Would planes be safer without pilots? (Thinkstock)
Would planes be safer without pilots?

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To improve airline safety, maybe we need to remove the pilots.

That radical idea is decades away, if it ever becomes a reality. 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 if there is a rogue pilot in the cockpit.

Such moves might seem logical in the aftermath of this crash, but 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 an anomaly. 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: fewer than 10.

"Would this really be the wisest investment of our air safety dollars?" asks Patrick Smith, 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 hacking into the communications link and taking 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 stepping into an empty elevator. Airports around the world have trams without drivers, as 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 that are on the other side of the earth. However, 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 that soothing voice of the pilot to tell us that everything is ok.

"The real reason a person wants another human in the cockpit is because 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, a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot who is now 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 with a team of pilots remotely assisting 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, allowing 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, which was connected to a cable that ran the length of the plane. That cable would move flaps on the tail called elevators, causing 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, moving the elevators.

The majority of aircraft maneuvers outside of takeoff and landing are already automated. Even when a pilot wants to change course, they program the new directions 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, although one step removed from reality.

Todd Humphreys, a University of Texas professor of aerospace engineering, says it isn't hard to go one step further and have the pilots watching 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, 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 and might not be most apt to handle an emergency. Instead, he says you could have a team of specialized experts in the room with all the remote pilots who could jump in and assist with any emergency, actually reducing the amount of pilot error.

Pilots mostly disagree with that, saying they need to make split-second decisions. Take US Airways Flight 1549, which famously landed on the Hudson River. Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger had seconds to decide what to do after both engines were disabled by a bird strike.

Critical thinking challenge: What makes cargo planes a better option for testing pilot-less airplanes than planes with passengers?

Assigned 23 times

  • TomasHBlue
    4/23/2015 - 04:51 p.m.

    It would be pretty cool if the planes flew themselves or without pilots. But on the other hand terrorists out of no where may hack into the system and take over the plane. Would there be the same sensor like newer cars ? To me it wouldn't seem like a car because the plane is so heavy what would it do ? Could the sensors automatically lift the plane and save it form a tragic disaster ? We don't know if that would happen but it could happen because the world has been taken over by all the new technology.

  • TehyaWhite-Ste
    4/23/2015 - 07:36 p.m.

    I think this is a cool idea and it is great with all the technology in today's world but I don't think it would necessarily be safer. Computers can mess up just like humans can. I think the safest thing would be the best of both worlds.

  • ConnerC-Kut
    4/24/2015 - 07:35 a.m.

    I can believe that this concept is pretty cool, but if I were flying on a plane with no ACTUAL pilots, I would be a little scared. Reason why is because what if the system that would be piloting the plane malfunctions or becomes scrambled causing the plane to crash. And the part about terrorists hacking the system and would cause the same outcome. I'm just saying that I would be safer with a reliable, trained pilot rather than a somewhat glitched and hackable system

  • noahd-Goo
    4/24/2015 - 09:26 a.m.

    Flying a plane with no pilots seems sketchy. The text states that we are far away of having planes with no pilots. The text also states that people like having someone sharing their own fate piloting the plane. The evidence from the text explains that people like reassurance of someone flying the plane.

  • LukeM-5
    4/24/2015 - 10:13 a.m.

    this article is about n idea to make passenger planes without piolets to increase the safety of the planes. this idea was propsed after germanwings flight 9525 went down because of the copiolt and enginiers said that the idea would take decaids ifit even happens but it would increace the the safety of air travel

  • ShawnaWeiser-Ste
    4/24/2015 - 12:59 p.m.

    Depending entirely on science would be a very scary thing. Computers do not work sometimes and being in something that can kill you is beyond fathomable. This should definitely not become a thing.

  • remingtonm-war
    4/24/2015 - 01:41 p.m.

    Yes it would be very interesting if planes flew them selves but what happens if this system fails and the lives of the people on board are put in danger. Then who would be responsible for that?

  • jasonm-Koc
    4/24/2015 - 01:46 p.m.

    I think this idea is a good idea. I wanted to see the statistics on how many crashes are from pilot error. If I got those then I would see if I think this would help the world or hurt it.

  • GrantW-2
    4/24/2015 - 06:04 p.m.

    This article is about whether planes should have pilots or whether they should be controlled on land. Human emotions can decide wether pilots crash the plane on purpose or not. After the Germanwings flight where the pilot crashed the plane intentionally into a mountain, people are deciding whether to have autoplanes or have pilots. There has only been 10 intentionally crashed planes in the last 30 years and people feel safer with pilots in the cockpit.
    I fly a lot and I would rather have a pilot.

  • anad-Koc
    4/25/2015 - 03:28 p.m.

    I would never go on a plane, not because I'am afraid of heights but because I'am scared that something could happen we fall in the ocean. My biggest fear are sharks I don't know why but I can't see one or my chest starts to hurt and just talking about starts to hurt. So, a plane having no pilot can be a little dangerous because if for something happens there's not going to be anyone to control the plane.

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