Tech designed to prevent runway collisions tested in Washington

Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

On Friday morning, the pilot of a Boeing 757 airliner approached Yakima Airport in Central Washington and lined up to land. On the threshold of the runway below, a Falcon 900 business jet was set for takeoff — directly in the 757’s way.

The small jet blocking the runway was clearly visible through the cockpit window. Yet Joe Duval, the 757 pilot, deliberately continued his approach, setting his aircraft on a collision course with the Falcon 900.

When the 757 was just over a mile out and 30 seconds from touching down, an urgent aural warning sounded in the cockpit: “Traffic on runway! Traffic on runway!” Moments later, the same message appeared in amber text on the pilot’s navigation display. The alert sounded again at 15 seconds from potential collision.

Duval pulled up and aborted the landing. No sweat. Mission successful.

This was a controlled demonstration of a new in-flight technology developed by Honeywell that’s designed to prevent disaster when aircraft are inadvertently headed toward a runway collision.

On a clear, sunny day in the Pacific Northwest with perfect visibility, the technology was hardly needed. But what if that had been at night or in fog or low clouds with driving rain?

Last year, a series of near collisions at U.S. airports, which the Federal Aviation Administration calls “runway incursions,” raised serious public alarm.

Among the most egregious of a string of human error-induced close calls last year were two incidents — one in Austin, Texas, and one at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York — when disasters were only narrowly avoided.

The country’s air travel system carries an average of nearly 3 million passengers a day and is remarkably safe; the last fatal crash of a U.S. airliner was 15 years ago. Still, the system is straining under the load of record numbers of flights and shortages of air traffic controllers, some of whom work exceptionally long hours.

Last year, the FAA recorded 12 serious runway incursion incidents in the U.S., up from just two the previous year.

Already this year, worldwide there have been eight notable incidents, including a terrible accident in Japan. On Jan. 2, a Japan Airlines Airbus A350 with 379 people on board landing in Tokyo collided with a de Havilland Canada Dash 8-Q300 operated by the Japan Coast Guard that was crossing the runway.

The collision immediately ignited fires that destroyed both aircraft. Five of the six crew on board the Dash 8 died. Everyone on board the A350 escaped before a fireball engulfed the plane.

In a preflight briefing last week, Thea Feyereisen, a senior technical fellow at Honeywell specializing in human factors — the science of understanding how humans interact with machines and respond when systems go wrong — said, “You can understand why people are getting quite nervous.”

Airline pilots routinely flying U.S. routes recognize “the near misses are getting nearer and nearer,” she said. “And it scares them.”

Could a collision similar to the one in Tokyo happen in the U.S.? “Most folks in the safety business recognize that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said Feyereisen.

Which is why Feyereisen’s team at Honeywell, led by Yasuo Ishihara, has developed the Surf-A technology (for “Surface Alert”) installed on that 757.

Both Feyereisen and Ishihara were trained and mentored for years by the late Don Bateman, the legendary engineer who invented an electronic box that delivered to flight crews a “ground-proximity warning system” that is standard on all aircraft today and credited with saving thousands of lives.

Surf-A aims to eliminate runway incursion accidents with unmissable cockpit warnings that will provide pilots time to avert a collision.

The system takes positioning data from electronic boxes already installed on every commercial airplane that pinpoints the speed, heading and location of all aircraft in the vicinity and integrates that with geographical data about the layout of the runways at airports.

When the data shows a pending runway collision, the system gives the pilot warnings to change course.

Honeywell has spent years mining data from millions of flight operations and refining the software algorithms to avoid false alerts.

Once the technology is certified, airlines will be able to install it with an upload to their existing avionics boxes on the flight deck. The Honeywell 757 test airplane is 42 years old with displays much more limited than those on more recent jets.

“This is not the most fancy, sophisticated pilot user experience. This is the basics,” said Feyereisen. “This is a third pair of eyes on the flight deck that says, ‘Hey, there’s traffic down the runway.’ “

“Our goal here is to really get deep market penetration for retrofit” to existing airliners, she said. “We think that all air transport should be equipped with something like this.”

Feyereisen said the retrofit option is designed to be very affordable, requiring nothing more than swapping out an electronics box in the aircraft.

“No holes to drill or antennas to install,” she said.

Too many close calls in the U.S.

In February last year, the pilot of a FedEx 767 cargo plane coming in to land through dense fog in Austin had to gun his engines and pull up steeply when at the last moment he saw a Southwest Airlines 737 beginning its takeoff roll on the same runway.

The FedEx jet with three crew aboard swooped over the top of the Southwest airliner, which had just risen off the ground carrying 128 passengers and crew.

According to a National Transportation Safety Board release issued last week, the two jets came within 150 to 170 feet of a catastrophic collision.

That was an error by an air traffic controller.

In January last year, at JFK in New York, airport surface detection equipment that is installed in only 35 airports across the nation alerted the air traffic control tower just in time of a collision danger.


A Delta Air Lines Boeing 737 that had begun its takeoff acceleration with 159 people onboard was headed straight for an American Airlines Boeing 777 that was crossing the runway with 149 people on board.

Hearing an urgent command from air traffic control, the Delta pilot slammed on the brakes to abort takeoff. The jet decelerated quickly from 121 miles per hour and stopped short of crashing into the 777.

That was a mistake by the distracted crew of the American 777.

Anticipating human failures

Honeywell’s demo flight showed the Surf-A technology will cover a JFK-type takeoff incident just as well as an Austin-type, coming-in-to-land incident.

After landing at Yakima, Duval lined up the 757 to take off while far down the runway the Falcon 900 began crossing in front of it.

As with the first landing approach, the Yakima control tower gave him the thumbs-up to proceed, “approved at your own risk.”

Duval throttled the engines and began to accelerate down the runway.

The warning sounded when he was 30 seconds out from collision, still 4,400 feet away from the smaller aircraft. The 757’s speed had reached only about 35 miles per hour. Duval braked and brought it to a stop well before reaching the Falcon.

Feyereisen said Honeywell’s analysis of the JFK incident shows that if Surf-A had been installed, the pilot would have gotten a direct alert 14 seconds before the air traffic controller’s command to abort takeoff.

“That’s compelling,” she said. “Seconds can be the difference between life and death.”

Besides showing off Surf-A, Friday’s flight also gave Honeywell the chance to demonstrate other safety alert systems that are already available and installed on many airliners.

Duval on one approach lined up to land on a taxiway instead of the runway. “Caution. Taxiway,” the system voice sounded.

He came in too high on one approach, too fast on another and with the wrong flap settings on the wings on yet another. Each produced an aural warning followed by a text warning on the instrument display, with plenty of time to adjust.

But for Feyereisen, Surf-A has special significance.

In 1999 she worked on developing a safety system for pilots called Synthetic Vision, which in darkness or low visibility provides on a cockpit screen a high-resolution 3-D rendering of the terrain and other aircraft in the vicinity.

Today, that system is an option on high-end business jets and on Embraer’s new E2 regional jets. But to Feyereisen’s disappointment, “neither Boeing nor Airbus has chosen to equip yet with this brilliant safety technology.”

In a previous interview last year, Feyereisen recalled a top Boeing pilot leader telling her and Bateman after a flight demo that yes, the technology was great, but even if Honeywell gave it to Boeing free, the jet maker couldn’t take it.

The barrier for Boeing was the added cost to its airline customers of training pilots on the new system, the chief pilot told them.

In a preflight briefing Friday, Feyereisen said that a survey of airlines before last year showed Surf-A near the bottom of the list of applications that airlines wanted to add to their jets. But the Austin and JFK near collisions have changed that.

“The switch has definitely flipped,” she said. Airlines are now “enthused and interested and wanting to get this.”

“This is really my first opportunity to bring safety enhancement to the masses,” Feyereisen said.

NTSB recommended decades ago

In reports into the Austin and JFK incidents issued last week, the NTSB reiterated a recommendation it first issued in 2000: that the FAA “collaborate with aircraft and avionics manufacturers to develop a system that would alert flight crews of traffic on a runway or taxiway and traffic on approach to land.”

This technology should be required in both newly manufactured and existing airliners, the NTSB added.

“We’ve long supported systems that warn flight crews of risks directly: because every second matters,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said. “We must back up every single component of the system; direct crew alerts do just that.”

While the FAA can mandate safety regulations, the NTSB can only recommend them.

Honeywell is working with the FAA to certify the Surf-A system and Feyereisen said she expects it to be available to airlines in 12 to 18 months.

Then it will be up to airlines to pay for it and install it on the existing fleet, and to airplane manufacturers to install it on newly built airplanes.

On Friday’s flight, which departed from Seattle’s Boeing Field, several Alaska Airlines pilots were on board to observe the demonstration. The previous day, Honeywell did a similar demo flight for Boeing.

The question now is whether, after the flashing red warning signals in Austin and JFK, the U.S. aviation industry will move to implement it before a fatal accident like the one in Tokyo.

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