The Engineer Who Has "Saved More Lives Than Any Single Person in the History of Aviation"

By Sarah Zhang | February 7, 2012 12:52 pm

spacing is important

The number one cause of plane crashes used to be controlled flight into terrain (pdf), accidents where pilots unintentionally collide with an obstacle. A  pilot unable to see through fog, for example, could fly straight into a mountain, crashing an otherwise perfectly functional plane. Such accidents killed over 9000 people—until aviation engineer Don Bateman’s crash-avoidance technology changed all that.

Bateman invented the original Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) in the 1970s. Using information from the altimeter. airspeed indicator, and other devices already standard in planes, the original GPWS warned pilots with increasing urgency—first “Caution—Terrain,” then “Pull up! Pull up!”—if the plane was due to crash. Bateman, now 79 years old, still works at Honeywell and he’s still perfecting the GPWS. The modern warning system integrates GPS locations of potential obstacles. In a profile of Bateman for the Seattle Times, Bob Voss, chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation, says, “It’s accepted within the industry that Don Bateman has probably saved more lives than any single person in the history of aviation.”

Bateman traces his interest in improving flight safety to a horrific plane crash he witnessed as a 8-year-old boy growing up in Canada. He snuck out of school with a friend to the scene of the crash:

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.”

Good thing he is. Read more of the profile at the Seattle Times.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology
  • Matt H.

    Take that Chesley Sullenberger! Take that Al Haynes! Don Bateman has you both beat.

  • JCHarris

    I wonder if Mr. Bateman can spell now? Heh.

  • igor

    From your title it seams that all the pilots are retarded and would fly to a mountain every time without this guys participation… really a science magazine, really?!?!?

  • Sandra Woodall

    We are all fortunate beyond anything we deserve that you live in our time. I hope you will find joy in invention for a long time.

  • RCElliott

    It’s interesting that the one really negative and arrogant response here, is from a person hiding behind a fake name (igor). You completely miss the point! Not all pilots are going to fly their planes into the ground, but this advance helps to reduce accidents where that might happen. Lighten up!

  • Jotaf

    (cue music…) Nanana nananana… Bateman!!

  • Carolyn

    @igor Hmm, the impression that I got is that sometimes they just can’t see that there might be, say, a mountain if there’s dense cloud cover. It’s hard to know if one’s coming up and therefore it’s helpful (to say the least!) to have the GPWS. :)

    Anyway, pretty cool!

  • Brent

    So this engineer, (so am I) has saved thousands of people with his inventon. Do you think he is properly rewarded for this? I bet he makes 10x less than the CEO, who has saved no one. Do you think his name is on the patent even? This man should be set for life for this, as a hero. It is becoming an increasing issue, where science and engineering have less and less insentives since upper managment take the profite from our work. What products would you have with out us? It is time engineering and science strike or boycott. If a CEO is so important lets see them make any money with out us. The only good CEO is one who created the company and has a stack in the product and customer.

  • m

    I would agree with Brent. There was a time where we appreciated the guy who made a geniune difference. people just dont do the right thing by each other any more. Lets lift those up who actually have the ideas and the motivation to follow them through. MCSH-

  • Mike

    Is any one person worth the astronimical benefits that some CEOs and other top people in a company make? I really doubt it. Let’s stop this obscene practice! These people are no smarter than the average person, they are just meaner, more aggressive, and more amoral than the rest of us.

  • Susan Durham

    OK, Brent:

    incentives, not insentives
    profit, not profite (putting a vowel after a single consonant makes the preceding vowel long).
    without, not with out

    I agree. In our system, one is only rewarded if they can generate passive income somehow from their work. Those who educate us, keep us safe, liberate us, should be “national treasures” as they are in Japan, and, yes, they should have it made!

    And no, those who, as I do, correct other people’s spelling and grammar errors, should not be included in that bunch!


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