For our first ever article in the Subject Matter Expert series, we sat down with Bob Whetsell, Flight Data Systems’ Readout and GSE Sales Manager. With over 30 years of experience in the aviation industry, Bob shares his insights on the industry, the evolution of flight data, keeping pace with technological advancement, his career journey, and more.
What is your educational background?
When I graduated from high school, I wasn’t sure if jumping into college was right for me. So, instead of immediately returning to school, I decided to work. I joined the United States Coast Guard, serving as an Aviation Electronics Technician, C130 Radioman, and H52 Crewman in Kodiak, Alaska. After my time at the Coast Guard, I attended Charles Chapman School of Seamanship in Stuart, Florida, and then Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.
My time serving in the Coast Guard was particularly formative and impacted my career trajectory. At the Coast Guard, they share a practice where if you worked on an aircraft, you also flew on it, bringing home the risk of cutting corners in the maintenance process. This was the culture of safety that was instilled within me. When one of my classmates from the avionics technician class passed away in an unfortunate helicopter crash, it reinforced the importance of safety and launched my career in aviation safety.
The United States Coast Guard vessels out on the sea.
What is your professional background?
I joined Flight Data Systems with over 30 years of aerospace sales and sales management experience with companies such as The Deutsch Company, ITT Cannon, DeCrane Aircraft Holdings, Inc., Spirent Systems, and Aerobytes.
As an advocate for aviation safety, I have led the Global Safety Information Safety System (G-SISS) program for GE Digital as a partner with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This helped nation-states establish safety data collection and processing systems and enabled the analysis of safety data and information to reduce risk areas.
I have also helped develop the industry-first AMLCD flat panel display engine instrument retrofit program for Boeing 747 classic aircraft and DC-10 aircraft for Spirent Systems. I received the 1995 Bowthorpe Sales and Marketing Innovation Award for this effort – a proud moment.
While working at Penn-Tex Aerospace, I conceived the idea of providing third-party flight data analysis for airlines with small or no engineering staff. This idea was formalized as the United States Registered Patent “Method and Procedure for Aircraft Maintenance Analysis System.”
Throughout my career, the significance of aviation safety has remained a recurring theme.
What is your role at Flight Data Systems?
I joined Flight Data Systems’ high-energy, experienced team as the Readout and Ground Support Equipment (GSE) Sales Manager. In this role, I help partners solve complex operational challenges and needs with our SAFR Readout services for cockpit voice and flight data recorders.
Operators must perform periodic maintenance readouts on flight recorder systems at least once a year. We provide state-of-the-art, secure Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) data analysis services to address this need. Our SAFR Readout service is complemented by our industry-leading ground support equipment, the Handheld Multipurpose Interface (HHMPI) flight data download tool.
I am responsible for continuing to serve operators across the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East with a turnkey flight recorder analysis solution that delivers meaningful and actionable reports to the commercial airline industry.
Flight Data Systems is a leading service provider for flight recorder readouts performing 3,500+ readouts per year.
What is the significance of Flight Data Analysis in the aviation community and beyond?
Flight Data Analysis, also known as Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) or Flight Operation Quality Assurance (FOQA), involves the routine analysis of data recorded during flights. This data is compared against pre-defined values to check if the aircraft flew outside the scope of the standard operating procedures. These exceedances are known as safety events. Statistical analysis allows operators to determine whether a safety event is an isolated occurrence or part of a trend. With this knowledge, operators can take corrective action and appropriate steps to reduce these risks.
During COVID, operators noticed that planes were reaching altitude much quicker than usual and going over the prescribed altitude. When they analyzed this further, they realized this was because there weren’t as many passengers and luggage as compared before COVID hit, so the aircraft’s weight had decreased. This is just one of the many insights you can derive with FDM.
In short, flight data analysis enhances flight safety by identifying an airline’s operational safety risks. In doing so, flight data analysis is critical in the aviation industry, which is under constant pressure to achieve safety. Flight data analysis has made aviation what it is today – one of the safest means of transportation. By supporting passenger safety and reducing delays and cancellations, flight data analysis supports various industries that rely on the smooth functioning of airlines.
It is fulfilling to look out on the tarmac of the runway and know that the work I’ve been part of for the last 30 years is helping people get home safely.
Flight Data Systems HHMPI – the primary tool in the commercial aviation market for downloading FDR and CVR from the aircraft.
What are some challenges that this segment of aviation has confronted?
Although the usefulness of FDRS, CVRs, and captured data for accident investigation purposes is now well accepted, this has not always been the case. When the FAA launched the FOQA demo project, which gave major airlines grants to buy quick access recorders, FDRs, and FDM software, airlines began monitoring whether the pilots met standard operating practices. Pilots were highly resistant to this as they were concerned that this data would be used punitively against them.
Moreover, the industry was conservative in the late 80s and early 90s. There was skepticism towards an independent party’s ability to analyze a company’s flight data. This resistance stemmed from a concern over the analysis’s validity and the data’s confidentiality. Companies were concerned that the data could be leaked and presented in an unfavorable light.
To quell these concerns, unions, software providers, recorder providers, and others within the industry created agreements to protect the data, determine who would access it, and ensure that pilots were never identified. This laid the foundation for the just culture around FDM that we still see today.
Today, the industry is looking past merely observing exceedances and looking into the beneficial flight practices, so these can be replicated too. This evolution of FDM has laid the ground for evidence-based pilot training. Pilots can now be trained in a manner that addresses the specific airmanship skill they require improvement in. Rather than being used punitively, the data is helping pilots to become better pilots.
Flight Data Systems’ industry-leading SENTRY FDR, CVR, or CVDR – the smallest and lightest recorder in the market.
How do you stay up to date on the latest trends within flight data analysis?
There are several conferences for FOQA that I find helpful to keep up with the latest news. The Alpha Safety Week, the International Federation of Pilots, the FAA, NBAA, and HAI all have sessions focused on safety. The Commercial Airlines Safety Team (CAST), an FAA-sponsored group of airlines, also conducts several closed meetings that inform the industry. Speaking to people from these communities one-on-one helps me understand the current pain points and industry needs.
As for trends within the industry, there’s an initiative by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to have a global pooling of flight data that can offer insights such as what areas of the world have incidents, the impact of different standard operating practices, and much more. Global collaborations like these are bound to move the industry forward.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I have two granddaughters in Virginia who are the joy of my life today and with whom I love spending my time. I enjoy a healthy work-life balance by remaining active and getting fresh air when I am not working. Although I used to participate in triathlons in my younger days, I now enjoy spending my time on the golf course. After our kids moved out, my wife and I moved into a golf community. We frequently travel with 16 other couples to play golf worldwide. Please feel free to reach out if you ever want to join for a round of golf!
I also enjoy constantly learning about flight data monitoring and connecting with others passionate about making aviation safer. Although aviation has come a long way, there’s always room for improvement and iteration to create best practices. After 30 years in the industry, aviation safety is more than what I do for work. When you have a firsthand experience and intimate familiarity with the lifesaving impact FDM can have, it’s hard not to be passionate about that. I am happy to connect with others interested in learning more about FDM. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org to continue this conversation.