Expensive navigation equipment is being installed this month in Guam and Saipan’s commuter planes to meet a U.S.-wide deadline to make the country’s aircraft smart enough to avert the kind of crash that killed 228 people on Nimitz Hill in 1997.

The Terrain Awareness Warning System also known to pilots as the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System was mandated five years ago by the Federal Aviation Administration to be installed in turbine-powered passenger planes by March 29 2005.

“I flew around Guam with it yesterday and it brought a smile to my face ” said Russell C. Price Pacific administrator and captain for Cape Air which is installing TAWS in its third ATR 42 airplane beginning March 7. Cape Air flies the 46-seaters between Guam and Saipan for Continental Connection. “The displays showed the full map of Guam. Even if it was clouded over we would have had a complete view ” Price said.

“Installation of TAWS has been a top priority since September but these techs are a hot commodity because of the deadline in March. We’ll be done three weeks ahead of the program ” Price said. Cape Air brought in four mechanics from Exceltech a Canadian company that delivered the three aircraft to Guam. Price said there are about 300 of the ATR 42s flying in the United States that need to be ready for the March 29 deadline.

Exceltech is installing the 10-pound shoe-box size TAWS display screens switches enunciators lights and Global Positioning System receivers in the cockpits of the ATRs for about $75 000 per plane. “They are taking apart the instrument panels and replacing the avionics. Its not like installing a car radio. It has to be fully integrated into the airplane ” Price said.

The TAWS system must be installed in aircraft built after March 29 2002 during the manufacturing process. All Boeing aircraft such as the 737-800s and 767-400s flown by Continental Micronesia have TAWS built by Honeywell as standard equipment.

Pilots said the enhanced system is a vast improvement over the former aircraft Ground Proximity Warning System that bounced radio signals. The TAWS links with other systems — Global Positioning System air-data computer and radar altimeter — to create a smart aircraft. The new system provides improvements in terrain detection recognizes proximity to geography and other surroundings and dramatically increases advance warnings to give pilots more time to maneuver.

The FAA figures TAWS would have prevented eight controlled-flight-into-terrain crashes that occurred from 1986 to 1995. A Korean Air jumbo jet crashed on Nimitz Hill Guam on Aug. 6 1997 a few miles from Guam International Airport’s runway in a controlled flight into terrain. Donn Walker manager of public affairs for the FAA’s western and Pacific region said “This is part of an ongoing series of safety improvements mandated by the FAA. This one specifically addresses the problem of controlled flight into terrain. Islands are very much considered terrain.”

The FAA’s March 23 2000 document called a final rule said “Equipment costs will be a very small fraction of in-service airplane values provide a known safety feature and represent a negligible portion of new airplane values. Also CFIT accidents are a leading cause of commercial aviation fatalities worldwide. It is likely that knowledgeable passengers would pay the small difference in price to travel on an airplane equipped with TAWS.”

Richard C. Brown director of operations and pilot for Freedom Air said his airline will make the TAWS installation deadline with its 30-passenger Shorts Brothers 360 which flies among Guam Saipan and Rota. “It’s good equipment that will make for safer operation. When you consider the geographic area we are flying in — the island of Rota rises suddenly from sea level. This ties in with GPS and a topographical map of the world and will give a warning of high terrain long before you get there.”

Brown said it was difficult to find a company to make the costly navigation modifications. He said there is one Shorts in Honolulu one in Samoa and two on the West Coast. “There are not a lot of Shorts in the U.S.-FAA environment. We would have gotten it done earlier but it has not been available to us until now. We were way down on the priority list for manufacturers. We had to ring bells and kick people in the rear to get this done.” Pacific Avionics Inc. a Honolulu-based company will install a Honeywell TAWS for Freedom Air at a cost of about $70 000. Brown said it will be done by March 27.

Brown who pilots at least once a week said TAWS is not required on Freedom Air’s Shorts 330 Sherpa cargo aircraft which began a contract on Feb. 24 to carry up to 5 000 pounds daily for Continental Micronesia between Guam and Saipan. It also is not required on the small piston-engine aircraft that connect Saipan and Tinian.

Pacific Islands Aviation which also flew Shorts aircraft in the Marianas until it ceased flying on Feb. 9 after 17 years (See “Airline axiom has PIA looking for friendlier skies” in the Feb. 21 issue of the Journal.) said the cost of TAWS installations was factored into the decision to end air service in the Marianas. MBJ