Safer Skies takes flight through IT

The Federal Aviation Administration's safety initiative announced last week aims to reduce the number of fatal aviation accidents fivefold in the next 10 years by relying heavily on new technology.

Under the so-called Safer Skies initiative, the FAA will take steps to prevent engine failures and sound aircraft accidentally flying into mountains or other terrain— among the leading causes of aircraft fatalities and injuries. The initiative will expand engine inspections and require enhanced terrain-warning systems in most planes, which will "significantly reduce the number of plane crashes and save hundreds and hundreds of lives," said Vice President Al Gore, who helped kick off the program.

By the end of 2001, the FAA hopes airplanes with six or more passengers will install an enhanced terrain-awareness and warning system, which would give pilots early warning of potentially hazardous terrain ahead, such as mountains. Planes today only have a basic ground-proximity warning system. Controlled flight into terrain is the third leading cause of fatal aviation accidents in the United States.

Scott Gremmert, senior software engineer with AlliedSignal Inc., said the company has developed an enhanced ground-proximity warning system that incorporates a digital terrain map and sounds an alert one minute before any terrain conflict. Traditional systems have no display, and they sound an alert about 10 to 15 seconds before an aircraft would impact the ground, according to the company.

While a complete, enhanced ground-proximity warning system will cost about $65,000, not including installation, AlliedSignal plans to release a scaled-down version for $14,000 for smaller aircraft, Gremmert said.

At the heart of the safety advances the FAA announced is the way in which the agency analyzes data stored in different databases to find the causes of accidents and to determine the best actions to take in order to break the chain of events that lead to accidents.

"We can use data and new complex analysis tools to get to the root causes of accidents and find and apply the right interventions," said FAA Administrator Jane Garvey. "We know how to bring down the rate of accidents caused by uncontained engine failures. We also know that with the effective use of technology in the cockpit, pilots will know well in advance when they're headed into dangerous situations."

As a source of information, the FAA uses its own National Aviation Safety Data Analysis Center database, which includes data from more than 20 sources on aviation accidents or incidents. It also relies on The Airclaims Group's database, which is a system maintained by the insurance industry that collects worldwide accident information, and a database maintained by Boeing Co.

The FAA relies on teams of experts to analyze the data to find the leading causes of accidents. "We've never done this in a disciplined fashion before," said Beth Erickson, deputy director of the FAA's aircraft certification service. "These are new databases that we haven't had until a couple years ago. On the horizon, we hope to collect data in new ways that will give us real-time information."

For example, Erickson said the FAA hopes to collect information from a plane's flight data recorder along with other aircraft system information and download it into a database in real time. "Then we can do that same kind of summing across [different databases] to look for trends," she said.

While technology will significantly help the FAA achieve its safety goals, it is really a combination of technology, procedures, training and other issues that all contribute to that goal, Erickson said. "We really have to look at it as a total system," she said.

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