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Published February 28, 2009, 11:32 PM

Data recorder in spotlight for helicopter safety

A Fargo company that makes flight data recorders hopes a new, smaller model will help the company land an even bigger role in a national push to improve helicopter safety.

By: Mike Nowatzki, INFORUM

A Fargo company that makes flight data recorders hopes a new, smaller model will help the company land an even bigger role in a national push to improve helicopter safety.

David Batcheller of Appareo Systems Inc. recently testified in front of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is exploring ways to boost safety after nine medical helicopter crashes killed 35 people during a 12-month period in 2007 and 2008.

While so-called “black boxes” are standard in commercial airliners, the federal government doesn’t require them in all helicopters, although some owners voluntarily install them.

Some light aircraft owners have shied away from recorders in the past because of their weight and cost, said Ben Wright, vice president of sales and marketing for Appareo.

Those whose helicopters are worth $200,000 to $300,000 may not find it economical to spend $100,000 or more on a traditional recorder, he said.

“It sounds kind of ironic, because one life is worth the investment,” he said.

Appareo has 44 workers and is building a new facility in the North Dakota State University Research and Technology Park.

About two years ago, the company introduced a 2.25-pound recorder for $6,000.

“Between the weight and the cost, it really changed the industry’s perspective on whether or not they could use these devices,” Wright said.

Among Appareo’s clients so far are the oil and natural gas industries, which use helicopters to shuttle workers to and from offshore rigs, Wright said.

“We’ve had a lot of success down there,” he said. “They’re really interested in improving their safety.”

In addition to the recorder, Appareo’s system includes 3-D software that creates a detailed flight analysis for use in training programs and by flight operations managers. The award-winning system is known as ALERTS, which stands for Aircraft Logging and Event Recording for Training and Safety.

In one example of the system’s effectiveness that Batcheller shared with the NTSB, the number of hours a client’s pilots were dropping below the minimum cruising altitude dropped 95 percent once they knew they were being monitored by the ALERTS system.

Batcheller, Appareo’s director of quality, process and project management and the son of company founder Barry Batcheller, said the product must bring value to end users.

“The operators that implement it are people that are safety-conscious and operate in markets where safety is actually a competitive advantage,” he said, using the example of an operator bidding to shuttle an oil company’s workers around.

Because of its lightweight design, Appareo’s recorders aren’t as sturdy as traditional flight recorders, but they are crash-hardened and flame-resistant, Wright said.

The product proved its toughness last September when a tanker jet used for fighting wildfires crashed moments after takeoff in Reno, Nev., killing all three crew members. Investigators were able to retrieve the recorder data, which impressed Appareo officials because the crash involved a large aircraft at significantly higher speeds, Batcheller told the NTSB.

“We’re really impressed with the survivability of the equipment,” he said, adding Appareo hopes to improve the technology to boost its survivability.

The University of North Dakota has Appareo’s easy-to-install recorders in six of the eight helicopters in its flight training program, said assistant professor Richard “Rocky” Graziano.

Flight instructors use the analysis provided by Appareo’s software in post-flight training sessions with students, he said.

“With that 3-D visualization, they can sit down with the students and say, ‘OK, this is where you did this maneuver, this is what it looked like from this particular perspective,’ ” he said.

The software also shows students what an instrument approach should look like to see if they’re above or below a glide slope, right or left of the runway’s centerline, and so on.

“So, it’s really helping not only in the training but on the safety aspect of helicopter flying,” Graziano said. “It’s pretty slick the way it works, and if you can imagine all of that built into a little piece of hardware that weighs 2 pounds, it’s pretty powerful.”

Appareo launched its new recorder weighing less than 300 grams, or about 10 ounces, at the international Heli-Expo last weekend in Anaheim, Calif.

In addition to recording flight data, it records ambient sound and features a camera that takes still photos of the cockpit.

The recorder was developed with major helicopter manufacturer Eurocopter, which will begin installing it on models in 2010, said Batcheller, who appeared in a CNN news story about Fargo’s economy this week.

The European counterpart to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is expected to release standards for light aircraft data acquisition systems such as Appareo’s later this year, Batcheller said. The FAA may adopt those standards or create its own, and the NTSB will likely make recommendations based on the hearings in early February, he said.

Appareo started the year with fewer than 40 employees and projects to have 65 by year’s end, Batcheller said.

Wright said eventually the recorders could become mandatory for helicopters, which would create an even larger market.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on the industry to do something to increase safety, so I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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