OPINION: Why Pilotless Aircraft Don’t Make Sense

Photo provided by Ryan Ewing

As I write this post, I am currently climbing up to 3,500 feet above the New Zealand North Island landscape. On the tip of the right wing is Mt Maungatautari, and in the far distance I can see Mt Ruapehu, also known as Mt Doom to those who know their Lord of the Rings geography.

Luckily for the airplane’s owner, I am not the pilot In command of this flight. I am sitting in the backseat of a colleague who is conducting a navigation flight as part of his CPL training. We both one day wish to finish training and end up in a career where climbing from 2,500 to 3,500 feet takes less than 1 minute in a Boeing or an Airbus, rather than the 3 minutes that this aircraft is currently taking. While we know this is a stage we must pass through first, we cannot help but sit and reflect as we watch our careers slowly transform into our future aspirations.

As many of you are aware, pilots, whether its student, private, commercial, or airline, are all required to undergo a medical assessment. The renewal period of that medical is 1 year for those who hold a Class 1 rating, which is held by airline pilots and those who are training towards a CPL license. Last month was my time to undergo the renewal, and while I sat in a public medical center waiting for my blood test, I picked up a magazine and read an article titled “What will disappear within the a decade.”

The magazine listed numerous things we could all agree on that will probably all but disappear in the next 10-15 years, such as home telephones. Others are slightly debatable, such as taxis, with the article insisting programs such as Uber will rule the public transport of the roads. Finally it was the last suggestion that truly shocked me, as the article ended by suggesting that pilots would indeed be disappearing as well. The article implied that airplanes will become pilot-less within the next decade, with the rise of UAVs, drones and an increased public opinion of pilot-less cockpits that push the human out of the cockpit door. As mad as this made me, I gave it much thought since reading the article. After some reflecting as well discussion with others in the industry, I feel comfortable in defending the reasons as to why this conclusion the article stated is a fallacy.

I think the best place to start such a discussion is to see how the cockpit has transformed over the time of flight. Commercial flights from the 1950s would be piloted by a crew of at least three; a captain, a first officer and an engineer. It was only until the 1980s where the advancements of technology saw the rapid decline in the civil flight engineer population. The Being 767 cockpit was Boeing’s first wide-body to be fitted with a two-crew digital glass cockpit. With the new display and electronics, it all but seemed to have replaced the flight engineer by enabling the pilot and co-pilot to monitor systems directly. United Airlines was adamant of a three-person flight deck, especially as it was a new aircraft. It was only until the middle of 1981 when a Presidential task force decided that a two crew cockpit was safe for wide-body operations.  The only airline that ended up with a three-person 767 configuration was Ansett Australia, keeping to their agreement with unions. The 747-300 was the last variant of the program configured with a three-crew cockpit.

Since this transitional period, nearly all of the western commercial manufacturers design aircraft with two pilots in mind. Russia’s Tupolev still have many aircraft with a flight engineer position. As do many military aircraft around the world, including the recently retired RAF VC10 and the active USAF C-5 Galaxy.

Calls for pilot-less cockpits reignited following the Germanwings crash back in March, inferring that the lives of 150 people could have been averted had the control not been in the hands of a human while locked in the flight deck.

My first question to those looking towards a world with pilot-less passenger aircraft is would the passenger trust who, or better yet what, is in control?

One in four people are said to be afraid of flying, a proportion which has steeply increased following the September 11th attacks. In contrast, according to the United States National Safety Council, the risk of dying in a car is 37 times greater than from flying. The general feeling towards the subject is that few would board an aircraft without a human in direct control sitting at the front. Any airline that takes on the challenge of introducing a pilotless passenger aircraft almost certainly runs the risk of loosing a lot of passengers and money. I think this itself answers my first question.

Secondly, I would ask, could a computer do a better all-around job than a human? I personally don’t believe it could, and here is why:

Over the past few decades alone we have witnessed quite remarkable episodes of aviation, with most if not all showing the one characteristic that all of us aviators are educated from the start; airmanship. A term that encapsulates the skill, proficiency, and discipline that every pilot learns to master throughout their aviation career.

I begin with Chesley Sullenberger, Jeffrey Skiles and N106US. At 15:25pm local time, Flight 1539 took off from New York’s LaGuardia on runway 04 with the destination being an hour and a half down south in Charlotte, North Carolina. Two minutes later at 2,700 feet the aircraft’s engines ingested multiple geese, causing both engines to shut down. The following sentence is one that no pilot would want to ever transmit, “We’ve lost thrust on both engines.’ Unfortunately for the crew, this was the blunt truth of their situation. As Sullenberger took control of the Airbus, he immediately had two options; return to La Guardia, or turn west and attempt to land at the much smaller airport, Teterboro, in New Jersey. Only a few moments later did the possibility of making it to an airfield rule itself out. Leaving with the crew the only option but to ditch. Sullenberger, an ex-military and glider pilot, set the aircraft into a glide aligned with the Hudson river, the only flat inhabitable area surrounded by New York’s densely packed population. At 15:31pm the A320 came to rest in the Hudson River, still intact with no fatalities.

It was the quick initiative thinking and airmanship, shared between the captain and the first officer, which caused the most successful ditching in aviation history. No computers and no autopilot contributed to the controlled ditching on the river.

What would a computer with no human in direct control done in that situation? What determines the computer to turn the aircraft around into LaGuardia, stretch a glide into New Jersey or to make a ditching on the Hudson?

A more recent event that I feel is relevant to my argument occurred on December 29th, 2014. Virgin Atlantic Flight 043 from London Gatwick to Las Vegas was en route at FL320 190nm west of London when the aircraft turned around and returned to Gatwick due to a hydraulic problem. After positioning the 747 (V-ROM) onto the approach at Gatwick, the crew didn’t receive “all greens,” indicating that the landing gear was down and locked. The aircraft went around as the crew was busy working the related checklists without success.  After conducting a low overflight of the airport allowing for a visual inspection from the ground, the crew was notified that the right main gear had not extended. After spending around three hours above the English Channel burning fuel and conducting various maneuvers to dislodge the gear, the crew positioned for a successful landing. the report released by the AAIB stated that “The successful outcome of this event hinged on good communication and co-operation in a number of areas. The additional pilot on the flight deck enhanced the task sharing and reduced the workload on the co-pilot and the commander. The crew was able to spend time working through all the possible options available to them and to be sure that everything had been considered before the landing.” What would had happened if a computer was in control of the aircraft and the 450 passengers onboard?

Would a computer know to position for a low overflight to allow a visual inspection? Would it also know what maneuvers to conduct without causing distress to the already anxious passengers on-board? No, I highly doubt it. The pilot in command, a human himself, who would have also been very anxious, would have been able to tell if his flight maneuvers were too much for a human to handle. Would a computer be able to land predominantly on the left hand side of the the aircraft? Does he have the visual capability to understand the leaning of the airplane after touchdown? I think not. (The reason for the stuck gear: hydraulic leak due to poor maintenance the night before caused the right wing landing gear system to be drained of hydraulic fluid. The alternate gear extension requires hydraulic fluid.) 

Many wonder what do the manufacturers and airlines think of this idea. Right now, no manufacturer has submitted a design plan for a passenger aircraft to be without a human at the front. The airlines are all currently purchasing their fleet with the future in mind, and they all require two qualified humans to sit at the front. Although, Boeing Commercial Airplanes previous CEO, James Albaugh, thinks that “A pilotless airliner is going to come; it’s just a question of when.” He is probably right. Pilotless airliners will come; but maybe then they will go. As said before, will the fare paying, agitated passenger sit on board an aircraft for 12 hours without a human in direct control sitting at the front? Will the airlines risk the financial implications of purchasing pilotless aircraft?

Personally, as much as I don’t want them to arrive someday, I feel they will come. However, when they do, it will be well past our lifetimes and maybe that of our children.

James Dinsdale
Follow James

James Dinsdale

James is a keen aviation enthusiast from the United Kingdom. He has been flying since the age of 13 and today, aged 21, flies the Airbus A319/320 series for one of Europe's largest airlines.
James Dinsdale
Follow James