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FREAKquel: Pilotless Airplanes?

Our post last week about the possibility of pilotless commercial airplanes produced a vigorous, fascinating, and civil discussion in the comments. Here’s a bit of followup for those of you who are still interested.

My brother the pilot, a.k.a. Joe Dubner, wrote to tell me that “about 80% of commercial airliner takeoffs and landings are already remote-controlled” is not quite a true statement: they’re autopilot (and auto-throttle) controlled, but not without a pilot (or two) right there (not remote). And that 80% figure may be somewhat high; there are different degrees of “auto” approaches and I’m pretty sure most regional jets and turboprops don’t do a full one to touchdown. Then again, I’m just one guy and could be wrong.

I also solicited some feedback on the subject from Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot who writes the “Ask the Pilot” column for and has written a book of the same name. Here is Patrick’s response:

This conversation, while provocative and a good exercise for the imagination, is for all intents and purposes ridiculous. There are not going to be any pilotless commercial aircraft at any time in the foreseeable future, end of story. The following is a Q&A excerpt from my book “Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel.”

Q: In a computer class in college, a professor smugly told us, “airplanes are capable of flying themselves,” and maintains the pilots are merely “overpaid failsafe devices.” Is the concept of pilotless planes really viable?

A: Right around the corner, along with doctorless hospitals and lawyerless courtrooms. We already have machines that help with certain operations, so how far can we be from having a computer perform a heart valve replacement? And if a machine can beat a Russian master at chess, surely one could have found OJ guilty. That’s a flip retort, but the professor is doing the same thing. He is being disingenuous (and he hasn’t seen the paychecks of many pilots). In keeping with the habit of those ensconced in technology, he speaks to idealistic devotion to his silicon wafers while more or less oblivious to the boundless contingencies of flight — things that that no electric box can be wired to appraise.

Chatting gate-side with a frequent flyer, a pilot hears, “But do you really do anything? Doesn’t the autopilot do all the flying?” Next time a person lays out an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner, try this: “But did you really do anything? Doesn’t the oven do all the cooking?” An automated flight deck makes a pilot’s job easier the way high-tech medical equipment helps a surgeon at his job. That’s not very provocative, and so we’re treated to cracks like the ones above, which speak nothing to the knowledge, training and experience required to master the console of an Airbus or Boeing. Some will argue that much of the idea is already within the realm of existing technology, and that’s true. But much is not nearly enough. As it stands today, planes can and do perform autoland procedures, and have for 30 years. Impressive, but if I went on to describe the knowledge and expertise needed for coordinating and monitoring this “fully automatic” landing, I would write for ten pages.

The military uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) all the time. These small, remote controlled planes engage in reconnaissance, scouting, and even combat missions. For now their accident rate is about 50 times that of a piloted fighter. The feasibility challenges are awesome. For pilotless flying to become day-to-day would be a huge — and hugely expensive — undertaking with many years of research and immense infrastructure replacement. If you’ll allow me to get juvenile for a minute: it’s hard enough to get the little trams that take you around DFW or Atlanta to work right, and they’re on tracks.

End of segment.

So for those of you looking forward to a pilotless future, Patrick’s answer is discouraging. But it’s great news for those of you who were petrified by the same thought.

Thanks to Patrick and Joe for their feedback.