In May 2016, a pilot training with the Arizona Air National Guard blacked out from the force of his F-16’s rapid acceleration, with the plane hitting supersonic speed and heading into a 55-degree nose dive.
The instructor’s increasingly anxious shouts into the radio went unheeded, but catastrophe was averted when an automated ground collision avoidance system took control, rolled the plane and lifted its nose to a safe attitude as the pilot was regaining consciousness.
The life-saving collision avoidance system, now on all of the Air Force’s F-16 fighter jets and soon to be deployed on other military aircraft, has been the life’s work of Mark Skoog, who has collaborated for decades on this technology with the Air Force Research Laboratory and Lockheed Martin.
“This may be the most valuable thing that’s ever been done in terms of saving pilots and aircraft,” said Sue Payton, former assistant secretary of the Air Force.
Skoog had the “tenacity and persistence” to shepherd the innovative technology into operation, she said. “Not only is he brilliant, he understands how to change culture. It’s not always just about the technology.”
The system is designed to prevent ground collisions when pilots become disoriented, are distracted during adverse weather or aggressive maneuvering, or lose consciousness due to the force of gravity. This kind of accident, called controlled flight into terrain, is the number one cause of death in military flying. Tests show that the technology could prevent 95 percent of those mishaps.
Since 2014 when it was installed in all F-16s, the system is credited with saving at least four aircraft and their crew. In addition to lives, those savings include up to $200 million per plane. If more widely deployed, the system could have a significant impact.
It consists of software that uses the aircraft’s navigation and flight control devices to recognize when a ground collision is imminent. It then takes control of the plane, locking out the pilot, and maneuvers it out of danger. The technology was conceived at Lockheed Martin, but Skoog and his team saw what it could do.
“Mark was the key person to make it happen,” said David McBride, director of NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. “Without his passion and persistence, we wouldn’t have this program.”
Skoog took data collected by NASA’s space operations, which mapped the surface of the Earth, and compressed it into a memory module small enough to fit into an aircraft’s memory and flight control systems. That data determines where the plane is, and where it is in relation to the ground.
The path from concept to implementation was rocky and halting. Although developed and tested in the 1980s, saving the first test pilot in 1995, it took years to get adopted by the Air Force.
“There were times when it looked like the program would be canceled or there wouldn’t be funding, but this work was so important to Mark that he never let it stop,” said Patrick Stoliker, deputy director of NASA’s flight research center. Once when funding had dried up, Skoog even got Sweden to support the effort.
He was “a traveling salesman” for the belief that this technology could save lives, Stoliker said.
In addition to funding problems and changing support from various agencies, another obstacle was cultural pushback. Pilots resisted at first because they didn’t want to give up control of the aircraft and feared nuisance alerts, Payton said. But the first life saved just weeks after the system was installed changed a lot of minds, she said.
One pilot, who is now a grateful believer, recalled his own near crash.
“My unexpected AGCAS (automated ground collision avoidance system) recovery prompted me to aggressively recover my aircraft, saving both my life and the aircraft,” he said. The pilot said he regrets that the system wasn’t implemented in time to save the lives of others he knew who died in two F-16 mishaps.
That’s exactly why Skoog has dedicated his career to this work. He has been passionate about the technology since the 1980s when, as a crash site investigator, he witnessed the devastation of ground collisions and lost pilots. Skoog believed people were dying needlessly and that he had the knowledge to prevent it, he said. “It’s my moral responsibility.”
And he’s not done yet. Skoog and team are working to improve the technology to prevent air-to-air collisions and to make it available to other aircraft, including commercial airliners—and beyond.
The technology isn’t limited to aircraft, Skoog emphasized. “It could be in a car, a spaceship or a boat.” In addition, he has developed a warning system with memory small enough to fit on an Android phone that can tell pilots flying through fog or clouds in any aircraft what to do to avoid a collision.
“There are a lot more neat things coming in the future,” Skoog said.