Ask the pilot series — Part 3 of 6: Cockpit Automation

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Expert Flyer Hot Topics – Where the rubber meets the runway

Expert Flyer is featuring a special six-part Hot Topic series called, “Ask the Pilot.”  Our expert, Patrick Smith, is an aviator and the author of Salon.com’s popular ASK THE PILOT air travel column.  He also hosts the ASK THE PILOT resource site: www.askthepilot.com. Please enjoy this third installment of our series.

(Part 3 of 6)


Cockpit automation – Who or what is flying and landing the plane – man or machine?

Fewer than one percent of landings are “automatic.”  The vast majority are flown by hand, the old fashioned way.

Why?  Because in most respects automatic landings are more complicated, and more work-intensive, than those performed manually.  The technology is there if you need it — for that foggy arrival in Buenos Aires with the visibility sitting at zero — but it’s anything but simple and anything but routine.

This question segues into a larger discussion about the various myths and misconceptions of cockpit automation.  An analogy I like to make is one between flying and medicine: modern technology helps a pilot fly a plane the way it helps a surgeon perform an operation.  Sure, some procedures are more routine than others, but never are they easy, and none are “automatic” in the way that people are led to think.  And thus, a jetliner can no more “fly itself” any more than an operating room can remove a tumor or perform an organ transplant “by itself.”

And what do terms like “automatic” and “autopilot” mean, anyway?  Autopilot is simply a tool, along with many other tools available to the crew.  You still need to tell it what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.  The autopilot is not flying the plane.  The * crew * is flying the plane, * via * the autoflight system.  And although it frees the pilot from having to have his or her hands physically on the control wheel (or sidestick), autopilot covers only a fraction of what the act of “flying” entails – not merely the hands-on aspects of steering the plane and running its systems, but planning, navigating, communicating, and so on.

There is this pervasive idea that modern aircraft are flown by “a computer,” with pilots on hand merely as a backup in case of trouble. The press and pundits repeat this garbage constantly, and millions of people actually believe it. In some not-too-distant future, we’re told, pilots will be engineered out of the picture altogether.

This is so laughably far from reality that it’s hard to get my arms around it and begin to explain how, yet it amazes me how often this contention turns up — in magazines, on television, in the science section of the papers. Perhaps people are so gullible because they simply don’t know better. Flying is mysterious and information is hard to come by. If the “experts” say automatic planes are possible, then why not?

One thing you’ll notice is how these experts tend to be academics — professors, researchers, etc. — rather than pilots. Many of these people, however intelligent, and however valuable their work might be, are unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of flying planes.  And pilots too are part of the problem. “Aw, shucks, this plane practically lands itself.” We’re often our own worst enemies, enamored of gadgetry and, in our attempts to explain complicated procedures to the layperson, given to dumbing down. We wind up painting a caricature of what flying is really like.

I know that it works for military drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  These machines are very sophisticated, obviously.    But a drone is * not * a commercial jet carrying hundreds of people.  It has an entirely different mission, and operates in a wholly different environment — with far less at stake should something go wrong. You don’t simply take the drone concept, scale it up, throw in a few redundancies, and off you go.

Adapting the UAV model to the commercial realm would require, in addition to gigantic technological challenges, a restructuring of the entire commercial aviation infrastructure, from airports to air traffic control. We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars, from the planes themselves to the facilities they’d rely on.  We still haven’t perfected the idea of remote control cars, trains or ships.  The leap to commercial aircraft would be harder and more expensive by orders of magnitude.

And for what?  You’d still need human beings to operate these planes remotely.  Thus, I’m not sure what the benefit of this would be in terms of cost.

Stay tuned next week for part 4 of 6, when we talk about “pilot shortages” and the impact – if any – on our ability to get from point A to point B.

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