March 25, 2013
Credit: Aviation Week
The story of Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 810 has faded with time, but it was a mystery that gripped all of Canada for months in the 1950s. The Douglas DC-4 took off from Vancouver in December 1956 bound for Calgary with 59 passengers aboard. Several minutes later, the crew radioed that there was a fire in the No. 2 engine and that they were having difficulty maintaining altitude. The aircraft was cleared to descend to 8,000 ft. and return to Vancouver. The crew radioed back an acknowledgment, and then Flight 810 seemingly vanished into thin air, never to be heard from again.
An exhaustive search effort failed to uncover any sign of the aircraft or its passengers, baffling authorities. Finally, five months after the DC-4 disappeared, a group of mountain climbers stumbled upon its disintegrated remains 7,600 ft. up Mount Slesse. All onboard had been killed instantly when the aircraft crashed into the craggy peak.
One of those who closely followed the tragedy and was inspired to act was C. Donald Bateman, a 25-year-old electrical engineering graduate from the University of Saskatchewan. Major airlines were losing about eight aircraft per year to controlled-flight-into-terrain (CFIT) accidents. Bateman was convinced there had to be a way to provide pilots with better information to alert them to dangerous terrain and other inflight hazards. The systems he went on to pioneer and improve over more than 50 years have made CFIT accidents involving airlines extremely rare.
For his lifelong dedication to air safety, Bateman, now Honeywell's chief flight safety systems engineer, was honored with Aviation Week's Lifetime Achievement Laureate. In presenting the award, AW&ST Editor-in-Chief Joseph C. Anselmo noted that while it is impossible to know exactly how many lives have been saved by Bateman's inventions, the number can credibly be estimated to go well into the thousands.
Bateman's initial research, undertaken when he was an engineer at United Control Corp., built on experiments conducted during World War II that employed radar altimeters as a landing aid. Bateman combined that technology with data from other sensors and applied computerized algorithms to flag navigational errors, such as flying too low, descending too rapidly or approaching unseen rising terrain. United Control—which ultimately became part of Honeywell—brought Bateman's Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) to market in the late 1960s. The system was so effective that in 1974 it became the factory standard on all new Boeing jets. A year later, after a Boeing 727 operated by Trans World Airlines crashed into a mountain, the U.S. mandated the use of such systems on all large commercial aircraft.
By 1980, there was a tenfold decrease in the rate of CFIT accidents among U.S. carriers. But the GPWS still had one critical limitation: Because it essentially looked down, it was unable to provide a timely warning when the ground rises precipitously. That shortcoming was in evidence in 1995, when a confused crew on a GPWS-equipped American Airlines Boeing 757 flew into a mountain near Cali, Colombia, killing all onboard. What pilots needed was a map that would allow them to see dangerous terrain sooner. A solution was made possible by the convergence of several factors, including the advent of the Global Positioning System, Silicon Valley's digital revolution and the end of the Cold War.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Bateman heard that the Soviets had developed an exhaustive topographical database covering most of the Earth. Finding the rumors to be true, he was able to acquire the data for Honeywell for $100,000. Using that information, his team developed a digitally based GPWS that could look ahead to identify threatening terrain and warn pilots with various levels of urgency. The new system, called Enhanced GPWS, or EGPWS, was initially shunned by airlines that did not want to pay for it. But the crash of the American 757 in Colombia spurred its widespread use by airlines and business aviation operators worldwide. Adapted by other manufacturers, the technology became known generically as terrain awareness and warning systems, which the FAA has mandated for virtually all turbine aircraft with six or more seats.
Bateman's accomplishments go well beyond GPWS. The soft-spoken private pilot is listed as the inventor or co-inventor on more than 40 patents in the U.S. and 80 in other countries. He is credited for work on angle-of-attack, stall warning, automatic throttle and reactive wind-sheer warning systems. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and awarded the Cumberbatch Trophy for outstanding innovations to air safety.