When I first heard about “fly by wire aircraft” I choked a bit, and thought ” Will Airline Pilots Be Replaced By Computers?”
I always thought of flying as being free and doing things that far to many have not had. The wonderful sensation of flying all alone. I would never imagine anything but:
The Pilot and the Machine as one.
Will Airline Pilots Be Replaced By Computers?
Yes. Automation is here and aircraft can now take off, fly and land all on autopilot.
It will take likely two decades or more for people to “trust” this, however, pilots now just monitor the autopilot with the exception of take-off and landing.
1. Evolution of The Autopilot
The function of the early autopilot was to guide the airplane in maintaining wings level while holding its direction of flight (heading.)
The first autopilot was introduced by Sperry Corporation in 1912 and first demonstrated to the public in 1914 by Lawrence Sperry at a Paris aviation safety contest.
The purpose was to reduce pilot workload and the innovative idea became extremely important during WW2. Straight and level flight became necessary for new level bombing techniques.
This creation continued to improve safety as well as complete control of an aircraft.
As early as 1947 an Air Force C 53 flew across the Atlantic ocean on autopilot which included take-off and landing all under autopilot control.
The highly notable Bill Lear created the F5 autopilot and approach control which made a landing in zero/zero conditions (no ceiling or visibility) possible and was awarded the National Aeronautic Association Collier Trophy in 1949.
While autopilots and flight management systems continue to improve they can and do fail.
2. The Ever-Changing Roles of Airline Pilots
I had a limited view of the world of automation and I could never think that anyone would fly in a computerized plane with no pilots on board.
It has not been very long ago that an airliner or military aircraft required 4 crew members aboard. The Captain, Copilot, flight engineer, and navigator.
As technology advanced the navigator and flight engineer became obsolete.
Now with all the strides made in technology airlines are approaching the idea of a single-pilot airplane. Of course, the next step would be a pilotless aircraft.
The possibility of this becoming a reality is “up in the air”.
3. Technology Advancements
The technology is already in place for autonomous flight.
Company Xwing has acquired the FAA certification for Part 135 air carrier operations of its autonomous Cessna Grand Caravan for cargo flights. The company had flown 70 flights before revealing the concept.
Xwing expects to be operational this year (2022) to begin operations with a pilot supervisor on the ground.
We have all heard of the pilotless Drones that flew in Afghanistan during the war. It was not clearly evident about the number of crashes or the cause. The Washington Post wrote an article in 2014 stating that over 400 crashes had occurred since 2001. It was not apparent how many unmanned helicopters crashed.
The technology is in place for unmanned flight but will the flying public be willing to embrace it?
4. Todays Pilot Shortage
Throughout my years in aviation, I have seen the pilot shortage issue come and go.
At the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, airlines were still in a hiring mode. The surplus of unemployed pilots surged with the pandemic.
Now we are faced with a huge shortage.
It is estimated that over half of commercial pilots are still unemployed or moved on to a new career.
In a recent article in Forbes an aviation analyst Brian Foley, says that Boeing is overestimating the 763,000 new pilots needed over the next 20 years. He states that it does not account for automation, which means single-pilot airliners. Goodbye, Co-Pilots.
Automation is coming but not nearly all that fast. A Qantas pilot and author, Richard de Crespigny says that the pilots hired today will be the last of the pilots as we know them when they retire in 2060. He thinks that by 2060 “pilots as we know them will begin to become obsolete.” You may wish to read more about the possible changes in pilot careers from a female Senior Captain here.
5. The Military Factor
The Military has become greatly automated in aviation over the past thirty years and has used unmanned drones for all types of operations from surveillance to bombing missions.
Fortune wrote an article in 2020 about a dog fight between a top F 16 pilot and a computer that was sponsored by the Pentagon’s D.A.R.P.A., (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The results were unanimous for the computer winning 5 times straight.
D.A.R.P.A has been prominent in the development of the internet and encouraging the use of Artificial Intelligence for a variety of military applications. They have been involved in the self-driving car and the creation of a totally autonomous ship that sailed from San Diego to Honolulu without human intervention.
This was done to promote AI, in the aviation industry and further autonomous aircraft.
6. Two Reasons Against Automation
There are three strong points that will have an impact on single-pilot or computer-operated airliners.
The pilot unions such as ALPA (Airline Pilots Association) have been representing pilots for more than 90 years continuously fighting for pilots’ jobs.
This union is a powerful machine that through the fight for pilots jobs helps keep a myriad of other groups working behind the scenes.
The pilotless aircraft could cost thousands of other jobs including the flight instructor, corporate flight training groups, and university flight training programs just to name a few.
B. Insurance Companies
We all are aware of the cost of insurance in our lives. The price to insure a $50,000.00 dollar automobile is a far cry from insuring a 300 million dollar aircraft. I’m sure the cost of insuring a fleet is staggering.
A crash of one can significantly reduce the bottom line of an airline and possibly cause the failure of the business. These costs are insignificant compared to the value of one human life.
How will an insurance company evaluate risk on a pilotless airline? Plus what would be the impact of one crash of one of these planes? What would be the impact of an electronic meltdown which causes multiple airplanes to crash?
This is a major issue that will not be an easy hurdle.
It is hard to embrace all the challenges ahead for aviation,
I am still quite uncomfortable with a self-driving car as well as a self-driving tour bus that Yellowstone National Park implemented.
Now pilotless air freighters are a reality with Xwing certification for AI-operated aircraft. Being a freight dog was a job that I had that I took great pride in.
Quite honestly it gave me the best training possible and could be considered trial by fire. It taught me my best lessons about airplanes. I learned how to fly in the worst conditions flying in weather could throw at me.
The thrill of mastering the art of flight plus the opportunity to possibly travel the globe making a good living is a giant motivator in flying
What happens when that all goes away with pilotless airplanes?
I am sure that I would not consider the path I took with aviation if all I was offered was a desk and a monitor to control aircraft from the ground
I wonder if these positions would be attractive to today’s pilots unless a major incentive like money was offered. If the airline can not reduce labor costs, what is the point of removing the pilot?
All of this is just when CO2 emissions need to be addressed. Now.
Electric airplanes next?