Thanks to This Man, Airplanes Don’t Crash Into Mountains Anymore

The wreckage of Alaska Airlines Flight 1866, a Boeing 727, smolders as recovery workers search for the bodies of 111 victims on Sept. 7, 1971, in Juneau, Alaska.
Don Bateman’s terrain mapping device has nearly eliminated the largest cause of death in jetliner accidents.

Giant flocks of black birds circled the wreckage of an airliner that had struck an Alaska mountain two weeks earlier, killing all 111 aboard. In a small plane overhead, a young engineer directed his pilot to follow the same path the jet had taken toward the craggy terrain.

With seconds to spare, an alarm went off. Don Bateman’s plane climbed to safety, but he was frustrated. The electronic device he invented to warn pilots that they were about to hit the ground didn’t leave enough time to have prevented the large airliner from crashing.

“I was disappointed,” Bateman, now 84, recalled of the day in 1971 when he flew over the remains of Alaska Airlines Flight 1866, which had slammed into a fog-shrouded ridge. “We needed to do better.”

That’s exactly what Bateman and his small team of engineers at what is now Honeywell International Inc. did. The device presaged today’s mobile mapping applications, dramatically reduced what had been by far the worst class of air crashes and made Honeywell billions of dollars.

Don Bateman with a Honeywell plane the company used to test his safety devices at Paine Field in Everett, Wash.
Photographer: Mike Kane/Bloomberg

“I would give Don individual credit for having saved more lives than any other individual in the history of commercial aviation,” said Earl Weener, a member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and former chief engineer for safety at Boeing Co.

Before retiring in June, Bateman and his band of colleagues dabbled in the world of Cold War espionage, hid the true cost of their endeavor from their corporate masters and endured skepticism from the very airlines whose planes were being lost. In spite of repeated changes in corporate ownership and the blunt-spoken Bateman’s occasional threats to quit, he worked on his mission to save lives with the same group for almost six decades, colleagues said.

Eventually Bateman’s Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System became required in most commercial planes around the world, dramatically reducing accidents in which perfectly good aircraft with trained crews plowed into the ground or bodies of water, almost always in poor visibility.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was an average of one such fatal accident per month, according to the AviationSafetyNetwork website. It was by far the largest cause of death in jetliner accidents.

President Obama awards Bateman the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011.
Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Since the U.S. government began requiring an upgraded version of the device on all but the smallest aircraft starting in 2001, there hasn’t been a single such fatal crash on a U.S. commercial passenger plane equipped with it or competing devices. There have been a few overseas, often when pilots ignored or shut off the devices.

President Barack Obama awarded Bateman the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011.

Bateman was always fascinated with airplane crashes. As an 8-year-old school boy in 1940 in Saskatoon, Canada, he and a friend sneaked out of class after two military planes collided and crashed nearby. As punishment, his teacher made him write a report on what happened.

“That was my introduction to aircraft accidents,” he said recently. The carnage he saw that day helped motivate him years later.

After taking a job with Boeing in Seattle, he joined a small aviation firm called United Control in 1958. Airplane accidents continued to fascinate him and he began “making little books” of notes on them. One type stood out.

In the arcane world of aviation terminology, these crashes were called Controlled Flight into Terrain, or CFIT. It was a vexing problem: Basic navigation should have kept pilots from crashing. But the cockpit navigation technology of that era wasn’t intuitive and it was too easy to get disoriented, especially at night or in bad weather.

“In my mind it became a big issue, even though there wasn’t much being done about it,” Bateman recalled.

In the 1960s, Bateman worked with Scandinavian Airlines System, now SAS AB, which had suffered a CFIT crash in Turkey in 1960, to invent a mechanism to warn pilots when they flew too low. It involved a new instrument on planes that used radio waves to determine a plane’s distance from the ground. It helped stem the accident rate and, after a series of crashes, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration required it starting in 1974.

But it was prone to false alarms and had a glaring weakness: It couldn’t look forward, so was of little use if a plane was flying toward steeply increasing ground, such as a mountain.

For years, Bateman tinkered with the device to improve it. He also consulted with NTSB investigators, poring over accident reports.

“He would come to me and say what do we know about this accident?” said Jim Ritter, director of the NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering, who was a technician at the time. “The whole time, the gears were spinning and he was trying to make things safer.”

Bateman had been imagining a far better solution as early as his flight over the Alaska crash site. If he could create a database of all the world’s terrain, the device would see mountain tops and cliffs from miles away. But this was before personal computers and global-positioning services.

Even worse, much of the world’s topography was considered secret at the time, a vestige of the Cold War.

Then in 1991, in the chaos created by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the detailed maps it had created of the world starting in the 1920s were for sale -- if you knew where to buy them.

Bateman asked Frank Daly, the director of engineering at the Sundstrand Corp. division that had swallowed United Control, for his blessing to purchase the data from the U.S. government’s Cold War enemy.

“He thought I was crazy,” Bateman said.

They wound up sending one of his employees, Frank Brem, in search of maps in Russia and elsewhere. “There isn’t a terrain data store in downtown Moscow,” Daly recalled. “But he would go out and find the right people.”

A bigger problem than navigating the black market was the millions of dollars it was costing for the still unproven technology. “We probably weren’t as open with senior management about that process,” Daly said. He sometimes hid costs in other accounts.

A demonstration of a prototype infrared technology from Honeywell at Morristown Airport in New Jersey in 2010.
Photographer: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg

By the early 1990s, Bateman had developed working prototypes of the new system. Now the company had to sell it.

For pilots and safety officers, it was a marvel. Ed Soliday, then director of safety at United Airlines, had been prodding Bateman to improve the warning device. One day in the early 1990s, Bateman called and said he thought he had what Soliday wanted.

“Once I flew the thing with Don, it was like an epiphany,” Soliday recalled. “I was sold. I thought if we could make it work, this was a huge breakthrough.”

If a plane was flying toward a mountain, a screen popped up automatically marking the high ground in yellow and red on a map. If pilots didn’t respond, it began a series of increasingly dire warnings. Once a collision became almost imminent, a mechanical voice implored, “Terrain, terrain. Pull up! Pull up!” Compared to the earlier system, it was almost fool proof.

There are 45,000 units on aircraft today, worth more than $4 billion at list prices

But many of the more cost-conscious corporate chieftains at airlines weren’t convinced, according to Bateman and Daly.

A meeting at American Airlines was particularly grim. Daly was on the sales call at the airline’s headquarters with his then chief executive officer. Their host, a senior executive at the airline, was hostile.

“He was almost apoplectic and said, ‘We don’t want another box. We don’t want to have to replace the existing system,’ ” Daly said. “Here I am justifying spending tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and my boss has just been soundly beaten on the shoulders by the customer.”

Soliday had more success at United. The airline agreed to help Bateman’s team test it so it could be certified by the FAA, he said. Most other carriers balked. It took another high-profile fatal crash to change their minds.

As American Flight 965 neared Cali, Colombia, from Miami on the evening of Dec. 20, 1995, a pilot accidentally entered the wrong data into the plane’s flight computers. The crew didn’t notice as it began a slow left turn toward mountains lying invisible in the darkness.

The Boeing 757 was equipped with the earlier version of Bateman’s warning device and its mechanical voice began warning of “terrain.” But 13 seconds later, after the pilots added full throttle to climb as steeply as possible, it rammed into a ridge. All but four of the 163 people aboard died.

Within days the airline wanted the new device, which would have issued an alert far earlier and likely prevented the crash, Bateman and Daly said. First American and then United agreed to voluntarily install them. Other carriers followed. The FAA began requiring them in 2001.

In the end, the products spawned by Bateman’s device were a financial boon to Honeywell. There are 45,000 units on aircraft today, worth more than $4 billion at list prices, according to the company.

Both Bateman and Daly wonder whether the decades-long effort to develop and improve the warning system would be possible in today’s risk-averse corporate world.

“Today new projects need to be blessed by many people,” Daly said. “You need to have hard evidence. They just would not speculatively fund something like this, especially when we were being resisted by the aircraft manufacturers, the airlines.

“But Don’s faith, the genius of his team and a little support from the company -- and it happened.”