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

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. 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 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 is fewer than 10.

"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 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 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 that are 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 that soothing voice of 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 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. 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, which 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, 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. It would be one step removed from reality.

Todd Humphreys is a University of Texas professor of aerospace engineering. He 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. 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 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?

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COMMENTS (167)
  • arkimr1018
    4/23/2015 - 02:59 p.m.

    I don't think it would be safer because we need pilots. I don't want and electronical air plane with no human pilots. Others might want to but, if i ever get on a plane I want a human pilot.

  • GavinS-Kut
    4/23/2015 - 03:43 p.m.

    I don't think planes shouldn't have a pilot because they should have someone trained or they should just keep the pilots in the plane because I would be scared.

  • BeckettN-2
    4/23/2015 - 03:55 p.m.

    This article is about possibly adding automation to passneger planes, after german airline pilot intentionally crashed a plane into the mountains. Many things are already automated so some airline re thinking about making planes automated too, or at least making it possible for pilots on the ground to override the plane if the pilot goes rouge. I think this would be a great idea so we can stop the huge numbers of deaths caused by the plane crashes.

  • GeorgeDPink
    4/23/2015 - 04:50 p.m.

    This has a bread idea but I do not think it is the safest thing for passengers but the electronics that are in it are completely safe but the people that are on the plane mite not be very enthusiastic . I along with the pilots bealiev that the pilots have to have the split second reaction that a computer doss not have.

  • NathanWOrange
    4/23/2015 - 04:56 p.m.

    I think that the thought of having a plane with no pilot is scary and comforting at the same time because there would be no pilot to make a mistake. But on the other side there is always the possibility of something malfunctioning or someone hacking into the plane which could lead to many deaths.

  • JasonW-1
    4/23/2015 - 06:56 p.m.

    People are saying that planes should be controlled by people on the ground so no one intentionally crashes planes. Some say it's a good thing. Others say it's bad. However, it's decades away. This really could go either way depending on what they implement. Hackers could take over a plane or whatever.

  • MailanN-4
    4/23/2015 - 07:50 p.m.

    I think that it's really neat and really cool how are technology has come today to be planes flying by themselves and it's just really cool to think about how we are really close to being able to do that . We already have cars driving themselves and trains and many other transportation ways going by themselves now our next step is for planes to drive himself but I think that it would also be really dangerous if terrorists could hack into the system and fly that plane to them and take over all of the passengers so I think that's the only downside but other than that it would be really cool but some people do like being comforted while having someone the front making sure that they are safe.

  • HannahH-1
    4/23/2015 - 08:04 p.m.

    It has become a new theory that maybe airplanes would be safer if the pilot was removed. Another idea airplane safety has been that the very least a pilot from the ground can be able to take control of the airplane if the pilot goes rogue. Each year more than 3 billion people step foot on over 34 billion flights. The number of crashes caused by a pilot in the last three decades have been fewer than 10 so they need for the sea technology is not necessarily needed. I think that it is very cool that something has come up with solutions to the problem of pilots being dangerous to the safety of the passengers on airplanes. However I do think that there could be even more if she's coming out of computers find the plane rather than a normal pilot.

  • sam5016
    4/23/2015 - 08:38 p.m.

    I do not think that airplanes without any pilots is a good idea I do not think that this is a good idea because I think the terrorist could hack into the plane and crash it somehow.

  • devonm-3
    4/23/2015 - 08:51 p.m.

    Flying today always have human drivers but could a Plane be flown without a driver? Not yet but many scientists have looked into having plans be flown without pilots. There could be a chance that it would decrease the risk of planes crashing. If the plane was on a specific schedule to get to a specific place nothing would go wrong or they say. Planes rarely crash because of pilots but some Think that some crashes can turn to not any crashes at all. I will be slightly scared to go on a plane without a driver but I guess it's worth a try.

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