With near-misses among aircraft at an all-time high, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is refusing to certify an inexpensive collision-avoidance device and, instead, is working on a system that a former FAA official charges proved ineffective in the early 1970’s.
James Pope, a former FAA engineer, has claimed for many years that the FAA is guilty of overlooking a viable Airborne Collision Avoidance System (ACAS) in favor of a more expensive and less promising ground-based Traffic-alert (or Threat Alert) Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). The Office of Special Counsel of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (OSC), launched an investigation into Pope’s allegations and found a “substantial likelihood” that there is truth to his charges of FAA mismanagement.
Pope claims that the FAA’s refusal to install the airborne system was based on its fear of losing its own research and development funds (approximately $125 million), if a private-industry system was certified. They opted instead to develop their own system, the TCAS, which Pope says is ineffective.
The ACAS system, supported by Pope, was developed by the Honeywell Company in the early 1970’x, and was designed as a backup system to air traffic controllers. It was tested for four years by the FAA, but was rejected even though it met all the agency’s objectives and was immediately available. Pope issued a memorandum in January, 1976, exposing the FAA’s purported failure to give the ACAS a full and fair appraisal, but no action was taken at that time.
Pope’s warnings were supported by a 1977 report compiled by the Mitre Corporation for the FAA which “concluded that the air-based ACAS could have prevented all 228 conceivably avoidable midair collisions (occurring during a specified time period).” A ground-based TCAS model, on the other hand, could have prevented only 190 of those accidents. According to the government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., the “FAA has denied the Mitre) report’s existence to Congress.
Pope reportedly was transferred from his $50,000 job in Washington, D.C., to Seattle after he publicly charged in 1980 that the FAA had wasted several billion dollars to develop its own system instead of using a proven device invented by private companies in 1975.
Media attention focused on Pope’s struggle to expose the FAA’s “abuse of authority, illegality, mismanagement, gross waste and endangerment to public health and safety” might have led to a working airborne collision-avoidance device today; instead, as Pope says “Ten years, $125 million in R&D, and 548 deaths later, we still don’t have a backup device to protect us when the controllers make a mistake.”
AVIATION DIGEST, 1/86, “Probe of TCAS,” Sec.B, p 5; FEDERAL TIMES, 11/4/85, “OSC Seeks New Probe of Decision to Ditch Air Traffic Device,” by Ruth Marlow; NEW YORK, 6/24/85, “Is the FAA Ignoring an Effective Midair-Collision Device?”, by Sharon Churcher, p 13.