Bateman, chief engineer of Flight Safety Avionics at Honeywell, was honored for his work in “developing and championing critical flight-safety sensors now used on aircraft worldwide, including ground proximity warning system and wind-shear detection systems.”
More than 40 years ago, Bateman invented the ground prox warning system that alerts a pilot that he’s about to fly into an unseen obstacle, such as a building, a mountain side, or the ground.
Initially, he used existing airplane instruments—the radar altimeter and the airspeed indicator—to provide a warning. In the 1990s, he added a GPS locator and extensive data on terrain.
To get a clear sense of what the system does, watch this video of Markus Johnson, Honeywell Aerospace chief test pilot, flying a King Air Turboprop toward twin peaks in the Olympic Mountains (Note: There’s a very brief sponsor message at the beginning.)
Ground prox warning system averts disaster at LaGuardia Airport
According to Bill Voss, chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation, Don Bateman’s invention eliminated the “No. 1 killer in aviation for decades. It’s accepted within the industry that Don Bateman has probably saved more lives than any single person in the history of aviation.”
An instance of lives saved by the ground prox warning system was described in the New York Times in 2005.
A United Airlines jet was descending through snow toward New York’s LaGuardia Airport when the crew reported the runway in sight and the tower cleared the Boeing 757 to land.
The “runway” was actually red and white lights atop a hotel, which looked exactly like runway lights through the swirling snow. The plane, capable of hauling 182 passengers and a crew of five, was almost full. It was also more than 200 feet, or 60 meters, too low because of a navigation error.
Less than 10 seconds before disaster, an artificial voice blasted through the cockpit. “Obstacle! Obstacle! Pull UP!”
Invention inspired by airplane accident witnessed at age 8
Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates relates the story:
Bateman grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada, spending part of his childhood on a farm, where he drove a tractor at night during planting and harvesting time.
He often got in trouble for breaking rules. “I’ve been a maverick since I was a kid,” he says now.
In 1940, when he was 8, he broke his elementary-school rules to get close to an incident that left an indelible impression. Sitting in a classroom, his friend Mel Kubica looked out the window and saw a flash, then debris, and what looked like people, falling from the sky.
Don slipped out of school early with Mel, jumped on his tricycle and pedaled to the scene. 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.”
That incident brought home to him the grim reality of wartime aviation, underlined later when two uncles and a cousin who’d joined the Air Force all died, either shot down or in air accidents.
Ever since, he said, he’s been motivated “to make things better; to make flying safer.”
What’s next for Don Bateman?
Don, who turns 80 on March 8, says that he has no plans to retire. And as Bill Voss puts it “How do you retire from saving lives?”
How do you retire from doing something that you feel passionate about? Whether it’s caring for sick people or playing music or writing or making furniture or directing movies (Think 81-year-old Clint Eastwood). How about you? Do you want to work as long as you can or to stop as soon as you can? I welcome your comments.