Air-Safety Computer System Has Trouble Taking Off

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

NASA built it, pilots praise it, and air-safety experts say it can save lives. But you won't find the takeoff performance monitor (TOPM) aboard any commercial aircraft.

In fact, this 10-year-old safety system has not been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is not yet available as an option on new jets.

Airlines, manufacturers, and FAA officials say the cost and liability burdens of TOPM outweigh its benefits, and that industry losses of more than $10 billion in the last five years preclude installing every new gadget.

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But critics, rattled by recent crashes, say the fate of TOPM shows that the industry and the FAA are more interested in profitability than in public safety.

``If it doesn't carry passengers or make money, the airlines don't want it,'' says Don Cornwall, technical chairman of the 110,000-member Airline Pilots Association. ``Whenever something comes up that costs money, the airlines really scream.''

As industry leaders and regulators gather Monday for an air-safety summit in Washington, safety advocates say growing public pressure may provide the push TOPM and other promising safety technologies need.

Developed in 1985 at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., the TOPM computer is designed to help pilots handle takeoff mishaps more quickly and safely (see chart).

As an aircraft barrels down the runway, TOPM collects data and flashes a display on the cockpit windshield indicating where on the runway the aircraft will lift off. If TOPM senses an acceleration problem, it calculates whether the pilot has enough runway left to stop. If so, a ``stop'' signal alerts the crew to slam on the brakes. If not, TOPM advises the pilot to complete the takeoff.

Currently, pilots use a mathematical formula to calculate their probable point of liftoff before leaving the gate. The problem with this system, TOPM advocates say, is that if one engine fails or a tire blows out during takeoff, that calculation is rendered useless. Moving at speeds of up to 153 m.p.h., pilots then have only a few seconds to determine whether to abort the takeoff and risk skidding off the end of the runway or to pursue liftoff.

While such troublesome takeoffs occur less than 1 percent of the time, studies show that they account for 10 percent of all serious airplane accidents. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 4,000 takeoff-related accidents occurred between 1983 and 1990, resulting in 1,378 deaths.

After a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 skidded off the end of a runway at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in 1990, injuring eight passengers, an NTSB report concluded that ``runway overruns following high speed rejected takeoffs have resulted and continue to result in accidents.'' Two years later, a Boeing study determined that takeoff is the only segment of flight safety that has not seen any recent improvement.

But despite vigorous support from NASA, NTSB, and the Airline Pilots Association, the FAA has not concluded any substantial review of TOPM technology, and no manufacturer has implemented it.

The main reason is economic, says Ratan Khatwa, an engineer at the Dutch National Aerospace Lab in Amsterdam who spent eight years developing a TOPM system for European carriers. ``If there is no commercial advantage, carriers are reluctant to buy new technology,'' he says. ``These days you have to sell safety.''

Leo Jansen of the Aviation Safety Institute in Worthington, Ohio, says the only safety technologies the industry willingly embraces are those that also save money. The economic benefit of TOPM appears small, Jansen says, ``especially when you tell people that you'll only use it less than 1 percent of the time.''

According to FAA sources, the administration has no plans to mandate the inclusion of a TOPM system on new jets. The only way TOPM would wind up on jets without such action, they say, is if a manufacturer submitted a commercial version for approval.

While both Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas have studied TOPM, neither has produced a workable version. Boeing spokesman Randy Harrison says the Seattle-based jetmaker views TOPM as a good idea, but has scrapped it because its computer cannot account for variables like slick runways. Mr. Harrison explains that if the TOPM makes an error and convinces a pilot to abort a takeoff unnecessarily, injuries and lawsuits could result.

``There are a lot of things that would be nice to have, but the airlines aren't going to go ahead and spend the money unless there was an obvious problem or a rash of accidents,'' says one FAA safety inspector who declined to be named. ``It's expensive to retrofit an airplane.''

Yet air-safety consultant Dick Tobiason says that in the case of TOPM, installation costs are insignificant. He estimates that TOPM could be added to the entire domestic fleet for about $102 million, a sum he calls ``paltry.'' For new jets, Mr. Tobiason says, costs are even lower, because the latest generation of on-board computer hardware already collects all the data necessary for a TOPM display.

``All we're talking about is ... some software in a plane already chock full of software,'' says Lee Person, a NASA test pilot and one of the leading engineers on the TOPM project. ``To me, if you know something and you don't tell the pilot, that's a big mistake.''

Yet some pilots argue that training is a better solution because modern cockpits are already overloaded with distracting gadgets. Stuart Mathews of the Flight Safety Foundation, an industry-affiliated group, says most pilots would rather make tough decisions themselves ``rather than relying on a box.''

While TOPM's engineers admit the system needs further refinement, they say that kind of tinkering is usually the role of a commercial manufacturer. They note that pilots who have tested TOPM in simulators and aboard NASA's research plane agree that while it doesn't always help, it never hurts. This summer, Gulf Air pilot Ashok Poduval made 120 emergency takeoffs in a simulator at Mr. Khatwa's laboratory in Amsterdam. Half involved TOPM, and half did not. ``Decisions with the system were a lot easier, and we were making them far earlier and at lower speeds,'' Mr. Poduval says. ``This is definitely a very valuable system.''

Already, the FAA has taken steps to improve safety oversight. After an internal report in August faulted the FAA for not having ``a single organization, mechanism, or entity,'' to focus solely on safety, Administrator David Hinson announced the creation of an Office of Safety Systems to spearhead oversight.

While the FAA has admitted delays in bringing worthwhile technology to market, it insisted in a statement to the Los Angeles Times last month that airline safety is generally a ``success story.''

But in the face of congressional pressure, industry sources say further safety regulations are likely. ``Right now there is enormous public and political pressure on the FAA,'' says Tim Neale of the Air Transport Association lobby in Washington. ``I think they're going to be more strict than ever before, now that people are putting their feet to the fire.''

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