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Engineering in Action: The Man Who Made Flying Safer

February 23rd, 2012

You’ve never met Don Bateman. But he might have saved your life.

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

Bateman’s technology eliminated “the number one killer in aviation for decades,” according to 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.”

How He’s Done It

Motivated by an airplane disaster he witnessed as a boy, Bateman has tracked air disasters for 40 years to devise ways of preventing them.

He developed his first system by taking data from the technology that was already on airplanes—the radar altimeter, the airspeed indicator—and synthesize the information to create a warning system. Twenty years later, he integrated GPS technology with ever-improving terrain data to upgrade his system and what it can do.

After 50+ years at Honeywell, Bateman 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.

Bateman’s Technology Becomes the Law

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 warning sounded if a plane was too low without the landing gear deployed or if the descent was too fast.

After a TWA 727 crashed into a Virginia mountainside in December 1974, the FAA ordered that Bateman’s technology be installed on all large airliners. That rule was later extended to all airplanes carrying more than six passengers.

Since 1994, when Bateman integrated GPS technology into his system, most airlines have installed  the enhanced system on their entire fleets.  Today, it is installed on about 55,000 airplanes worldwide. And Bateman studies each new aviation accident for even further enhancements.

Well-Deserved Honors

It’s impossible to quantify precisely how many lives Bateman’s technology has saved.

Since the FAA certified the enhanced system in 1994, Honeywell has identified about 80 incidents where pilots reported that the warnings averted disaster. Overall, Bateman’s technology has reduced the likelihood of a once-common type of airplane crash by 99.9 percent.

In September 2011, President Obama awarded Bateman the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. He had already earned induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.  All of this for an electrical engineer who started off working at a telephone equipment company.

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