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Don Bateman, Alaska aviation safety pioneer who invented Ground Proximity Warning System passes, 91

A retired engineer who is credited with saving more lives than anyone else in aviation history has died.

For more than 50 years, Bateman led engineers at the company now knows as Honeywell International, creating GPS systems that combine squawks, warnings, and flashing lights to tell pilots if their plane is heading into a mountain or other obstacle.

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Don Bateman’s life work brought him to Alaska after the 1971 crash of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 727 jet on a mountain near Juneau.

“He has probably saved more lives than anyone else in modern aviation history,” said William Voss, former chief executive officer of the Flight Safety Foundation, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, which ran a full news story about his death.

On Sept. 4, 1971, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 727 approaching Juneau International Airport crashed into the Chilkat mountain range, killing all 111 people on board.

Bateman flew up to Alaska after the crash and surveyed the wreckage, which to this day remains Alaska’s worst air disaster.

“It had a big visual and mental impact on me,” he later told the Seattle Times. “That energized us engineers. It was, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something better.’”

Bateman flew the path of Flight 1866 in a small plane that carried the device he had invented, later called the Ground Proximity Warning System. As they came close to the mountain, the device warning activated, and as the “terrain ahead — pull up!” warning went off, the pilot pulled the plane up and avoided the collision.

Since that system has been implemented, there have been few major commercial airline crashes due to “controlled flight into terrain,” which was the major cause of crashes before the FAA mandated the system in 2001.

In fact, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, one controlled flight into terrain occurred every month. Now, they rarely occur.

Bateman also invented other warnings for wind shear and for planes that are at risk of overshooting a runway on landing or that wander into the wrong runway before takeoff or on landing, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Bateman the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. After retiring in 2016, Bateman died on May 21, 2023 at 91. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

“I would give Don individual credit for having saved more lives than any other individual in the history of commercial aviation,” said Earl Weener, of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and former chief engineer for safety at Boeing Company, as reported by Bloomberg in 2016.

“RIP, Don, what a tremendous contributor to aviation safety. I saw him in action first hand when I worked for Boeing. Countless lives saved!” wrote William Royce in response to the news of Bateman’s passing.

“I first heard of Don Bateman, and met him in person, in about 1994. Over the ensuing years, and till my (temporary?) departure from the airline world in April 2010, I have had many occasions to interact with him. Each such encounter had a profound impact on me. I could hardly believe that a man with an international reputation would accommodate me without in any way being patronising. He invariably made me feel that I really mattered to him — that it was worth his while holding discussions with me. And as a bonus, my technical repertoire was always enhanced by each of our encounters,” wrote J.T. Joseph, formerly of Singapore Aviation, in 2016.

Thanks to this man, airplanes don’t crash into mountains

Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.
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3 COMMENTS

  1. Superb article, Suzanne! Mr. Bateman’s invention was too late for the crew and passengers on AK Flight 1866, but think of how many lives have been saved over the past 52 years by GPWS.

  2. GPWS didn’t work for the pilots flying a fully loaded 747 cargo ship. In 1989, Flying Tigers flight 66 crashed on final approach in Indonesia. Actually, GPWS did work. The pilots ignored “pull up! pull up!” Flight 66 then slammed into a small hill after they misinterpreted the ATC’s order to an altitude assignment of 400′. It should have been 4000′. All souls perished. Sometimes technology gets in the way of eyes and ears.

  3. My mother , sister and I were booked on that Alaska flight! I think about it nearly everyday ! Dodged a bullet . Family ended up riding to Long Beach non stop in a DC6 firebomber . 11.5 hours Fairbanks to Long Beach . Long trip , maybe longest trip in DC-6 or any flight for me . Crazy day for an 11 year old looking back . Normal day In 1971 in our house !

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