically start the data download.

FLYHT and First Air are working on defining those parameters, and the manufacturer is seeking industry input for which triggers would be beneficial to add to the system, says Bradley.

The triggers can also indicate AFIRS to start streaming data like GPS position, airspeed, altitude, descent rate, pitch and roll, as well as information from engines, electrical systems and cabin pressure, says FLYHT. The system can also transmit information about any signs of fire, smoke and icing.

FLYHT is coding the software for First Air to start transmitting data from the black box about two minutes prior to when the alert went off to give context for what was happening in the cockpit before the trigger went off. This process would transmit the information to dispatchers within 20 seconds of the alert, says Bradley.

The triggered alerts will build off of a feature that FLYHT has provided for First Air for about a year so far - a button in the flight deck that pilots can push to manually notify the ground when there is an aircraft issue.

Pushing the button provides the information to dispatchers via an Iridium link, and dispatchers see the aircraft highlighted on the aircraft situational display, says Bradley. The dispatchers could then start checking the weather at the airport, alternative places to land and could notify maintenance teams of the issue.

“We use it, I would say, probably on average once every six to eight weeks,” says Charlebois, referring to the manual alert button.

Outfitting each First Air aircraft with an AFIRS box cost about $100,000, Charlebois estimates. It costs about $10 per hour to stream the black box data, says FLYHT’s Bradley.

First Air operates ATR 42-200 and -300 turboprops, Boeing 737-400s, 737-200s, a Boeing 767-200SF and the Lockheed L-100-30 Hercules aircraft.

Streaming cockpit data has come under international focus in the past several weeks as the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 continues and IATA is creating a task force to look at how the technology can be deployed across the industry.

While the details surrounding MH370’s disappearance are still unknown, FLYHT says that having a triggered alerting system could have provided information about where the aircraft was and how it was behaving when it last had electrical power.