Author Topic: A runway collision warning system for pilots stalled at the FAA  (Read 8437 times)

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A runway collision warning system for pilots stalled at the FAA
« on: January 18, 2024, 06:09:50 AM »

Story by Patrick Terpstra
As Japan Airlines Flight 516 touched down earlier this month at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, the pilots appeared to have had no warning that a Japanese coast guard plane was already on the runway at one of the busiest airports in the world.

The left wing of the jet smashed into the military aircraft, killing five people aboard the smaller plane and sparking a fire that engulfed the airliner shortly after a hurried evacuation of all 379 people on board.  It was the kind of runway disaster that transportation safety experts have been warning about happening in the United States as the volume of air traffic surges to historic levels and the industry struggles with a shortage of air traffic controllers.

There has been an increase in serious near-collisions on the ground, including a FedEx plane almost landing on top of a Southwest Airlines flight in Austin, and a Delta Air Lines plane braking hard during takeoff to avoid T-boning an American Airlines aircraft at New York's JFK Airport.  "Our safety system is showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore," said National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy during a November hearing in the U.S. Senate to examine the recent close calls.

For years, the NTSB has been pressing the Federal Aviation Administration to require runway safety alert systems in the cockpit to reduce the chance of a crash on the ground.  "If the controller misses something, then something can alert the pilots to take action," Homendy said during the hearing. "It's one of our oldest recommendations. It's critical to save lives."

But a Scripps News investigation found the FAA has been slow to pursue the kind of collision-alert technology for the ground that already exists for planes in the air. The agency quietly shelved a project to develop a runway crash avoidance system for pilots in 2007.
That was the year the FAA participated in a demonstration of an experimental runway safety system that could automatically notify pilots when they are on a collision course with another plane at an airport.

"Technologically, it was a success," said Rick Berckefeldt, who led the team at Honeywell Aerospace, in partnership with a company formerly known as Sensis, that developed the prototype able to instantly send warnings about potential collisions directly to the cockpit. It relied on data transmitted by ground equipment used by air traffic control to monitor movements of aircraft.

"The pilot is essentially getting that alert at the same time the air traffic controller is, and that cuts precious seconds off of his reaction time," said Berckefeldt, who has since retired from Honeywell. "I think generally everyone who saw it understood its value."

Berckefeldt shared a proof-of-concept video his team made in 2007.

It shows a Honeywell test plane equipped with the new technology speeding down a runway at Syracuse International Airport in New York as another plane heads toward it on an intersecting runway.

A computerized voice is heard in the cockpit of the Honeywell plane repeatedly saying: "Converging traffic!"

"That's the alert," Berckefeldt said. "You're going to pull your throttles way off. You're going to stand on the brakes."

Later the video shows the test plane in the air descending toward a runway where another aircraft is in the way.

An alarm is heard in the cockpit barking out again and again: "Runway occupied!"

"If the landing aircraft chose to continue to land, there would be a collision," Berckefeldt said. Instead, the crew has plenty of time to reject the landing.

"It was actually quite simple," Berckefeldt said of the prototype. "Literally, it involved a small software change to the ground system and a small software change to the aircraft system."

Getting it into cockpits turned out to be a lot more complicated.

For the FAA, adopting new cockpit features involves a long bureaucratic process.

In a 2007 federal audit, the FAA said about Berckefeldt's system: "Once the feasibility of this technology is determined, the agency will begin to build the business case, which will include cost and schedule information."

The FAA has not shared details about any steps the agency took to pursue the alert system after the demonstration in Syracuse.

"We packaged up the project and documented it and went on to the next thing," Berckefeldt said.

SEE MORE: FAA increasing oversight of Boeing following mid-air scare

The FAA turned down a request for an interview and did not respond to written questions about its efforts to develop the anticollision system.

There were limits to the effectiveness of the technology, including that it only worked at the nation's 35 largest airports that already had supporting ground surveillance equipment.

"It was incredibly costly as well," said Jim Currier, president and CEO of Honeywell Aerospace.

Customizing the software to each airport, and training pilots to use it, would have added to the expense, he said.

"Over the years, we have been developing technologies that are substantially less expensive," he said.

Currier said Honeywell is no longer working on the system Berckefeldt developed in 2007 and has shifted toward building runway anticollision systems that do not rely on ground equipment.

"We're looking at technologies you incorporate right into the aircraft itself," he said.

Despite those ongoing efforts, there is still not an in-cockpit safety tool able to alert pilots to an imminent crash on the runway as Berckefeldt's technology proved able to do years ago.

"It is very, very difficult to go from a concept to a finished product that's widely adopted, largely because aviation is already so safe," Berckefeldt said. "It becomes difficult for all parties sometimes to agree that this is the right thing to do right now."

History has shown that it often takes a deadly disaster to get the FAA to require new safety features.

"Unfortunately, that's the way of aviation," Berckefeldt said. "It's not something that we're proud of, but that's the reality. That's the way it works. It's just unfortunate that it may take a tragedy."