Could a low-tech device save lives on planes?

Published: Nov. 10, 2010 at 11:41 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 8, 2011 at 1:30 PM EST
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Paul Miller
Paul Miller
Capt. Doug Lampe
Capt. Doug Lampe
Bert Werjefelt
Bert Werjefelt
Mike Mangeot
Mike Mangeot
Emergency Vision Assurance System
Emergency Vision Assurance System

By Janelle MacDonald - bio | email

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The frightening scene that played out in the skies when a UPS plane crashed in Dubai in September is prompting calls for change.

Investigators still don't know what caused the crash that killed Captain Doug Lampe of Louisville and pilot Matthew Bell of Florida. Early reports have zeroed in on a fire in the cargo hold of the plane and investigators in Dubai say the pilots struggled to see their instruments as smoke filled the cockpit. The crash is opening our eyes to that danger and what some say is a lack of equipment to deal with it.

Thick, continuous, blinding smoke pouring in can be one of the most devastating things to happen in the cockpit.

"It's a very severe event so when it occurs, the aircraft and the crew is in grave danger," says retired UPS Captain Paul Miller.

Miller flew for 20 years for UPS before he retired.

"The flight crew, who are the brains of the aircraft, need to be able to see," he explained.

Smoke, he said, "prevents pilots from seeing out the windscreen, which is how they look out to align the aircraft up with the runway and it also prevents them from seeing the instrumentation."

Bert Werjefelt invented technology he believes could prevent many of those accidents.  It's called Emergency Vision Assurance System or EVAS.

"There have been many accidents, the last one of which is this tragic accident in Dubai," he said.

EVAS attempts to prevent some of those. It's relatively low-tech: a clear plastic bubble which fills with filtered air.

"It removes the smoke from the pilot's line of sight so that pilots can see out the window and see their instruments," said Werjefelt.

While it's still unclear exactly what caused UPS Flight 6 to crash, Werjefelt says conversations from that crew heard by other pilots suggest EVAS could have made a difference.

"Would it have saved the plane? quite possibly so," he said.

The cost of installing it is about 30-thousand dollars per plane

"The cost of it is about equivalent to a cockpit window pane," said Werjefelt.

But while major carriers Jet Blue and Fed Ex use the technology, most others, including UPS, currently do not.

"They rely on the FAA for what they should be doing to meet the safety standards," Werjefelt said.

The FAA quite simply does not believe there's a problem.

In a statement to WAVE 3, FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford wrote: "There have been very few incidents where a pilot's visibility has been severely obscured ... The FAA has not seen any data to support a federal mandate for such a device."

"They're speaking out of two sides of their mouth, it seems," said Werjefelt.

He doesn't buy it because he says the FAA's own VIP fleet as well as the planes that carry the Homeland Security Secretary and Transportation Secretary have EVAS. The FAA did not respond to our requests to verify or explain that claim.

But Werjefelt said, "why would the FAA have emergency vision technology on their VIP planes if they haven't identified an unsafe condition?"

The Independent Pilots Association, which represents UPS pilots, declined to participate in this story, but WAVE 3 obtained two letters, sent earlier this year, urging action. The letters ask if those government planes all have technology to allow pilots to see through continuous smoke, don't the public and airline crews deserve the same.

It's a question UPS is now pondering.

"UPS airlines remains very much in mourning after Flight 6," said UPS Airlines Public Relations Manager Mike Mangeot.

Mangeot says the company is proud of its safety record.

"Globally we are one of the safest airlines," he said.

However, he said it is now trying to see what it can do better following this fall's deadly crash..

"The issues with Flight 6 are causing us to take a second look at that and see what more we can do," Mangeot said.

UPS leaders recently got a demonstration of EVAS and are evaluating whether to add it to its fleet.

Retired Captain Paul Miller hopes UPS will now work with its pilots to make that happen.

"UPS has always been a company that's looked to the future to find its future and I know that EVAS will be in the future for UPS," he said.

Werjefelt says that's not enough because he says there are still many planes in the sky flying without what he believes is life-saving technology.

"The tragic accident in Dubai could have just as soon been a 747 with 400 people on board," he said.

Mangeot says the company is evaluating several different changes, but some of them, including EVAS could be acted on fairly quickly once the evaluation is finished.

Werjefelt says he has never seen a company act as quickly as UPS is following the Dubai crash.

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