How to find Qualitative Performance Intelligence from Flight Data

by Rob Holliday on 07/16/2020

Flight data is quantitative, and its initial analysis is against pre-defined parameters. So, when we look at it, we know what happened, but not why it happened. For that we need to talk to the crew. There is, however, more that can be gleaned from that data to prepare for that conversation. The goal here is to make the flight data work for the pilots so that it is a positive learning experience. For this we need to look beyond the non-compliance with quantitative data parameters. The challenge is to find the qualitative elements. We can do this by looking at the profile preceding the event in question from the perspective of the pilot flying, pilot monitoring through the lens of the 9 ICAO/IATA pilot competencies. 

Let’s take a simple hypothetical example, an unstable approach. The data points from 1000 feet will show if the company’s Standard Operating Procedures were met, quantitatively. Looking back up the descent profile could show that the aircraft was held at an intermediate level during the descent from which the distance to touchdown could clearly be seen and would not allow sufficient distance to achieve a stable approach. For this example, let’s say it was more or less a straight in approach, with no ATC delays. Looking down the descent profile, it can be seen that the speed brake was not used. The autopilot was used throughout the descent and landing gear was lowered at 1500 feet, but the aircraft still had too much speed to achieve the company stable approach criteria. You now have a richer picture of the pre-cursors to the unstable approach. So, what does that tell us?

The data from the lead up to the event indicates where the problem may have been solved before it happened, and this translates into the application of pilot competencies. Competencies that can be applied here are PC7 Situation Awareness and Management of Information, PC 3 Aeroplane Flight Path Management, Automation and possibly PC 6 Problem Solving and Decision Making. Then there is PC 2 Communication for the Pilot Monitoring. Lastly, for the continued unstable approach to landing, PC 1 Application of Procedures and Compliance with Regulations.  

Looking at another example, a VMO exceedance of 3 knots for 3 seconds to which the pilots immediately responded and corrected the situation. No maintenance action required. Is this not a big deal? Taking a step back and looking at the event, it occurred at FL180. Looking back at the flight from top of descent we see the aircraft descended with the auto-pilot and auto throttle engaged, but the Mach target speed did not change to Indicated Airspeed at FL280.The automation maintained a constant Mach number and as a consequence the airspeed gradually increased until VMO was exceeded. Now we have a much clearer picture of the scenario to debrief the crew and possibly some great learning points. The pilot competencies that could be discussed would be PC 3 Aeroplane Flight Path Management, Automation for the pilot flying. For the pilot monitoring PC 7 Situation Awareness and Management of Information’, with the associated behaviour of monitoring and assessing the aeroplane energy state and the anticipated flight path.  

Looking at the data through the lens of the 9 pilot competencies can give more detail to your analysis and make for a much more constructive and productive debriefing. It should be added that at this point in the analysis we have not spoken to the pilots and an open mind must be maintained until that has happened. The context of the event is unknown, but we are now better equipped for that conversation, compared to just having an exceedance value to discuss.