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Flying without pilots. Our future?

Aviation has a long history running through my family. My dad told me stories of sitting by the radio as a teenager listening to reports of Charles Lindberg crossing the Atlantic on his historic solo flight. That helped spark my dad’s love of aviation, and he ended up with a 37-year career as an airline pilot. He passed that passion on to me, just as I’m now passing it on to my own son.

A special part of that bond for me was hearing the stories of what flying was like ‘back in the day’, when my dad went from flying Boeing 247s and DC-3s (slowly) across the US up through his retirement as captain on a 747. Primitive technology, a lack of experience in aircraft design, and poor knowledge of weather in the upper atmosphere all played a part in the sad accident history of aviation as it grew out of its infancy. One of the most important lessons-learned-the-hard-way was the importance of communication amongst the crew to point out issues as they arose. The problem was that many of the airline captains in the early era of the jet age had gotten their own education at the hands of some of the original airline pilots of the 1920s and 30s – men who just ‘knew’ they had to be in charge, and nobody should be able to correct them. They were the captains, and that meant their word was equal to God’s. That didn’t work so well though as the complexity of the airplanes they flew increased enormously. The transition from a slow-flying piston aircraft to a much faster jet was a sometimes bloody and dangerous one. It may seem forgotten now, but even as late as the 1970s crashes of airliners were a depressingly common event.

One of the most famous accidents – and one that forever changed how airline crews interacted in the cockpit – happened in December 1978 in Portland Oregon, a little over an hour away from where we lived at the time. I was a senior in high school, and clearly remember the news bulletin flashing on the TV around dinner time. A United DC-8 had crashed a few miles short of the runway in Portland. There was no fire in the aftermath though, and I clearly remember my dad saying ‘I wonder if they ran out of fuel’.

That was exactly what had happened. In the long and painful investigation that followed it became clear the crew was preoccupied by an indication light saying that one of the landing gear wasn’t fully locked in place. As they circled over Portland the captain either ignored, or simply didn’t hear the increasing warnings from the flight engineer and co-pilot about their dwindling fuel. And equally guilty, the co-pilot and engineer didn’t stress the situation strongly enough to the captain. A long tradition of captains saying “My way or the highway” had become so ingrained in the cockpits of airliners everywhere that it was almost unthinkable to challenge the captain to make a point, even when safety was in jeopardy. And in this case, the result was a wrecked airplane and 10 out of the 181 people onboard dead.

The results from the NTSB investigation showed that something had to change. And it did. Slowly at first and with a lot of resistance from the pilots at airlines everywhere, the concept of CRM (cockpit resource management) was rolled out. Over the years this has morphed into Crew Resource Management, as the rest of the crew including flight attendants in the airplane and dispatchers on the ground were included as resources of information that can help keep a flight operating safely. CRM is the idea that anyone in the crew should be able to express their ideas and opinions, and everyone else should be able to listen. That doesn’t mean that the captain won’t have the final say, but captains have to be able to listen to the other crew members, and find information from people who may know more about what is going on.

The proof of CRMs effectiveness can be seen in the accident statistics over the past few decades. Growing up, I remember what seemed like monthly major airline accidents in the 60s & 70s. Today however, fatal airline accidents are extremely rare, especially given the enormous growth the industry has seen since deregulation, which also happened (coincidently) in 1978. There are of course many other reasons for the improved safety record: Better aircraft design, new safety standards, more effective and careful air traffic control rules, and what is called ‘regulation by blood’, when an accident points out flaws in the system which are corrected with additional regulation.

Much of this improvement however, hinges on the ability of the pilots to know what is going on, to communicate it effectively between each other, and to use all their available information to make the best decision possible to keep the flight safe. That is the essence of CRM: Using your available resources to make the best decision.

Which brings us to the problem of single-pilot and/or unpiloted airliners. We already know multi-pilot aircraft are demonstrably safer than single-pilot aircraft by their safety record. There is no question that having two or more pilots in the cockpit increases the overall safety of the flight. Proper application of the concepts of CRM allow maximum use of the resources available to the crew to keep everyone safe and alive. Other reasons for that safety record include adherence to standard operating procedures, fatigue monitoring, modern air traffic control facilities, and modern engineering. But it is the idea of the people in charge of operating that airplane having the ability to question each other and everyone around them that is the basis for the record as it stands today.

Many aeronautical engineers boldly state that in just a handful of years a single-pilot (or unpiloted) aircraft will be just as safe as today’s multi-pilot planes. Let me state here that IF that is true, I would have no problem flying on one of those planes. However…

What I don’t see right now is the ability for either single-pilot or unpiloted airplanes to come anywhere close to the safety record of today’s two-pilot system. The appalling accident rate for drones – even remotely piloted UAVs like the military uses – is proof enough of the work needed to improve their safety. Allowing airliners with hundreds of paying passengers to endure that same safety record would be a rollback of 50+ years of progress.

To understand my point you have to look at the process of piloting as it exists today. Pilots are continuously making decisions about their flight: ‘What is ahead of me?’ ‘Where do I need to go?’ ‘How do I get there?’ ‘How is the aircraft operating?’ ‘Are there issues I hadn’t seen before?’ Looking out ahead of their plane they have to understand not only what they see, but how to deal with it. Is that cloud something they can go through, or will they have to change course and go around it? Issues like that, which are encountered almost ever day, pose enormous problems if the flight has just one (or no) pilot.

Starting with unpiloted aircraft, the flight would have to include sensors smart enough to know the difference between a simple cumulus cloud and a rapidly growing thunderstorm. Continue straight ahead, or divert around it? That’s a simple question for an experienced pilot, but how do programmers design a computer to make that decision? Can the computer see the clouds and know when turbulence may start so it can turn on the seat belt sign ahead of the bumps? Those are actually pretty minor problems to deal with today, but it does go to show how complex the issues are when you’re talking about safely flying hundreds of paying passengers through the air. Can that unpiloted aircraft learn from previous flights? Or would it simply keep making the same minor mistakes over and over until circumstances put it in a life-threatening situation?

Think about it this way: When an unusual situation occurs in flight today, the pilots have their entire background of experience to draw on to make an immediate decision. Any computer running an airplane would only have what was originally programmed into it. Would the programmers have been able to consider every possible event? Would an unpiloted aircraft have the glider experience that allowed captain Sullenberger to understand immediately what his damaged plane could – and couldn’t – do and recreate the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ landing? If the computer wasn’t programmed for that, would it have the sensors to find an open piece of land to put the plane onto? Humans can, and have done that. Adaptability and improvisation are the essence of what the human brain can do, and what computer systems lack today. It is these rare but deadly serious unforeseen events that two-pilot crews can handle but are probably beyond the scope of computers for many years to come.

Having just a single pilot in the cockpit may be an even worse situation because of all the CRM issues I mentioned earlier. Without the immediate presence of a second pilot in the cockpit to provide backup and advice, it would be easy for issues to go by unnoticed. What would happen at the end of a long day of flying when the single pilot is getting fatigued? What happens if the pilot gets sick? There is talk of having either a remote pilot assisting several flights via video link, or perhaps having one of the flight attendants trained in emergency cockpit procedures. Neither case provides the level of redundancy and safety currently offered by having two trained pilots in the cockpit. Assuming you can establish a secure and high quality video connection to the airplane, the remote co-pilot still wouldn’t have the continuous input of the actual sights and sounds in the cockpit because they would have to monitor several flights at once. And if he were assisting one airplane he would essentially be ignoring the others. If we are counting on someone from the back of the plane like a trained flight attendant to help, that doesn’t work when a split-second decision needs to be made, or if the single pilot has become incapacitated.

Having two pilots in the cockpit works, and has (along with other technical improvements) created the safest mass-transportation system ever created. What is driving all this, of course, is money. The training and experience pilots bring to the airplane today is expensive to get and maintain. With the massive pressure airlines feel to constrain costs the large outlay for not only for the pilots themselves but their training is huge. Yet it is exactly those costs that make the airlines as safe as they are now. So it’s a simple question: How much money do you want to save, and how much safety are you willing to trim in order to reap those savings?

As I said earlier, IF it can be proven that changing the makeup of the cockpit crew will provide equal or greater safety than what we have now, I would be happy to ride on those airplanes. But with the millions and millions of hours of safe flight being completed every year right now, that’s an enormously high bar to meet to prove that level of safety. And finally, any reduction in the safety of our aviation system is something we must not allow to happen. We’ve come too far, and paid for this progress with the blood of those who came before us. Don’t let it backslide in the name of profits.

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