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The Future of Airline Pilots - Part 2

November 19, 2018

Last month I discussed the four ingredients coming together in a perfect storm to change the need for pilots – and how much they are paid.




The big question was to what extent pilot jobs will be vulnerable to the rise of technology, and in particular, artificial intelligence (AI). The nature of business means that when an input like labour gets too expensive, the process becomes automated. I concluded that the more pilots cost their airlines, the greater will be the pressure to replace them with technology. But will passengers ever accept soulless cockpits?

There are two distinct camps – those who believe pilotless planes are inevitable – and the sceptics who believe that computers can never replace pilots. But never is a big word.

We have already seen that technology progressively reduces the need for cockpit crew and computers have made a wide range of skills and professions obsolete. Just as radio operators, navigators and flight engineers became redundant, so too are pilots becoming redundant. In the near future, in response to the pilot shortage, we will see, instead of two separate crews of Captain and First Officer – i.e. four pilots – on ultra-long haul flights, there will be just one pilot in the cockpit while, oblivious to passengers, the other pilot gets bunk time. And then, on shorter flights, instead of having a Captain and a First Officer, there will be just a Captain, with reliance on the autopilot and alarms when the human pilot needs one of the those irritating ‘nature breaks’.

It’s inevitable that passengers will get used to single pilot planes. And so to the next level – no pilots at all in the cockpit. Airliners will be flown like drones, from the ground, operating 98% of their time on pre-programmed automation with human ground based pilots only active for the takeoff and landing. A single pilot, sitting behind a console in an airconditioned office on the ground, could possibly handle five planes an hour.

Inevitably the whole notion of empty cockpits has caused intense discussion on the internet chat sites. Forum in particular, provides some excellent insights:

An airline pilot pointed out that in modern airline flights; “all the decision-making has already taken place on the ground. Watching the first A380 landing, it seemed that the aircrew were merely a ‘wetware’ link between the ancient crackly AM radios still in use in aviation and the knobs that dial the numbers into the FMS for speed, altitude and heading. The actual landing did not need a human, and dealing with routine checklist items is a no-brainer for a computer.”

Those who reckon pilots will become obsolete point out that electronics and automation have had a massive impact on people’s lives, and more so in the future. Automation will take over menial tasks - and what could be more menial than sitting in a cockpit staring at screens for eight hours while hoping that something goes wrong so that you can put your rusty skills to the test? As far back as 25 years ago, an SAA pilot described flying 747-400s to New York as being like a night watchman in a video arcade. (what’s a video arcade?)

Last month’s column ended with an old airline pilot saying that he is not paid for what he does – but for what he can do. So the big question is – can computer software be designed to handle emergencies as well as a human pilot?

Airline pilots point out that although autoland capability is well proven, problems still occur. Even current systems require constant human supervision. An airline pilot argues; “It seems there’s a misconception about what happens on the flight deck nowadays. Who do you think flies the plane during an emergency, in order of priority? It is:

The autopilot - if it’s available,

The First Officer,

If all else fails, finally the Captain.”

There is a strong case to be made that human pilots are the weakest link. It was pointed out that the AF447 crash into the Atlantic and the Asiana 214 flight that crashed short of the runway at San Francisco proved that the switching of duties between the Flight Management Computers and humans often proves disastrous. It is argued that AF447 could have been flown to its destination by a computer, despite iced-up air data sensors. And Asiana 214 only crashed because the crew had become too reliant on automation.

Then there is the other side - those who argue against the rise of automation replacing pilots in the cockpit reckon that:

Flying has been around since 1903 - and yet most people still fear it, in one way or another.

Most people still fear heights. Humans are born with is the fear of falling. In the beginning it’s innate in all of us and most never get over it.

We still fear thunderstorms and other severe types of weather. This is a constant challenge to pilots flying large passenger aircraft.

Many fear not being in control. It’s bad enough being a passenger and having no control. But at least you know a human pilot has control, however fallible he is. You can at least identify with him, but you cannot identify with a computer.

“Now they want to hand that control over to a computer to take you through the turbulence of the ITCZ, across the world onto a snow blizzard covered runway! Good luck!”

Another automation sceptic points out; “After years of seeing computer failures on aircraft, I certainly won’t fly on a pilotless plane, and nor will the psychologically fearful public. No doubt the architects of pilotless aircraft will continue with their idea. And after the first accident, the whole idea will be history. Certainly for passenger carrying aircraft.”

Pilots won’t give up their exalted positions easily; “Unless you have been an airline pilot, with 300 dependent lives behind you, in weather which is cocking a middle finger at you and automation doing the electronic version of ‘you’re on your own this time mate’, you cannot understand the realities involved. To glibly give automation more credit than it’s due simply because it’s ‘the future’ is to sell the argument short. Even ground-based systems with hordes of geeks continually in attendance cannot claim continuous 100% uptime. Yet that is the aviation requirement if you have no pilot in the cockpit. You must have 100% reliability and also 100% capability of dealing with every issue that arises.”

Even for the much simpler task of driving a car, controversial motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson says, “For 40 years we’ve been promised robots. Nobody has yet built a robot that can make a sandwich or boil an egg or even climb a flight of stairs or open a door. And yet somehow we’re expected to believe we’re on the cusp of a car that can negotiate Manhattan or drive around a UK ring road or handle Rome.” And Clarkson is only talking about motion in two dimensions. Add a third dimension and it becomes exponentially more difficult for robots. “Piloting an aircraft is somewhat more complex than boiling an egg while making a sandwich as you walk up the stairs, never mind each of those functions individually.”

Assuming though that it will eventually happen, the question is when? Some argue it will take at least 30 years from now. But given the speed of IT development, a pilot argues that “In the modern world three decades is a very long time and if the big names don’t step up, some well-funded upstart with a clean sheet of paper and none of the financial/product baggage of the existing manufacturers will meet the need. In the meantime I will wear my gold bars with pride up front.”

It’s useful to conclude with Jim Davis’s comments. He says, “I have a whole gaggle of family members who are flying professionally, and they all love it.  The best advice I can give any youngster is to get into aviation. There is a major shortage of skill in all disciplines: pilots, technicians, mechanics, dispatchers - the lot! You name it. There is an opportunity for just about everything in aviation! And fortunately, that opportunity is skills based. So it’s not threatened by politics or the incompetent to any great degree. You can either do the job or you can’t. It’s as simple as that. There’s no room for incompetence in this business. The calibre required of its practitioners is generally much higher than that required in other careers.

“Forget about the naysayers. Not willing to admit they were wrong, now they sprout about pilotless aircraft. Maybe the architects of this idea better check with the flying public first. Riding on a driverless train or bus is one thing. Flying on a pilotless plane is quite another!”

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