I Was on an Airplane That Nearly Crashed Into a Mountain (On Purpose)

Flying in Phoenix in the summer is usually a pretty bouncy affair. Rising columns of heat, called thermals, give you that not-so-pleasant rising and falling feeling at lower altitudes. It was in that setting that our turboprop lumbered along, nose pointed directly at the mountains south of town. We weren’t planning on changing course until the last minute. This was not your typical flight.

Honeywell invited me and others out as part of an international media day. You may not think of Honeywell as being a big part of air travel, but they make a ton of parts on nearly every airplane. There was a lot to share, and the company figured that there was no better way to learn about some of these products than by putting us into a metal tube and letting us experience it for ourselves.

TCAS EGPWS

On this flight, the goal was to show us both the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS) and the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). (The photo above, via Seth Miller/wandr.me, shows both.) TCAS has been getting a lot of play lately thanks to an absurdly alarmist piece about a near-miss over the Pacific. The basic purpose of TCAS is to ensure that you don’t hit another airplane, and in that Pacific story, it worked flawlessly. If two airplanes are heading toward each other, then TCAS tells one to climb and the other to descend.

Fortunately for some other unsuspecting airplane, we weren’t going to try to run into someone. Instead, we just saw the many blips representing the locations of other airplanes in our airspace along with their altitude difference compared to ours. If we had been too close, all sort of alarms would have gone off and red lights would flash. That didn’t happen.

Instead, we were going to, as our pilot said, “take a run at a mountain” and show just how EGPWS worked. That piece of technology has dramatically reduced controlled flight into terrain. In other words, the color-coded display makes it very easy to see if you’re going to hit a non-moving object. If it’s green, you’re good. If it’s yellow, you need to move, probably just climbing a little. If it’s red, you’re going to need to turn quickly.

Honeywell has a fleet of test aircraft that it uses for a variety of different purposes. This time, we were put on the oldest and most exciting airplane in the fleet. This Convair 580 was the second off the line for United way back in 1952. Honeywell has had it for more than 20 years, and it primarily lives up near Seattle. But it was down in Phoenix this time, and it would be our chariot.

The inside of the airplane was filled with test equipment, but vestiges of its prior commercial life remained. Upon entering through the rear door, this was in plain view.

Reserved for Stewardess

The crude air conditioning/lighting fixtures above each seat were a throwback, as were the overhead hat racks, not bins. But my favorite had to be the safety card showing how to use the emergency exit. Just pop the door, grab on to a rope, and slide down. Yep, that was a different era.

Convair 580 Safety Card

I took seat 4A, on the wing right behind the monstrous Allison props. Once those were fired up, we had our headsets on and we were on our way.

In the Convair 580

The turbulence started shortly after takeoff and didn’t really let up the entire time. They had hoped to find smooth air and some point during the flight, but we never did. The most impressive thing was that nobody on our flight threw up. After all, they had just treated us to a heavy Chinese lunch just before we got onboard. At least they were prepared for a sudden issue at either end.

Urine and Vomit Bag

Our first pass was heading just south over the mountains, increasing bumps but not really getting that close. We quickly turned around and headed north back toward Phoenix, but that mountain was waiting in between.

The turbulence increased quickly as we got closer to the mountain. On the EGPWS, we could start to see some red blips ahead. (You can see them faintly in the photo at the top of this page, but it was tough to get a good picture.) We crept closer and heard audible warnings, but the pilots figured it was time to move. Throttles went forward, and the big props pulled us skyward very quickly. Here’s the best video I could muster. Listen for the “terrain” and “pull up” warnings starting at about 30 seconds.

Another accident averted thanks to technology, and Honeywell is doing some pretty cool things with tech. Most interesting to me is the turbulence detection system that they continue to work on. It’s turbulence that causes more injuries to airline passengers than anything else, so anything that can help reduce that is welcome.

On this flight, however, turbulence detection wouldn’t have helped. It was everywhere. And it was starting to really do a number on our stomachs. There were naturally a lot of sighs of relief when we saw the runway in sight right ahead of us. Another piece of technology, the SmartLanding system, yelped “flaps, flaps” when it noticed the flaps had not been properly set for landing. (That, of course, was done on purpose as well.)

With the flaps issue fixed, we glided to a stop on runway 25L. It was quite a ride.

[This is the first post from my visit to Honeywell’s media day. Honeywell paid for travel and accommodation on this trip.]

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