Redmond aviation engineer's lifelong work has saved thousands of lives
The crash-avoidance technology pioneered by Don Bateman has virtually eliminated what used to be the most common type of airplane disaster.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Don BatemanBorn: 1932 in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Career: Worked almost two years at Boeing, and an additional 52 years (so far) at Honeywell and its predecessor companies.
Achievements: He invented the "ground-proximity-warning-system" technology on airplanes in the 1970s, and then greatly enhanced the system in the 1990s with GPS location and extensive terrain data. The result is that a once-common type of airliner crash — in which a pilot flies a functioning airplane into an unseen obstacle — has been reduced by 99.9 percent.
Honors: In 2005, Bateman was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Last year, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Source: Don Bateman, Seattle Times reporting
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 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."
Tracking air disasters
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," said Johnson.
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.
"I had never seen blood before from a human being," Bateman recalled. "It was horrible. It was pretty gory."
The next day, his teacher reprimanded the two boys and ordered them to write a detailed account of what they had witnessed.
When he handed in his piece, she told him: "You sure can't spell. You're going to be an engineer."
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.
Over the years, Bateman and his team added sophistication, such as a warning if a plane fell below the designated glide slope into an airport, or if there was severe wind shear ahead.
"Every year we made improvements," Bateman said.
In 1994, the technology took a dramatic leap forward when Bateman integrated GPS technology with ever-improving terrain data.
GPS provides the precise location of an airplane in the air, to within a few yards. To complement that, Bateman needed reliable data on as much of the world's terrain as possible.
"We knew, as engineers, that if we could get the terrain data, we could do an awful lot," he said.
The U.S. and Western Europe were well-mapped. Bateman persuaded his Honeywell managers to buy from the Russians detailed maps compiled over decades by the Soviet-era military, including less-charted regions of China and Eastern Europe.
Honeywell's terrain database now covers most of the world and is constantly updated to add obstacles such as telecom towers and new buildings higher than 100 feet.
Crash in Colombia
United Airlines and British Airways did early flight tests of Bateman's enhanced system.
Then, after 159 people died when an American Airlines 757 crashed into a mountain near Cali, Colombia, in December 1995, American decided to install the enhanced system on its entire fleet, and other airlines soon followed.
Today, the enhanced system is installed on about 55,000 airplanes worldwide. And Bateman studies each new aviation accident for potential enhancements.
After a Turkish Airlines 737 crashed into the ground heading into Amsterdam in 2009, investigators discovered the pilots were unaware until too late that their air speed was dangerously low on approach. Honeywell added a "low-airspeed" warning to its system, now basic on new 737s.
For the past decade, Bateman has worked on ways of avoiding runway accidents by compiling precise location data on virtually every runway in the world.
After flying over the Olympic Mountains in January, Johnson demonstrated the precision of the system's awareness of runway positioning.
First, flaps out and landing gear extended, he dipped toward Hood Canal.
The system recognized the plane was set as if to land and that there was no runway ahead. When the plane descended to 700 feet above the water, the voice warned: "Pull up. Pull up."
After pulling up as ordered, Johnson flew north to Paine Field in Everett, where he then set the plane as if to execute three very bad — and dangerous — landings in succession, one approach too long, another too high, and a third lining up with a taxiway instead of the runway.
Each time, the system alerted the pilot with specific warnings: "Long landing," "Go around," "Too high," "Unstable," and "Caution — Taxiway."
Accidents involving controlled flight into terrain still happen, particularly in smaller turboprop aircraft. During the past five years, there have been 50 such accidents, according to Flight Safety Foundation data.
But since the 1990s, the foundation has logged just two in aircraft equipped with Bateman's enhanced system — one in a British Aerospace BAe-146 cargo plane in Indonesia in 2009; one in an Airbus A321 passenger jet in Pakistan in 2010.
In both cases, the cockpit voice recorder showed the system gave the pilots more than 30 seconds of repeated warnings of the impending collisions, but for some reason the pilots ignored them until too late.
It's impossible to quantify precisely how many lives Bateman's technology has saved.
Since the enhanced version was certified by the FAA in 1994, however, Honeywell has identified about 80 incidents where pilots reported that the warnings averted disaster.
In September, President Obama awarded Bateman the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Bateman will be 80 in March. He said he has no plans to retire.
"It's fun. I've been lucky. I really enjoy this industry. ... I still have a small team of six mavericks (at Honeywell), who aren't afraid to tell me I'm wrong," Bateman said. "Why do I want to leave that?"
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 5, 2011, was updated the following day to correct the spelling of Colombia, where a 1995 crash occurred.