To improve airline safety, maybe we need to remove the pilots. It's a big idea. And it could someday happen.
It's a radical idea, of course. If it happens, it would be many years away. Following the intentional crashing of Germanwings Flight 9525 by the co-pilot, a long-running debate over autonomous, or independent, jets is resurfacing. At the very least, some have suggested allowing authorities on the ground to take control of a plane. For instance, if there is a rogue pilot in the cockpit.
Such moves might seem logical in the aftermath of this crash. However, industry experts warn that the technology is fraught with problems. Besides, no matter how tragic the deaths of the 149 other passengers and crew were, it was a rare event. Each year, more than 3 billion people around the globe step aboard some 34 million flights. The number of crashes purposely caused by commercial pilots in the last three decades is fewer than 10. So flying is pretty safe.
"Would this really be the wisest investment of our air safety dollars?" asks Patrick Smith. He is a commercial airline pilot of 25 years and the author of "Cockpit Confidential."
Smith says that even the newest jets would need an expensive reengineering of their key systems. And that doesn't even tackle any of the concerns over terrorists. They could hack into the communications link and attempt to take over the jet.
Despite those major technical and psychological hurdles, the concept isn't so farfetched.
There was a time when riding an elevator without an operator seemed unimaginable. Today, we don't think twice about it. Airports have trams without drivers. So do some subway systems. Even cars are starting to take some of that control away from us. The latest models will automatically brake if there is a sudden hazard.
The military already has pilots remotely flying drones. Those aircrafts operate on the other side of the earth. But making that jump for passenger jets is simply unnerving.
Planes don't operate in the confined space of an elevator shaft or train tracks. And flying has always seemed unnatural. When jets make odd noises or hit a rough patch of turbulence, we eagerly wait for the pilot to tell us that everything is ok.
Passengers want an expert in the cockpit.
"They want to believe there's somebody in the front who shares their own fate. And thus if anything goes wrong, they will do everything they can to save their own lives," says Mary Cummings. She is a former Navy fighter pilot. Now she is a Duke University professor studying autonomous flight.
That's why Cummings and other aviation experts see cargo planes being the first aircraft to fly over the U.S. without pilots. First, the big cargo companies would go from two pilots to one. A team of pilots could remotely assist from the ground. Then all operations would shift to the ground.
Airlines would save on pilot training, salaries, retirement costs and hotel and travel expenses. Plus, ground-based pilots would be able to hand off flights from one to another. It would allow them to work normal eight-hour shifts. Even if their jet is in the air for 12 hours.
Cummings says such a shift could occur in 10 or 15 years.
"In my mind, it's a done deal," she says. "The business case is so strong."
Pilots are getting further and further removed from their aircraft.
In the past, pilots would pull back on the yoke. It was connected to a cable that ran the length of the plane. That cable would move flaps on the tail called elevators. They caused the plane to climb. Today, there is no cable. When the pilot moves the yoke, a computer sends a signal to the rear of the plane. The elevators move.
The majority of aircraft maneuvers outside of takeoff and landing are already automated. Even when a pilot wants to change course, new directions are programmed into the plane's computer instead of making the turns themselves.
If that weren't removed enough, Airbus is exploring a windowless cockpit. The aircraft manufacturer is experimenting with a system of cameras and screens that would give pilots a wider, more-detailed view. It would be one step removed from reality. Airbus is based in Europe.
Todd Humphreys is a University of Texas professor of aerospace engineering. He says it isn't hard to go one step further. Pilots could watch those same screens from a room on the ground.
"Anything you can control with knobs or buttons, without getting out of your seat, can be done equally well or even better on the ground," Humphreys says.
Humphreys argues that ground-based pilots wouldn't have to deal with time zone changes and jetlag. They would not face uncomfortable airport hotels. Or even the dehydration that comes after long flights.
Since most flights don't have a problem, "pilots only face extreme challenges once in a blue moon," Humphreys says. So pilots in the cockpit might not be most apt to handle an emergency. Instead, he says you could have a team of specialized experts. They would work in a room with all the remote pilots who could jump in and assist with any emergency. The system might actually reduce the amount of pilot error.
Pilots mostly disagree with that. They say they need to make split-second decisions. Take US Airways Flight 1549. It famously landed on the Hudson River. Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was the pilot. He had seconds to decide what to do. Both of his plane's engines had been disabled by a bird strike.
Critical thinking challenge: What makes cargo planes a better option for testing pilot-less airplanes than planes with passengers?
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