Technology that helps pilots by displaying critical flight information on windshields likely would have prevented hundreds of commercial aircraft accidents since the mid-1990s, according to a study slated to be released Monday. Conducted by the Flight Safety Foundation, with funding from a leading supplier of such technology, the study found that head-up guidance systems—which can eliminate the need for pilots to scan certain cockpit instruments—offer substantial safety benefits for both airliners and business aircraft. If such devices had been available, according to the study, they could have prevented, or at least reduced the severity of, roughly one-third of all major plane crashes world-wide between 1995 and 2007. However, other recent research by one airline has indicated a potential link between head-up systems and suboptimal touchdowns. By allowing pilots to maintain their concentration and forward view, rather than repeatedly glancing down to check airspeed, flight path or other essential data inside the cockpit, the study found the greatest benefits occurred during the most dangerous phases of air travel: takeoffs and landings. After analyzing nearly 1,000 accidents around the world, the report concludes that about 38% “would have been influenced positively” by the use of head-up displays. In some types of accidents, the positive impact would have been significantly greater. Rockwell Collins Inc., a leading global supplier of such equipment, sponsored the study and hopes to use its conclusions to boost sales. The devices help pilots “visualize where they are landing the airplane” and allows them to safely correct mistakes “minutes ahead of time,” according to Dave Austin, senior director of the company’s head-up guidance systems. Despite Rockwell Collins’s commercial ambitions, the conclusions of the flight-safety foundation, a respected air-safety organization, aren’t likely to be challenged, say pilots and airline officials. The foundation has been a leader in assessing how head-up displays and other technologies can reduce landing and takeoff accidents. The latest effort is a follow-up to a seminal 1990 report by the foundation that focused the industry’s attention on head-up safety tools. This time, the foundation updated its research to reflect advances in cockpit devices, and the authors of the report had an outside review verify their research methods and conclusions. Despite these advances, head-up displays aren’t foolproof. An American Airlines Boeing 737 jet, equipped with technology from another manufacturer, ran off the end of a runway in Kingston, Jamaica last December. Investigators believe the plane landed longer than usual down the strip with a stiff tailwind, and then couldn’t stop due to standing puddles, but no official findings have been released. The aircraft was badly damaged, though there were no fatalities As part of the investigation, however, American uncovered some surprising historical data. It found that its most advanced Boeing 737 models equipped with head-up displays for years have consistently landed further down runways than recommended, according to one person familiar with the details. On average, according to this person, American pilots had their plane’s landing gear first touch the ground hundreds of feet further down the runway than is considered optimum or is typically practiced during training. The cause isn’t clear, and American next month plans to delve more closely into the data. Over the weekend, an American spokesman declined to comment. . Airlines around the world are investing heavily in head-up guidance devices and enhanced vision systems. Carriers such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have been particularly strong proponents.
By ANDY PASZTOR/WSJ