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Saving lives through aviation technology

By Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times –

SEATTLE — A small King Air turboprop took off last month into a sunny sky from Boeing Field, swung west, and sped straight toward the Olympic Mountains at more than 200 mph. On the electronic map display in front of the pilot, a block of red warned that the plane was on course to slam into the twin peaks called The Brothers.

About 3.5 miles out from the snow-covered rock face, a red light flashed on the instrument panel and a recorded voice squawked loudly from a speaker.

“Caution — Terrain. Caution — Terrain.”

The pilot ignored it. Just a minute away from hitting the peaks, he held a steady course.

Ten seconds later, the system erupted again, repeating the warning in a more urgent voice.

The pilot still flew on. Snow and rock loomed straight ahead.

Suddenly the loud command became insistent.

“Terrain. Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! Pull up!”

Finally, the pilot calmly pulled the nose up. As the plane skimmed safely over the peaks, the instruments fell silent.

You can thank Redmond, Wash., engineer Don Bateman for this lifesaving technology.

More than 40 years ago, Bateman invented the “ground proximity warning” system that prevents pilots in poor visibility from flying a perfectly functioning airplane into a mountain or some other obstacle.

The technology eliminated the “No. 1 killer in aviation for decades,” said Bill Voss, chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation. “It’s accepted within the industry that Don Bateman has probably saved more lives than any single person in the history of aviation.”

Motivated by an airplane accident he witnessed as a schoolboy, Bateman has tracked air disasters for 40 years to devise ways of preventing them. One crash that left a vivid mark in the early days of his work was Alaska Airlines Flight 1866, which flew into the Chilkat Range near Juneau, Alaska, in 1971, killing 111 people — at the time, the worst airline accident in U.S. history.

Immediately after the crash, Bateman retraced the flight path in a small Beech Baron. Looking down, he could see the wreckage scattered “all down the side of the mountain.

“It had a big visual and mental impact on me,” Bateman said. “That energized us engineers. It was, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something better.’ ”

Bateman’s genius was to take data from the technology that was already on airplanes — such as the radar altimeter, the airspeed indicator, and later the GPS locator — and synthesize the information to create a warning system.

In Honeywell’s Redmond avionics labs, Bateman — a small, soft-spoken man with the ruddy cheeks of his prairie-farming forebears — is still working, still fine-tuning his technology.

His constantly updated digital charting of terrain around the globe, which includes data derived from detailed maps compiled for the Soviet-era military, has created a priceless database used to keep fliers safe.

“How do you retire from saving lives?” Voss asked rhetorically. “Apparently, you don’t.”

The King Air flight in January was a demo flight to show how Bateman’s technology works.

After soaring over The Brothers, Honeywell chief test pilot Markus Johnson put the system through its paces.

He banked the plane, beginning a turn that put it on course to hit a peak visible out the left-hand cockpit window.

The system calculated the projected flight path and again issued voice warnings until he pulled out of the turn.

Then Johnson headed for a telecommunications tower rising high above a hill near Hood Canal. “Caution — Obstacle,” the system intoned. The telecom tower was in the terrain database too.

On that January day, the view was breathtaking. But the technology would work the same on a flight in darkness or in bad weather, with a disoriented pilot unknowingly headed toward an unseen obstacle.

“The problem is when you can’t see it, and you aren’t aware that it’s there,” Johnson said.

Bateman grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada, spending part of his childhood on a farm, where he drove a tractor at night during planting and harvesting time.

He often got in trouble for breaking rules. “I’ve been a maverick since I was a kid,” he says now.

In 1940, when he was 8, he broke his elementary school rules to get close to an incident that left an indelible impression.

Sitting in a classroom, his friend Mel Kubica looked out the window and saw a flash, then debris, and what looked like people, falling from the sky.

Don slipped out of school early with Mel, jumped on his tricycle and pedaled to the scene.

Two military training planes — a Lockheed Hudson and an Avro Anson — had collided in midair with 10 crewmen on board.

That incident brought home to him the grim reality of wartime aviation, underlined later when two uncles and a cousin who’d joined the Air Force all died, either shot down or in air accidents.

Ever since, he said, he’s been motivated “to make things better; to make flying safer.”

After graduating as an electrical engineer, Bateman first worked at a telephone equipment company. In 1958 he took a job with Boeing in Renton, where he worked on avionics for the 707.

After less than two years, he left to join United Control, an airplane electronics maker formed by ex-Boeing engineers in Seattle’s University District. The company later moved to Redmond and went through a series of deals to become part of Sundstrand, then AlliedSignal, and then Honeywell.

Bateman devised his original ground proximity warning system (GPWS) in the early 1970s, using an airplane’s radar altimeter to detect rapid altitude changes as a plane approached terrain.

A “whoop, whoop” warning sounded if a plane was too low with the landing gear still tucked away or if the descent was too fast.

Famed Boeing test pilot Jack Waddell tried out the system by flying a 747 at Mount Rainier in 1974. It was he who requested that the verbal “Pull up” warning be added.

Boeing made the technology standard on all its new planes that year. Soon after, Pan Am, which had been hit by a series of 707 crashes in the late ’60s and early ’70s, became the first airline to retrofit the system on its existing fleet.

After a TWA 727 crashed into Mount Weather, Va., in December 1974, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered that Bateman’s technology be installed on all large airliners. It later extended the rule to all airplanes carrying more than six passengers.

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