It matters how safety is approached every day, but even more so when conditions are dynamic, the requirements are challenging and it’s uncertain what’s coming next.
It is under those conditions that NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., won the 2020 Federal Aviation Safety Award for Premier Federal Aviation Programs.
The center was honored in the large category for organizations supporting operations for more than 20 aircraft. NASA Armstrong operates a diverse fleet of 24 airplanes made up of 13 types of aircraft with 111 primary and secondary flight crewmembers who operate them.
The award recognizes the center as the safest, most efficient and effective, in all aspects of a flight program. Included are aviation management, administration, operations, maintenance, training, and safety, among 16 different federal government agencies who are members of the Interagency Committee for Aviation Policy.
Troy Asher, NASA Armstrong director of Flight Operations, submitted the application on behalf of the center. For more than a decade NASA Armstrong has continued to improve each year, culminating in the 2020 win.
“In a year where there were so many different challenges because of the pandemic, we were able to put procedures and rules in place to allow the most critical work to continue and keep our people safe,” Asher said. “The award was a validation of all the great work our organization and the center accomplished.”
A winning approach
The accomplishments were substantial. NASA Armstrong had zero National Transportation Safety Board reportable accidents in fiscal year 2020 and an accident rate of zero.
“The center’s mishap rate has remained less than 0.2 mishaps per 1,000 flight hours over the last 10 years,” Asher said. “We have also achieved a decrease in the rate of total incidents, easily meeting a 10% decreasing incident rate goal, year over year. I think our safety culture has been steadily improving and folks think about the safety implications of their actions before they take them.”
On average, NASA Armstrong flies about 1,000 missions and 3,000 flight hours per year. In fiscal year 2020 despite the global pandemic, the center flew 571 research missions and a total of 1,589 flight hours.
“My hat is off to the maintainers, the pilots, the operators, engineers and everyone who had a role in it because that was really the recognition we received with this award: the input of every single person in the process had,” Asher said. “This was a team effort across all of Armstrong.”
In fiscal year 2020, NASA Armstrong aircraft, pilots, maintainers, engineers, project managers and other support personnel were leveraged for 72 different NASA customers. Included in that total: 39 projects for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, six projects for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, six projects for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, four projects for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and 17 projects for U.S. Department of Defense and commercial partnerships, all successful.
It was a challenge. “The deliverables didn’t happen the way we originally planned because of the pandemic, but we made progress,” Asher said. “We proved we could still serve our customers and meet contractual obligations in a telework environment along with deliberate trips to Armstrong.”
The flight operations area had more people on site because “You have to go onsite to fly an airplane or work on one,” Asher said. “It is not lost on me that we needed all the people working behind the scenes in order for us to fly airplanes.”
Finding a way
From about St. Patrick’s Day to early June the center and most of the country was locked down. NASA was at Stage 4, which permitted only mission essential projects and people.
However, an agency transportation need arose that the center was uniquely qualified to assist. Waivers were approved for the Mars 2020 rover mission because it was an agency level requirement that was second only to the International Space Station.
To assist in transportation challenges, Airborne Science aircraft were modified to meet the need. The effort required waivers from agency and center officials for the modifications and coordination in a telework environment with as few people on site as necessary for the work to happen safely, Asher said.
“NASA Armstrong’s Gulfstream-III No. 808 in particular was not configured for passenger transport because it was in modification status and it was a big effort to re-configure it,” he explained. “We did that without a single COVID-19 case.”
As a result, the aircraft based at Armstrong was able to transport critical scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Kennedy Space Center to support the Mars 2020 mission.
“The launch window for the Mars 2020 mission was very narrow and if it was missed, a 24-month delay would have cost nearly $1 billion,” Asher added.
NASA Armstrong aircraft were used to safely transport personnel for four months, flying 82 flights and 283 hours in support of this mission, successfully meeting the launch date. Also, the center took on additional missions moving U.S. astronauts between the SpaceX Corporation facility in Los Angeles, California to Houston, Texas and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in support of SpaceX DM-2, the first launch of American astronauts from American soil on American Rockets in more than seven years.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, said with regard to the center’s contingency transport efforts: “One of the best demonstrations of ‘One NASA’ I’ve seen in a while is playing out right now with our Perseverance rover. Together we are persevering.”
NASA Armstrong uses 18 different performance measures and metrics to gauge the success of its flight operations. These measures are designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the center’s research operation from end-to-end including aircraft generation ability (maintenance), logistics, scheduling, and actual flight rates. Some examples include pilot hours required and flown, aircraft availability by various tail numbers, categories and mission types, and mission cancelation rate.
“It’s not so much about the metric and having something to look at, it’s all about what you’re trying to do,” Asher explained. “It’s about your goal and improving. If you have a particular goal, you’ve broken down the process by which you will make that goal, then you can find areas of that process to improve. We can always improve.”
The greatest effort is placed on areas that need improvement.
“That which is measured improves,” he said. “If you don’t measure it, how are you ever going to get better? You can put something in place to improve that process and you can watch that metric go up.”
One area Asher said the center is working to approve is ensuring F-15D aircraft are available to support X-59 flights.
“We are looking at our support aircraft and know the F-15D is the platform we need to measure the shockwave on the X-59,” he said. “To do that we are working on ensuring we have the right staff, maintenance knowledge and replacement parts and logistics improvements.”
How the aircraft fleet is used is also evolving. For example, the F-18s are undergoing upgrades and the focus is on phase inspections to improve availability and reliability and possibly transfer some projects form F-15Ds to the F-18s.
“With a team like this with a common goal and everyone focusing on the same thing, there’s no limit to what you can do,” Asher said.