Since tablet computers first became mainstream products, electronic flight bag (EFB) solutions have developed some critical mass also in the domain of helicopter operations. Multiple helicopter operators all over the world have, to some extent, implemented EFBs, and a decrease in the use of paper-based flight deck documentation is being witnessed.
At CHC, EFB solutions were first introduced in the U.K. in 2014 and have since expanded across its global operations. “Our EFBs include all necessary flight information, including operations manuals, weather information, and helideck data and approach information that is easily accessible at the fingertips of flight crews via iPad”, says Dave Balevic, CHC’s senior vice president of engineering and operations. “They include our operation flight planning system (OFPS), which has been used to plan more than 100,000 flights across our fleet. Our OFPS is made in-house, with extensive input and direction from our pilots and is currently on its fifth generation as we work to constantly improve it and make it a more efficient tool.”
In 2015 Metro Aviation received FAA authorization for EFBs following a six-month evaluation period that tested the technology’s functionality in each type of aircraft operated by Metro. The company provides two Apple iPad devices for each aircraft in their fleet.
The EFB implementation effort is still largely in its infancy. “I would estimate less than 20 percent deployment within the complete rotorcraft industry from a total number of companies to deployment perspective. In addition, EFB solutions are largely modelled after other industry templates — e.g., airlines — and have been built for single purpose applications. Unfortunately, as is widely known by field use and experience, this does not improve use or performance; it just changes the interface methodology,” says Wolf Zon, senior design and development director at 135 Air Carrier Management, a company operating in the domain of air operations software integration.
With EFB implementation, there are benefits to be derived from a safety point of view. “The EFB allows us to declutter our cockpits, reduce manual work, eliminate errors, and helps our crew keep their eyes on the task at hand—safely and efficiently transporting our passengers. Aircraft are better prepared to travel safely to their destinations and quickly account for factors like weather, route restrictions, weight and balance data, and more,” says Balevic.
Coupled with enterprise software EFBs allow central control and verification of updates, ensuring pilots have the most accurate information at all times. “Our EFB program raises the bar in helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operations by enhancing our pilots’ ability to access the information they need to do their job safely and effectively,” says Jim Arthur, director of operations at Metro Aviation. “EFBs allow us to enhance flight safety, exceed the requirements of the FAA’s HAA regulations, and continue to provide operational excellence to our customers.”
EFB implementation requires careful planning and there are a number of issues to consider to ensure smooth EFB implementation. The new user or organization must first define the results they want as a result of the ‘digital transformation,’ (i.e., what they want to accomplish and what are the outcomes they expect and want to find). From this point of view, a comprehensive evaluation of the available systems in the market must be made to determine best expectations of the product. “It should be noted that a single-point comprehensive solution that covers all aspects of an operation is the most widely experienced request,” says Zon.
“Before and since implementing EFB/OFPS, we have been focused on making sure we have the IT infrastructure to securely support our global operation while also taking into account the needs and feedback from our crews. We also want to reduce work on both ends, which is why we take the data gathered by the OFPS and feed it into our critical ground systems across the operation,” says Balevic.
The experience of CHC has been to minimize the use of paper as much as possible while complying with applicable rules and regulations across its operations. For example, in Norway and in The Netherlands, CHC is entirely paperless with the exception of printed passenger manifests that are required by regulations.
However, even where EFBs have been implemented paper documentation still has a long way to go before being fully replaced by electronic solutions in the flight deck. Several paper documents are still carried on board. “In some areas we are not even close to the full replacement of paper (i.e., inter-organizational materials, operations manuals, minimum equipment lists, aircraft maintenance tracking, operations/flight sheets tracking, and weight and balance records). However, there has been a significant transition to digital documents in other areas, such as approach plates and airport information,” says Zon.
In addition to the EFB, which is a piece of hardware, in recent times there have also been several software developments to specifically target the needs of helicopter operators. In addition to the OFPS solution, CHC’s helicopters also interact with several other key applications. “Our health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) look at sensors throughout the aircraft and collect valuable data that is analyzed to ensure availability, reliability, and safety. Flight data management (FDM) also records all operational parameters of the helicopter so they can be analyzed by an engineer between flights to make sure the helicopter remains within safe operating ranges within several key parameters,” says Balevic. “Our maintenance functions are supported by AMOS, our aircraft maintenance system that manages maintenance activities as well as aircraft servicing and parts. We use AIMS software to manage flight schedules, crew rosters, crew training planning, crew travel, and payroll systems. AIMS integrates with both AMOS and OFPS to ensure accurate information is shared quickly. Main operations work in unison with related supporting applications such as engineering drawings, supplier management, and compliance monitoring.”
CHC is also working with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and companies such as Skytrac on other software solutions. “For example, we are leading system implementation and testing in collaboration with Leonardo and SKYTRAC on next-stage, real-time HUMS onboard the AW139. We are also working with OEMs on building efficiency for systems such as performance calculation applications”, says Balevic. “We have seen tremendous gains in efficiency across our business thanks to these software programs and they are helping us serve our customers more safely and efficiently.”
While there have been several new software solutions, not so many of them are true ‘apps.’ “There are even fewer which are multi-platform based (Apple iOS and Android). This is a newer market opportunity, but all are either new ‘skins’ on old technology, or systems that have a focused, singular purpose. Therefore, very few apps actually hit the mark on rotorcraft needs and requirements,” says Zon.
Looking ahead, head-up displays might at some point become the future of paperless documentation access. However, this is going to be well far ahead in time as the technology is not readily available and there are important cost-and-benefit considerations to make. “We believe that moving away from paperless documentation, with a focus on allowing our crews to keep the majority of their focus on flying the aircraft, is paramount and will help improve safety across the rotorcraft industry,” concludes Balevic.