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The story of an important piece of aviation safety equipment

Many of the safety devices we take for granted have not been around as long as we might assume. As just one example, consider the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, now used on the majority of airplanes and mandated for commercial carriers.

The technology as we know it has only been around for about 20 years. But in that time, it has saved countless lives and greatly reduced one of the most common and deadly airplane accident scenarios.

A recent article in Bloomberg chronicled the device and its inventor, a man named Don Bateman. Interested in aviation and crash prevention from an early age, Bateman wanted to find a way to prevent a common and deadly crash scenario, known as "controlled flight into terrain," or CFIT. These accidents occurred when an airplane in perfect working order would crash into something like a mountain or body of water because pilots didn't see them coming. Navigation equipment only worked so well, and pilots could not rely on their own vision at night or during inclement weather.

Bateman was part of a team that developed the first generation of ground-proximity warning technology, which the FAA required airlines to use starting in 1974. But the equipment was far from perfect, and often gave warnings too late for pilots to correct the problem.

Bateman kept at it, and by the 1990s, he had developed the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System now used today. The change that made this system possible was acquiring detailed maps of all the earth's terrain. These maps were not readily available until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Even then, Bateman and his team had to buy maps quietly from former Soviet states.

The second generation of proximity warning systems was incredibly reliable, but commercial airlines were reluctant to adopt the expensive technology. After a horrific American Airlines crash in 1995, however, commercial carriers quickly changed their minds and invested in the new devices. Since 2001, the FAA has required this technology in all commercial planes.

CFIT crashes are now rare, thanks to Bateman and his colleagues. But this is just one of many deadly crash scenarios. Hopefully, dedicated visionaries will continue to push for ways to make plane travel as safe as it can possibly be.

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