- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

Numbers-crunching scientists in the offices of a new Sterling, Va., company believe they have found a way to prevent some accidents like the Singapore Airlines crash last week that killed 81 persons.

Using software that analyzes reams of data stretching back decades, researchers at Eagle Research Labs say they can predict airline hazards before they end in tragedy.

In one case, said Thorsten Hisam, vice president of Eagle Research Labs, the data indicated the Concorde was at significant risk of a major accident, probably involving a blown tire. A Concorde jet operated by Air France crashed outside Paris July 25 when debris from a blown tire was sucked into an engine, killing all 109 persons on board and four on the ground.

Eagle Research Labs scientists looked at the data after the crash. Mr. Hisam said airlines that spot trends early can change their operations "so the risk factors are either eliminated or mitigated. The point is that if you're not watching for those trends, then there's no way you can make corrections for them."

The company, which started last year, consists of 55 scientists, airline pilots, human-performance researchers, computer programmers and administrators who are trying to turn their expertise with airline safety into a profitable enterprise. Until now, Mr. Hisam said, most safety issues have been managed by government agencies, airlines and academic institutions.

Eagle Research Labs is trying to capitalize on a concept known in the airline industry as FOQA, for Flight Operations Quality Assurance. In essence, FOQA consists of compiling records on even the smallest unusual incidents, then using statistical formulas to predict where and when the next hazard will occur.

Mr. Hisam compared his company's efforts to quality-control programs used in many industries. "It's the same thing that someone manufacturing widgets would apply," he said.

The researchers use computerized mathematical models to compare and contrast data given to them by their customers in the airline industry.

"They look for errors … violations of procedures, hard landings, overbanking the aircraft, high loads if there is a wind event," Mr. Hisam said. "If there is a problem with hard landings at San Francisco, it might not be the aircraft, it might be the way air-traffic controllers are approaching the aircraft. Then they go over the data with us and we try to find a way to overcome the problem."

Eagle Research Labs hopes airlines and government agencies will see its work as a better way of doing data analysis and safety training than relying on in-house personnel. So far, the company's customers include Delta Air Lines, Rockwell Collins, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Navy.

"We're a big believer in FOQA. We want to extend FOQA to all of our fleet. It is getting more and more attention in the airline industry. It's relatively new," United Airlines spokesman Joe Hopkins said. United Airlines operates its own FOQA program.

Mr. Hisam said Eagle Research Labs also is capitalizing on an oversight in U.S. safety efforts. Some foreign airlines, such as Qantas and British Airways, use FOQA extensively. American carriers have been reluctant to compile the data needed for FOQA fearing a backlash from the Federal Aviation Administration if the statistics indicate potential hazards, he said.

The fortunes of Eagle Research Labs could rise with a rule the FAA proposed July 5. It would require all American air carriers that choose to have FOQA programs to share their information with the FAA.

Alison Duquette, FAA spokesman, said she knows of no regulations that would prevent the airlines from contracting their data analysis to private contractors, such as Eagle Research Labs. Companies that provide similar services include the British firm Spirent Systems-Aerospace Solutions and the French Airbus Industrie.

The rule, which is still awaiting final FAA action, also would calm the fears of airlines about retaliation for reporting safety lapses, she said. It would allow the FAA to take enforcement action against airlines for safety problems they report only in "egregious" cases.

"That is built into the proposal," Mrs. Duquette said. "We want to encourage the industry to report hazards."

She said the FAA is expected to make a decision on the data-sharing rule in the spring. She added that many airlines already run their own programs, including United Airlines, Trans World Airlines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, and others.

Mr. Hisam said his experience indicates the airlines' FOQA programs often are inadequate. The staff of Eagle Research Labs was drawn largely from the faculty of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. Mr. Hisam is the former director of the university's flight-simulation center and a licensed airline pilot.

Some of the faculty members realized that an adequate market might exist for safety-data analysis and training to operate a private business. Last year, they relocated to Sterling to open Eagle Research Labs.

Among the company's products is its Automated Activity Analysis (A) software, which can compile data from flight simulators, aircraft and maritime vehicles into safety-performance reports.

"We use it to look for problems that might want to make us change. We see it as a good safety tool," Mr. Hisam said.

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