Don Bateman saved more lives than anyone in aviation history | Obituary

As late as the 1970s, the most common type of fatal aviation accident happened when a pilot in full control of the aircraft, but flying in poor visibility conditions or at night, lost awareness of the plane’s position and unwittingly either landed short of the runway or flew straight into a mountain.

Such accidents on commercial jets are very rare now, thanks to the work of Don Bateman.

Bateman gathered and led a small team in Redmond that for decades produced innovative safety systems in an intense drive to cut the number of aviation crashes.

Over 40 years, he worked tirelessly to add new systems that extended the protections offered to air travelers well beyond the initial goal of improving the pilot’s awareness of the terrain.

A legendary and inspirational figure in aviation, he was also known by those who worked closely with him as a kind and compassionate man.

On Sunday, surrounded by his family in his Bellevue home, Bateman died at 91 from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Younger daughter Katherine McCaslin said the happy childhood memories of her “generous and humble” dad are also punctuated with news of plane crashes.

“My dad cared so much about all the lives lost,” she said. “He would tell us what went wrong and how it might have been prevented.

“He loved aviation,” said McCaslin. “He was driven to make the world safer.”

Captain Dave Mets, vice president of flight operations at Alaska Airlines, said Bateman invented “some of the most critical safety enhancements in modern aviation history.”

“The technologies have literally saved thousands of lives,” Mets added.

Indeed, Bateman is credited by industry experts as having saved more lives than anyone in aviation history.

Alerting pilots to danger

Bateman’s original invention in the early 1970s was an electronic box that delivered to flight crews a “ground-proximity warning system.”

It would warn pilots with an audible command to “Pull up! Pull up!” if they approached obstacles or terrain.

In the 1990s, the system was made more accurate through the addition of GPS aircraft positioning data and detailed, globe-spanning terrain data that was constantly updated.

Bateman sent teams to the former USSR to bring back detailed maps compiled for the Soviet-era military that added greatly to the digital database of terrain around the globe.

A color flight instrument display added clarity to this “enhanced” version, known as EGPWS, with a color-coded map showing the height of terrain ahead.

After 159 people died when an American Airlines 757 crashed into a mountain near Cali, Colombia, in December 1995, American decided to install the enhanced system on its entire fleet.

In 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration made it mandatory for all new planes carrying more than six passengers.

Assembling a “team of mavericks”

Small in stature and ruddy-faced, Bateman was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and spent part of his childhood on a farm.

In 1940, when he was 8, two military training planes — a Lockheed Hudson and an Avro Anson — collided in midair with 10 crew on board near his elementary school.

Bateman slipped out of school with a friend and went to the scene of the crash, which left an indelible impression.

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.”

After graduating as an electrical engineer from the University of Saskatchewan, Bateman first worked at a telephone equipment company. In 1958 he took a job with Boeing in Renton, where he worked on avionics for the 707.

Less than two years later, he left to join United Control, an airplane electronics maker formed by ex-Boeing engineers in Seattle’s University District.

The company later moved to Redmond and went through a series of deals to become part of Sundstrand, then AlliedSignal, and then Honeywell.

Bateman assembled a small team to work exclusively on flight safety systems — over the years, typically fewer than 10 people.

Bob Champion, who came to manage the team for Bateman, said “he looked for innovators who could drive his ideas. He liked people who disagreed and argued so we’d have a good debate about how to solve a problem.”

He said Bateman called it a “team of mavericks.”

Yasuo Ishihara — whom Bateman hired in 1997 straight out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and whom he designated as his successor when he retired in 2016 — said Bateman’s attitude was always to get some new technology up and running, even if it was only 60% of the solution.

“His approach was, let’s get it done and fill in the other 40% as we gain experience over time,” Ishihara said.

The team tested its innovations in a simulator and on small planes flown out of Paine Field in Everett.

And Bateman sometimes flew over crash scenes in a Honeywell plane to test technologies that might have made a difference.

Bateman was himself a pilot, at one time president of the Redmond Flying Club. His son, Greg Bateman, said his father sometimes flew him to visit family in Saskatoon.

And he flew with his father across the country to Washington, D.C., to inspect an aviation crash site there.

He had energy to spare. In his 40s, he took up long-distance running and ran more than 50 marathons around the world, including in Seattle, Rome and London.

The members of his team were as impressed by his human qualities as by his technical vision.

Thea Feyereisen, who joined the team when Bateman was already famous in the industry, was terrified before meeting him, but was disarmed when this small, unassuming man wearing a baseball cap with the motto “Life is Good” introduced himself.

Ishihara said Bateman started as his boss but soon became a kind of father figure to the young engineer.

When Ishihara’s parents visited from Japan, Bateman invited them to his home.

Champion said that although “like all visionaries, he was driven and demanding,” Bateman became a very close friend and mentor.

“He was extremely compassionate, a loving man,” said Champion, overcome with emotion at the loss.

The “magic box”

The ground proximity warning technology was only the beginning of Bateman’s work.

He studied accident trends and developed and certified new capabilities to add to his original electronic box.

The system could take inputs from sensors anywhere on the aircraft, whichever data Bateman’s team chose to add. And because it communicated its outputs to the pilots both by displaying data and messages on the instrument panel and via aural commands, it became a powerful tool.

“It was kind of a magic box,” Feyereisen said.

Bateman’s team devised critical safety additions, including:

  • The Runway Awareness and Advisory System, which alerts pilots taxiing on the ground when they are approaching a runway. It also tells pilots coming in to land if they are not aligned with the runway.
  • The glide slope alert system, which warns pilots if their approach is excessively low or high.
  • The Runway Overrun Awareness and Alerting System, which tells pilots if they’re coming in too long or too hard and in danger of overshooting.
  • The Roll Recovery System, which detects an excessive bank angle and tells the pilot whether to roll left or roll right to prevent the plane rolling over.

Honeywell estimates it has produced about 65,000 EGPWS boxes installed on planes across the world.

All of the system additions above and more are available today and can be retrofitted to any airplane with one of the boxes.

However, they are not mandated, and adoption is slow as airlines and manufacturers want to avoid the extra pilot training new systems require.

The Runway Awareness and Advisory System is installed on Alaska Airlines and Air Canada aircraft, but most airlines don’t have it.

After an Aeroflot Nord 737 flipped upside down in a 2008 crash, the Roll Recovery System was installed on all new Boeing 737s, but is not on older models.

“Don would be beside himself when airlines would not equip their planes with those technologies that are available,” Feyereisen said.

Ishihara — who hopes to continue Bateman’s legacy at Honeywell — recently attended a National Transportation Safety Board meeting to discuss the recent spate of close calls and runway incursions in the U.S.

If widely adopted, both of the runway awareness systems could play a role in preventing such incidents.

In the few years before Bateman retired, he asked Ishihara to accompany him to industry meetings so he’d be ready to take up the baton.

“The more I went around with him, the more I realized how greatly respected he was by everyone in the industry,” Ishihara said.

Champion summed up how this team of crack engineers felt about their leader and his legacy.

“His leadership brought us together and made the world a safer place if you are on an airplane,” Champion said.

Bateman won numerous awards for his achievements.

In 2011, President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation at the White House. 

Bateman worked until he was 84, then remained active with long walks every day until he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2019.

Bateman was predeceased by his first son, Dan. He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Mary; children Wendy Bastian, of Florida; Greg Bateman of Redmond; Katherine McCaslin of Bellevue; and Patrick Bateman of Seattle; as well as eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. June 9 at Bellevue Presbyterian Church.

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