Pilot comments on pilotless planes in aftermath of Germanwings tragedy

April 12, 2015

The Germanwings tragedy last month seems like the type of event that might slow NASA’s research into single-pilot operation, with a commercial airliner operated by a captain who is assisted by a ground-based copilot. It might now seem that it’s best to have two pilots onboard, in the hope that at least one is trustworthy and can maintain control in the event of an emergency.

An alternative to two pilots or one pilot is no pilots—a situation said to lie in our future because of increasing cockpit automation. Patrick Smith in an essay in the New York Times shoots down this concept, writing that “…the idea that jetliners today are super-automated machines whose pilots serve merely as backup in case of an emergency…” is based on a false premise.

Smith is a commercial airline pilot himself (he also writes the Ask the Pilot blog and has written two books), and he admits his profession influences his viewpoint. But clearly, his experience informs his outlook.

He writes, “The other day I piloted a flight from the Caribbean to New York. We had bad weather the whole way, followed by a low-visibility approach into Kennedy Airport. The autopilot was on pretty much the entire time, but there were numerous altitude, course and speed changes to coordinate; holding, arrival, and approach patterns to set up and fly; and all of the requisite communicating with air-traffic control, company staff, and cabin crew.”

He warns against infatuation with technology and gadgets and learning the wrong lessons from drones. He writes, “More than 415 large drones flown by the American military have crashed in accidents since 2001, a record that is acceptable, if expensive, for remotely controlled aircraft, but that would be disastrous for civil aviation.”

And a move towards pilotless commercial aircraft, he adds, would require tens of billions of dollars of investment in aircraft and a new air-traffic control system.

NASA can take the long view of single-pilot operations (SPO) and no doubt will continue researching the topic. And John Croft in Aviation Week & Space Technology comments on use of technology to take control from the ground of an aircraft with an uncooperative pilot—not just one who is cooperative but overworked or incapacitated—in the cockpit.

In any event, it seems such technologies are years and billions of dollars in investment away.

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