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Don Bateman – Pioneer of the GPWS

Home Articles Don Bateman – Pioneer of the GPWS

Don Bateman – Pioneer of the Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS)

By John Vincent, IFA CEO

At the start of the jet-age, changes in aircraft design and the improvement of maintenance procedures made a significant improvement in aviation safety. One set of accidents remain stubbornly difficult to reduce. This is the tragic case where a perfectly airworthy aircraft is flown into the ground or sea. Clearly the crew, in such cases had no intention to crash but never-the-less the crash happens. Loss of situation awareness, fixation on other problems or lack of adherence to standard operating procedures can all contribute to these aircraft accidents. So often these are fatal accidents. 

One strategy for reducing accidents, where there is a significant human factor, is the implementation of suitable alerting and warning systems in the cockpit. It could be said that such aircraft systems support the vigilance of the crew and thus help reduce human error.

For decades the number one fatal accident category was Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT). It always came top of global accident analysis reports. Pick up a book on the world’s major civil aircraft crashes since the 1960s and there will be a list of CFIT accidents. By the way, this term CFIT is an internationally agreed category for classifying accidents. 20-years ago, I was part of a team that managed these classifications.

When I started work on aircraft certification, in the early 1990s, the Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) already existed. A huge amount of work had been done since the 1970s defining and refining a set of protection envelopes that underpinned cockpit warnings aimed at avoiding CFIT.

UK CAA Specification 14 on GPWS dates from 1976. This safety equipment had been mandated in many countries for certain types of public transport aircraft operation. It was by no means fitted to all aircraft and all types of aircraft operation. This was highlighted when an Air Inter AIRBUS A320 crashed near Strasbourg, in France in January 1992.

No alerting or warning system is perfect. GPWS had been successful in reducing the number of CFIT accidents but there were still occurrences where the equipment proved ineffective or was ignored.

I first met Don Bateman on one of his whistles-stop tours presenting detailed analysis of CFIT accidents and the latest versions of the GPWS. At that time, he was working for the company Sundstrand, based in Redmond in Washington State, US. It was a time when Enhanced GPWS (EGPWS) was being promoted. This version of the equipment had an added capability to address approaches to runways where the classic GPWS was known to give false results. False alerts and warnings are the enemy of any aircraft system since they reduce a crew’s confidence in its workings.

My role was the UK approval of the systems and equipment. Over a decade the industry moved from a basic GPWS to EGPWS to what we have now, Terrain Avoidance and Warning Systems (TAWS).

When I think of Don Bateman’s contribution, there are few people who have advanced global aviation safety as much as he did. His dedication to driving forward GPWS ensured the technology became almost universal. Consequently, there must be a large number of lives saved because of the CFIT accidents that did not happen.

He left no doubt as to his passion for aviation safety, was outstandingly professional and a pleasure to work with on every occasion. This work was an example of a positive and constructive partnership between aviation authorities and industry. We need more of that approach.

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