Proficient Pilot: Going pilotless

Will automation and computers eliminate the crew?

April 1, 2013

Barry Schiff

When Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines plied the world’s oceanic routes in the final evolution of propeller-driven airliners (using aircraft such as the Lockheed L–1649A Constellation and the Douglas DC–7C), the international cockpit crew consisted of five men: a captain, a first officer, a flight engineer, a navigator, and a radio operator (who communicated with ground stations in Morse code).

The first of these to be phased out by advancing technology was the radio operator. The introduction of relatively easy-to-use HF (high-frequency) transceivers relegated “Sparks” (as he was called) to the ash heap of history. The navigator (“Magellan”) used a sextant to measure the altitude (angular distance above the horizon) of the sun, moon, and stars to obtain lines of position. He was next to go. Early jetliners were equipped with Doppler navigation, specialized radar systems that determined aircraft track and groundspeed, which made the celestial navigator obsolete.Phasing out radio operators and navigators was understandable and accepted by other crew members.

The introduction of automated fuel, electrical, hydraulic, and environmental systems on the Boeing 767, however, resulted in a more controversial reduction of flight-deck manpower—removal of the flight engineer. Pilots argued that eliminating the third crewmember was cutting into muscle. The engineer was particularly valuable during emergencies. Without him, one pilot is left to concentrate on flying the airplane while the other must comply under pressure with the dictates of the appropriate checklist, something best handled by two (to ensure that mistakes are not made during critical and complex procedures). One pilot handling an emergency on his own can be a recipe for disaster, and there is little doubt that accidents have occurred because of crew overload. Many still believe that eliminating the flight engineer was misguided.

Where is this discussion leading? Many are convinced that further automation and computerization will eliminate the co-pilot and, eventually, the captain. Think not? Think again. If a spaceship can be sent to Mars, execute an approach to a planet that is far more complex than an ILS, land safely, and deposit a remotely controlled rover, it would obviously be much less challenging to remotely control an airliner from takeoff to landing. Much of the equipment needed to accomplish this is already aboard the modern jetliner.

On the other hand, a flight to Mars does not involve threading one’s way through a squall line, coping with wind shear, and dealing with myriad other challenging variables. The evolution of drone technology, however, provides growing and convincing evidence that pilots eventually will become relics of a bygone era.

Pilots began to see the writing on the wall when the Boeing 767 entered service in 1982. We said with tongue in cheek that the lone airline pilot of the future would board the airplane but be prevented from entering the cockpit by a glass barrier. Mounted on the glass would be a fire ax and a placard stating, “Break glass in case of emergency.” The pilot would then take a seat in the cabin and keep himself occupied until after the airplane lands itself and is taxied remotely to the gate.

Airline pilots enjoyed telling the story about how passengers would someday board an airliner, take their seats, and then hear over the public-address system, “Welcome aboard Flight 482 operating nonstop to New York. This is not your pilot. This airplane actually does not have a pilot. It is so technologically sophisticated that it does not need one. This is a recording. You have nothing to fear, however. This airplane is the safest and most reliable aircraft ever developed. Nothing can possibly go wrong…go wrong…go wrong…go wrong….”

Sound exaggerated? It is not. One cargo carrier—it is thought to be FedEx—is seriously investigating the possibility of pilotless aircraft. (The notion of phasing out those pesky pilots is a management’s dream come true.) The formerly golden State of California has passed legislation paving the way for integrating driverless automobiles on state highways. In 2011 Nevada passed a similar law providing for driverless vehicles.Imagine the frustration of being stuck behind one of those ground-bound drones on a superhighway while it is operating at or below the speed limit. No one seems to know how a driverless automobile would respond to an impatient driver honking his horn.

Will pilotless airplanes appear in the general aviation fleet? Count on it, which is why I might have to purchase an elderly Aeronca Champ that cannot possibly be flown remotely. I can only hope that it will remain legal to operate such archaic (and fun!) technology.

Barry Schiff has written more than 1,600 magazine articles and currently is writing his fourteenth book. Visit the author’s website.