What’s Trending

Part I

On television recently I saw a world map depicting the Tweet activity generated by the USA Futbol team’s win in the first game of the World Cup. The map was tracking all Tweets concerning the match and was mostly dark with some lighter colors on the East and West coast of the US and a few light spots in Europe. When the US scored, the map erupted in major bright white areas depicting real time activity. I’m not a marketing expert but know an information treasure chest when I see it.

Almost every industry has methods to predict the future or at least make the attempt. The finance industry is one of the most prolific trend analyzers and often the least successful. Every morning there’s an expert on every talking head TV show telling us today why what they predicted yesterday didn’t happen. Their problem is that they’re trying to predict human behavior instead of something more tangible, a machine for instance.

Since we’re working with airplanes (machine), we should be able to make some very knowledgeable predictions about their future. The foundation for such predictions require every bit of data we can collect from the machine’s history and its current operation. But what information do we collect, where do we get it, what do we do with it and, most importantly, why would we bother?

Merriam-Webster defines “trend” as “a general direction of change; a way of behaving, proceeding, etc., that is developing and becoming more common”.

Trend monitoring implies more purpose: “A system for tracking the estimated cost/schedule/resources of the project vs. those planned.” or “ A method for extracting underlying pattern of behaviour by using documented data to separate from random noise.”

The trick is that you must buy into the need to collect the data now in order to benefit from the information it provides later. It’s analogous to saving and investing money today to reap the benefits of compounded interest later; if you don’t save today, you won’t have anything to show for it later.

Why Bother

My view is that maintenance should only be performed when absolutely required. In practice, the FAA leads in this direction by only requiring maintenance in the form of an Airworthiness Directive, which is a pretty major production on their part. You might be thinking about the annual inspection as maintenance, but it is almost purely an inspection. The only maintenance items in an FAA required annual inspection (FAR 43 Appendix D) are the removal, inspection and reinstallation of all filters in the plane. Just to make a point, an oil change (a maintenance item) is not required during an annual inspection. I doubt the FAA would agree with my assessment of their intent, but a case could be made.

By watching trends we can often, very often, eliminate a lot of unnecessary maintenance items that are performed out of habit and not with good basis. By contrast, the same data can be used to schedule needed maintenance work.  Proper resources can be set aside for expected issues. Having proper data can return immediate benefits with short term troubleshooting. It can also produce long term wear analysis for strategic maintenance planning.

Left to its own devices, your airplane will almost always choose to have all its unscheduled work performed far away from home at an airport with no services. In the worst case scenario, your plane may chose to request maintenance while flying. I’ve found this usually happens at night and in IMC. In such cases, you’ll be very happy to make it to any airport, even one with no services. Paying attention to what your plane is telling you can help schedule maintenance on your timetable instead of the airplane’s. To do that, you must establish a clear method of communication – that’s trend monitoring.

Data Acquisition

For useful trend analysis we’ll need to acquire useful data, analyze it to determine actions, then follow up on the results. All this requires a certain level of discipline, but little can happen without the data. Digital engine monitors aren’t the only data source available, to be sure. Once you start thinking about it, even the simplest planes have a good bit of data to retrieve. Some may seem nonproductive, but you never know what you might need.

The modern digital engine monitor truly provides some of the most detailed and easily stored data. Even the basic monitor with just exhaust gas temperature and cylinder head temperature recordings can yield valuable insight. Every added feature to the engine monitor multiplies the system’s value.

The most current software version of the G1000 has data logging capabilities as well. One exception is the non-WAAS Columbia series which has been promised a proper upgrade for several years. The important thing to know about the G1000 system is that it only records data when an SD card is installed in the upper slot of the MFD.

If the G1000 doesn’t have fixed content data logging, it is still capable of taking screen shots. With an SD card in the upper slot of the PFD and/or the MFD, the #1 and #9 soft keys can be pressed simultaneously to produce a digital picture of that display on the SD card.  While not a very dynamic data set, a picture is still worth a lot of words. As  with the data logging, an SD card must already be installed in the related monitor, as the G1000 has no built-in internal storage.

Useful data is available from almost every instrument in the airplane; you just have to collect it. A simple spreadsheet can be kept in the plane to document pretty much anything you see or feel. If you’re old school or technology challenged, paper and pencil will do nicely.  A smarty phone will do as well with one of the cloud document services supplying a spread sheet. A digital spreadsheet adds the ability to generate graphs for a more visual presentation of the data.  Even the less smarty phones have a camera which does a great job of recording all the gauges at one time, equivalent to the G1000 screenshot

There are several in flight operational checks whose data can be very revealing as well: in-flight magneto checks, GAMI lean checks, flight rigging check, landing gear operation times, maximum prop RPM and others. It’s important to remember that we’re not just interested in engine data; everything is on the table.

No Time Like the Present

Collecting data for future use is a little like saving for a rainy day, or college, or retirement; we often don’t realize how important it is until we need it. Think of hoarding all this data as some of the least expensive insurance you could have. Some day it’ll pay off in significant operating cost savings and possibly prevent an off field landing.

Next month we’ll explore how various data points relate to operational information that you can use in the real world. We’ll connect data to what it may tell us about the condition and proper operation of our planes. Many, if not most, don’t require a fancy engine monitor either.

Your assignment for the next month is to spend some time in your plane considering all the possible sources for data. Write each one down and even take a reading from it to put on your trend monitoring spreadsheet. Think outside the box for any item on the plane whose condition could be monitored. We may be surprised at how much our planes have to tell us.