Don Bateman, Trailblazer in Airline Safety, Dies at 91

Don Bateman, an engineer who invented a cockpit device that warns airplane pilots with colorful screen displays and dire audible alerts like “Caution Terrain!” and “Pull Up!” when they are in danger of crashing into mountains, buildings or water — an innovation that has likely saved thousands of lives — died on May 21 at his home in Bellevue, Wash. He was 91.

His daughter Katherine McCaslin said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.

The ground proximity warning system that Mr. Bateman began working on in the late 1960s, and continued to improve until he retired from Honeywell International in 2016, warns pilots against accidentally slamming into land or water because of poor visibility and bad weather, once the most common cause of airline deaths.

That category of plane crash has nearly been eliminated. According to data compiled by Boeing about commercial jets worldwide, there were just six such accidents from 2011 to 2020, killing 229 people onboard, compared with 17 accidents from 2001 to 2010, which left 1,007 people dead, and 27 accidents from 1991 to 2000, killing 2,237.

“Don Bateman and his team have probably saved more lives through safety system technologies than anyone else in aviation history,” Charley Pereira, a former senior aerospace engineer with the National Transportation Safety Board, wrote in an email, estimating the number in the thousands.

“He was very passionate,” Mr. Pereira added. “He was a typical engineer, with pocket protector and pencils and pens, but he taught me what it means to be a safety engineer.”

Mr. Bateman was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005 and received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from Present Barack Obama in 2011 for developing and championing “flight-safety sensors, like ground proximity warning and wind-shear detection systems, now used by more than 55,000 aircrafts worldwide.”

Bob Champion, a former scientist at Honeywell who worked with Mr. Bateman, said in a telephone interview: “Don had a true passion for saving lives. He was a peach, but behind closed doors, when we were hashing things out, he could be a pit bull.”

Mr. Bateman was a pilot in his own right, flying a single-engine Cessna 182.

“He never lost his childlike wonder about flying,” Ms. McCaslin said by phone. “He did a lot of his great work from his 40s on. He started flying and running in his 40s and went on to do 50 marathons. And he had his last child at 54.”

The Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, developed in the 1990s, was a major improvement over previous versions, incorporating GPS and topographical data and giving pilots a two-minute warning of potential obstacles ahead. Credit…John Lok/The Seattle Times

Charles Donald Bateman was born on March 8, 1932, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His father, George, repaired watches and owned a jewelry store. His mother, Gladys (Noel) Bateman, was a homemaker. They divorced after World War II.

Don’s interest in airline safety began when he was 9, when one of his friends looked outside their classroom window in Saskatoon and saw debris and what appeared to be people falling from the sky. Two military planes, with 10 men aboard, had collided in midair. Don and his friend sneaked out of school early and rushed to the crash site.

“I had never seen blood before from a human being,” he told The Seattle Times in 2012. “It was horrible.”

After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering, Mr. Bateman worked as a television repair technician and owned a TV repair shop. He was hired by Boeing in 1958, then moved to United Control, an aircraft electronics company two years later. The company’s aviation instruments business is now part of Honeywell.

Mr. Bateman told the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation in 2011 that in the late 1960s there were fatal accidents nearly every month, during which a pilot would “fly into something, like a mountain, or go in short on the runway.”

At the time, pilots used the altimeter, which measures altitude, terrain charts and visual cues to avoid accidents. “But in poor visibility and clouds, those cues were less effective,” Dr. Hassan Shahidi, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, said in an interview.

Determined to do something, Mr. Bateman developed — and in 1974 patented — his first ground proximity warning system: a small box that integrated data from within the aircraft, including the radar altimeter and airspeed indicator, and gave the pilot a 15-second warning of an approaching hazardous condition.

The device was in limited use in 1971 when Alaska Airlines Flight 1866 — a Boeing 727 jet that was using an early version of the system — slammed into a fog-covered mountain in the Chilkat range in Alaska on its approach to landing in Juneau, the capital. All 111 people aboard died.

Two weeks later, Mr. Bateman followed the same path of Flight 1866 as the passenger in a small plane equipped with his device. The alarm sounded with seconds to spare, giving the pilot enough time to fly to safety. But Mr. Bateman realized that it wasn’t enough time for the Alaska Airlines pilot to have reacted.

“I was disappointed,” he told in 2016. “We needed to do better.”

He did. In 1974, the system had improved enough, providing earlier warnings, for the Federal Aviation Administration to mandate its installation into all domestic aircraft. The agency acted after a TWA flight crashed into a wooded slope in Virginia that year, killing 92 people, an incident that prompted a Congressional panel to criticize the agency for delaying measures to improve airline safety.

President Barack Obama awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Mr. Bateman in 2011 for developing flight-safety sensors now used by aircraft around the world.Credit…Getty images

In the 1990s, the system improved exponentially. Engineers working with Mr. Bateman added GPS and critical terrain data, including topographical maps of Eastern Europe and China that had been charted by the Soviet Union as far back as the 1920s; they had been acquired in Russia at Mr. Bateman’s request.

“We knew, as engineers, that if we could get the terrain data, we could do an awful lot,” he told The Seattle Times.

Critically, the rechristened Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, or EGPWS, gave pilots a two-minute warning of obstacles ahead. In 2000, well after many major commercial airlines had already begun using the system, the F.A.A. required that it be installed in all registered turbine-powered airplanes with six or more passenger seats.

In addition to Ms. McCaslin, Mr. Bateman is survived by his wife, Mary (Contreras) Bateman; another daughter, Wendy Bastian; two sons, Greg and Patrick; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His marriage to Joan Berney ended in divorce. A third son, Dan, died in 1988.

In 2015, Mr. Bateman wrote in Hindsight magazine, an airline safety publication, about six recent, independently investigated incidents in which the warning system averted disaster.

In 2014, for example, the crew of a Saab 2000 twin-engine turboprop lost control of the aircraft near Sumburgh, Scotland, after failing to recognize that the autopilot was still on after a lightning strike. But, Mr. Bateman wrote, the crew “recovered from a high rate of descent toward the sea surface after EGPWS warnings occurred.”

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