Don Bateman, ‘Father’ Of Terrain Awareness Warning Systems, Dies At 91

Don Bateman

Charles "Don" Bateman

Don Bateman’s terrain awareness warning system, invented in the 1960s, tackled one of aviation’s most prevalent risks—controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). 

The system used the radio altimeter and data from other sensors to tell the pilots how far their aircraft was above whatever was below, and whether their flight path would hit the ground instead of an intended runway.

While effective, the system had a blind spot: because it looked down, it was not good at warning pilots about hazards ahead. A sharp change in terrain, such as a mountain, would not be picked up. 

Decades after the initial version was developed and nearly 20 years after earning a 1975 patent—no. 392263—for an “aircraft landing approach ground proximity warning system,” Bateman had a plan to make the system more useful. But he had a problem. To build the global terrain database necessary to “enhance” the re-christened ground proximity warning system (GPWS), he needed detailed digital terrain elevation data. Getting U.S. data was a non-issue, but obtaining data from some foreign countries was a non-starter. 

“He couldn’t get it,” recalls Tom Young, a former US Airways pilot who helped Bateman trial latter versions of GPWS, including the now-ubiquitous EGPWS (the E is for enhanced). “Among other things, he hired whole group of college kids to look through World War I German maps to help get the data.”

Eventually, Bateman got what he needed. With some help from the Flight Safety Foundation, the U.S. government powers that be relented and granted Bateman and employer Honeywell access to its data, collected via intelligence satellites and a space shuttle mapping mission. 

Russia, in need of post-Cold War cash, also supplied some, selling most of the database it had been building largely in secret since the 1920s. Bateman heard the Russian data might be available and promptly dispatched a colleague find out.

“He wouldn’t quit,” Young said of Bateman. “He was going to make it right. He was going to make it good.”

Bateman passed away May 21 in Bellevue, Washington, at the age of 91.

During a six-decade career, the Canadian-born engineer accumulated patents for scores of aviation safety-enhancing devices, including head-up displays, low-airspeed warnings, airport surface collision avoidance systems, and automatic flight control systems. Much of his work came in his final full-time role serving as Honeywell’s chief engineer, flight safety avionics. 

Bateman’s accomplishments earned him numerous awards, including an Aviation Week Lifetime Achievement Laureate and a U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

He will forever be remembered, however, as the “father” of EGPWS. When he began work on the system in the 1960s while at Sundstrand Corp., airlines averaged 1.5 CFIT controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents per 1 million departures. By 2015, the year before Bateman retired, the figure was down to 0.15 CFIT accidents per million departures—and most of those were in places where some version of TAWS was not mandatory (the U.S. FAA in 1974 became the first of many regulators to mandate the systems for most commercial operators).

“EGPWS is probably the highlight [of my career],” Bateman told Aviation Week’s John Croft shortly after he retired from Honeywell. While his legacy may be EGPWS, his career-long focus was trying to keep “airliners out of the dirt and the water,” he added.

Just like there is no such thing as a near miss, there are no concrete statistics on lives or hulls saved by advances in aviation safety. If there were, it’s hard to imagine anyone topping Bateman’s career totals. He never saw it that way, however, crediting industry partners and the “mavericks,” his team of Redmond, Washington-based research and development engineers, for the successes he led.

“Nothing’s done by one person anymore,” he told Croft.

Perhaps not, but few people in aviation’s history have done as much as Charles Donald Bateman.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.