A decade after the deadly crash of Comair Flight 5191 at Kentucky’s Blue Grass Airport, federal regulators have been slow to approve new technology that could help avoid similar crashes.
Although many general aviation and business aircraft are now equipped with advanced GPS-based navigation aids, such devices are relatively uncommon in large commercial airliners.
The devices range from movable maps overlaid with airport diagrams that can be installed on an iPad to 3-D “synthetic vision systems” built into the flight deck that can help pilots see exactly where they are in darkness, poor weather or other disorienting situations.
The investigation of the Comair crash concluded that the pilots had lined up in the dark on the wrong runway for their takeoff — something that modern GPS technology could have avoided.
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“I don’t think there’s any question now that that technology is mature and available,” said Jim Hall, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman who led numerous aviation accident investigations.
But the Federal Aviation Administration must certify such devices for use in commercial aircraft, a process that moves at the speed of bureaucracy, according to pilots and aviation safety experts.
The agency declined to follow a key recommendation made by safety investigators after the Aug. 27, 2006, Comair crash in Lexington, Ky., that called for requiring movable map technology in airplane cockpits.
With the exception of iPads or other tablets replacing pilots’ paper charts in the cockpit, little has changed.
“The technology is outpacing the FAA’s ability to get something approved quickly,” said Joe Weaver, a Texas-based commercial pilot who’s been flying for more than 40 years. “In today’s environment, there are more aids available than we’re allowed to use.”
In the predawn darkness of that Sunday morning 10 years ago, the Comair flight crew had what should have been a relatively simple task: guide their Atlanta-bound Bombardier regional jet to the 7,000-foot runway 22.
Instead, the crew lined up the plane on the 3,500-foot runway 26, which was too short for the aircraft to safely take off. Neither the pilot nor co-pilot, nor the sole air-traffic controller on duty that morning, noticed the mistake.
The plane ran off the end of the runway, became briefly airborne, then crashed and burst into flames. Of the 50 passengers and crew members aboard, 49 died. Only the co-pilot survived.
Among the dead: Paige Winters, a 16-year-old junior at Shawnee Mission East High School, and Thomas Fahey, a horse trainer and Winters’ riding teacher. Both were from Leawood.
Fahey was on the trip to help the Winters family purchase a new horse for Paige. Fahey, 26, had built a riding and training business in partnership with the Winsrun Equestrian Center in Bucyrus, Kan.
Paige’s mother, Joan Winters, had planned to be on the plane but was bumped at the last minute because the flight was overbooked.
In its 2007 accident report, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the probable cause of the crash was the flight crew’s failure to use available visual cues to determine they were not taking off on the correct runway.
The board also determined that a conversation unrelated to their task of getting the plane safely in the air was a contributing factor in the accident.
Among its many recommendations: that the FAA require aircraft to be equipped with movable map technology on GPS devices, similar to navigation aids that give drivers turn-by-turn directions.
Ultimately, the FAA decided to make the technology voluntary.
It was the only recommendation the board made from the Kentucky crash that the FAA did not adopt. After several years of back-and-forth with regulators, the NTSB closed the recommendation in 2014 and classified it as an “unacceptable action.”
“I don’t think you can say you are putting safety first when you’re putting it into a voluntary category,” said Hall, who led the board from 1994 to 2001.
‘A game changer’
The NTSB found that the Comair 5191 pilots lost “positional awareness” in part because runway construction had closed off the usual taxiway to the 7,000-foot runway they were supposed to use. Though their magnetic headings told them they were on the wrong runway, they made a false assumption that turned out to be catastrophic.
“If they’d had a GPS-driven taxi chart in the cockpit,” Weaver said, “I don’t think they would have taken off on the wrong runway.”
By 2014, many commercial carriers were using iPads in the cockpit. The devices replaced the 40-pound bags of paper navigation charts pilots had been required to carry.
The iPads could also function as enhanced navigation aids, and many general aviation pilots used them for that purpose, saving them tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades.
FedEx received the first FAA certification, in June 2014, to allow its pilots to use iPad moving maps.
That’s more than a decade after the first airport moving map was installed in the flight deck of a Boeing 777 delivered to Dutch airline KLM in October 2003. An Airbus spokeswoman, Mary Anne Greczyn, said Airbus had begun installing moving map displays in its commercial aircraft in 1988, beginning with the A320.
Jeppesen, a unit of Boeing that manufactures avionics, or aviation electronics, estimates that only 1,000 of the 22,000 commercial airplanes worldwide are equipped with moving map technology but that the number is growing.
Rick Ellerbrock, Jeppesen’s director of customer and market insights, said retrofitting aircraft with built-in moving maps could be costly, so new planes were almost the only ones that had them.
However, an iPad or Microsoft Surface is an attractive low-cost option. The FAA has certified at least eight airlines to use tablet moving maps, according to Jeppesen, with more carriers seeking certification.
“It was truly a game changer,” Ellerbrock said.
A 3-D picture
When Weaver isn’t flying a Boeing 737, he’s piloting his own Beechcraft Bonanza. The small aircraft is equipped with a 3-D display that shows him the direction the plane is moving, which runway he’s on and what the surrounding terrain looks like. Since smaller planes fly at lower altitudes, the display also shows him the terrain below.
“You have a 3-D picture of everything that’s out there,” he said.
The software is made by Garmin, a familiar brand to drivers who use its products in their cars. It is programmed with airport diagrams from all over the world and overlays them on a moving map. It can be updated to reflect changes in airport layouts. Construction at Blue Grass Airport in August 2006 had changed the way Comair 5191 approached the runway.
“It’s very easy for pilots to see exactly where they are at a given point,” said Jessica Koss, a spokeswoman for Garmin, based in Olathe.
Though Garmin builds synthetic vision systems for general aviation and business aircraft, it does not have any equipment installed on aircraft built by Boeing or Airbus, the major manufacturers of large commercial airliners.
Rockwell Collins and Honeywell Aerospace also build avionics for cockpits and offer synthetic vision technology for helicopters and small aircraft.
Embraer and Bombardier, which manufactured the regional jet that crashed in Lexington, build business aircraft equipped with synthetic vision.
But it may be years before synthetic vision systems become widespread in larger commercial aircraft.
In December, the FAA issued guidance on what aircraft makers and suppliers would need to do to secure its approval to install synthetic vision. But the agency said it would not authorize the technology’s use in all circumstances.
The agency did not respond to repeated questions about its time frame for approving new cockpit technologies.
Help from NASA
After a series of deadly crashes in the 1990s, the federal government launched a $500 million partnership of NASA, the FAA, the Defense Department and the aviation industry to improve safety. The program’s goal was to make travel safer on aircraft large and small.
Among its key projects: developing a cockpit display system that would show pilots so-called clear-day conditions — whatever the actual conditions — day or night, rain or shine.
NASA committed $5.2 million to synthetic vision and tested the prototype in 1999.
“With Global Positioning System signals, pilots can now know exactly where they are,” said Michael Lewis, then director of the NASA Aviation Safety Program. “Add super-accurate terrain databases and graphical displays and we can now draw three-dimensional moving scenes that will show pilots exactly what’s outside.”
The FAA first certified synthetic vision for improving situational awareness, though not for navigation, in 2006, the year of the Comair crash.
Had it been widely available, synthetic vision is thought to have possibly prevented the July 1999 crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s Piper Saratoga off the Atlantic coast, in which he, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister were killed.
It also might have made a difference in the February 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash in Buffalo, N.Y. All 49 people on board and one person on the ground were killed.
Overall, aviation safety has vastly improved in the past two decades. According to the FAA, the fatality risk fell 83 percent from 1998 to 2008. The agency wants to reduce it another 50 percent by 2025.
Hall attributes the improvements to changes implemented in the wake of crashes like the Comair disaster. The FAA isn’t bound by the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board, but it follows the vast majority of them.
“The only way we can be sure this does not occur again is to follow up on these recommendations,” Hall said.