“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition, and myth frame our response.”

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger

Spider-Man has his SpiderSense—or Peter-Tingle if you are a fan of his most recent films— and Batman has years of ninja training under his utility belt to help keep him out of danger. Airmen live in the real world but still have access to aviation software that, to a nonpilot, sounds like something Tony Stark would use in one of his Iron Man suits.

Gravity-induced loss of consciousness occurs when a pilot passes out from blood draining away from the brain while experiencing heavy amounts of “Gs” (pronounced “Geez”) or gravitational force equivalent. Airmen deal with this issue by performing the anti-G straining maneuver and wearing a special garment on their legs and abdomen, called a G-Suit, that helps push the blood back up to the brain. Tackling another issue Airmen face, however, may require something more advanced than an exercise and inflatable flight suit, such as highly sophisticated software.

Another dangerous hazard, spatial disorientation, can happen in any aircraft if the pilot is tricked by his or her senses. The inner ear can fool you into thinking motion is occurring when it is not, or can make you think you are staying still while moving at a high rate of speed.

Now comes the fun Tony Stark part. A system called an Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS) determines the geolocation of an aircraft, maps the surrounding terrain, and prompts pilots to act against a potential collision. If the pilot does not respond, the Auto-GCAS takes control of the aircraft and returns control to the pilot once the plane is on a safe trajectory. Col Matthew “Trap” Crowell, the Air Force Safety Center’s (AFSEC) Chief of Aviation Safety, says it “works completely in the background, and it takes over control of the airplane to prevent you from hitting the ground.” Crowell has been using this system since 2014 in the F-16 Fighting Falcon. He stated it is an advanced technology that was only implemented during the past 8 years, but has been in development since the mid-1990’s. He added that it would advance in the years to come and likely be on more aircraft in the future.

Three F-22 incidents involving Auto-GCAS activation occurred between 2016 and 2021, with one of the software developers, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, considering one out of three incidents to be a definite save. AFSEC says all three should be considered software-based saves. No one can disagree that all three pilots landed safely. Additionally, there have been 11 F-16s saved by the Auto-GCAS system since 2014. Crowell said, “We have documented cases of 15 individuals that are alive because of the system. Without this system, that’s 15 families, 15 worlds destroyed.” Lockheed Martin, on its website, said it “worked closely with its U.S. government and Air Force customers to refine this game-changing Auto-GCAS capability.” They added, “Auto-GCAS has already saved numerous pilots and will save many more in the future as the system is implemented more broadly across the global F-16 fleet and applied to other aircraft platforms.” The company also worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

California State University, NASA research centers, and AFRL studied Auto-GCAS software and said it is “in alignment with pilot culture and organizational mission.” They pointed out, however, that more research is needed to “examine the various research issues raised [e.g., potential Auto-GCAS misuse/disuse due to pilot occupational culture and/or operational circumstances, trust evolution from beginning of deployment to stages when opinions are stabilized].”

Mark Ruddell, the Chief Aerospace Engineer for Aviation Safety at AFSEC, said there are incredibly compelling online videos of saves that show what the system can do. When discussing the resistance pilots initially had to the Auto-GCAS system, Ruddell explained that he has seen the mood shift during the 18 years that he has been working with the pilot community. “The pendulum swung completely because there are many, many times I sat in a room at a safety group meeting where we were advocating for this system. The mood has gone from ‘I don’t like the computer flying my airplane’ to ‘Yeah, I have a friend that would probably be alive today if this system was on their aircraft.’”

He added that the stance of many pilots “has really changed from one of resistance to one of acceptance,” and said that he fields questions from pilots about when they will be able to get the Auto-GCAS system on their aircraft. Looking to the future, Ruddell added that the next step is “the automatic mid-air collision avoidance that will be integrated with the Auto-GCAS, and they’re calling it ICAS, or integrated collision avoidance system.”

Technology is only as good as the warriors who use them. Although Auto-GCAS can be a valuable lifesaving tool, Airmen should remember that they are their own most important safety measure.