Cockpit Confidential: Debunking the Autopilot Myth

This is a guest post by commercial airline pilot Patrick Smith, who writes about the hidden side of the airline industry. You can read his writing for Salon.com here.

Cockpit Confidential: The Autopilot Myth
By Patrick Smith

One evening I was sitting in economy class when our jet came in for an unusually smooth landing. “Nice job, autopilot!” yelled some knucklehead sitting behind me.  Several people laughed. I winced. It was amusing, maybe, but was also wrong.  The touchdown had been a fully manual one, as the vast majority of touchdowns are.

(Digital Vision)

I’ve been writing about commercial aviation for nine years – a job that entails a fair bit of myth-busting.  Air travel is a mysterious realm, rife with conspiracy theories, urban legends, wives’ tales and other ridiculous notions. I’ve heard it all, from “chemtrails” to the 9/11 “truthers.” Nothing, however, gets under my skin more  than myths and exaggerations about cockpit automation — this pervasive idea that modern aircraft are flown by computers, with pilots on hand as little more than a backup in case of trouble.  And in some not-too-distant future, we’re repeatedly told, pilots will be engineered out of the picture entirely.

Don’t look now, here it is again in a new issue of IEEE’s Inside Technology Spectrum, in an article titled, “When Will We Have Unmanned Commercial Airliners?”.

It amuses me that as cockpit technology progresses and evolves, people view the elimination of the pilot as the logical, inevitable endpoint. This is a tempting extrapolation, but is it realistic? Is it even desirable? By comparison, are advances in medicine intended to eliminate doctors? Of course not.

And there’s more to that analogy, because high-tech cockpit equipment assists pilots in much the way that high-tech medical equipment assists physicians and surgeons: it has vastly improved their capabilities, but it by no means diminishes the experience and skill required to perform at that level, and has not come remotely close to rendering them redundant. A plane can “fly itself” about as much as the modern operating room can perform a surgical procedure “by itself.”

“Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology,” wrote the surgeon and author Atul Gawande in a 2011 article for The New Yorker. “But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions.  What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology.”

Gawande nails it. And what exists in the cockpit today is already a fine example of how progress and technology have improved flying — making it faster, far safer and more reliable than it once was. But it has not made it easy, and it is a long, long way from engineering the pilot out of the picture — something we needn’t be looking for in the first place.

The proliferation of remotely piloted military drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is hugely responsible for fueling the idea that commercial pilots will soon be relegated to a room somewhere to control their flight remotely, the way drones and UAVs are flown today. These machines are very sophisticated and have proven themselves reliable — to a point. A drone, however, is not a commercial jet carrying hundreds of people. It has an entirely different mission, and operates in a wholly different environment.

You don’t simply take the drone concept, scale it up, build in a few redundancies, and off you go. Adapting this concept to the commercial realm on any large scale would require, in addition to huge technological challenges, a restructuring of the commercial aviation infrastructure. We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars, from the planes themselves to the facilities they’d rely on.  And for what? You’d still need human beings to operate these planes.

And what do terms like “automatic” and “autopilot” mean anyway? The autopilot is a tool, along with many other tools available to the crew. You still need to tell it what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. I prefer the term autoflight system. It’s a collection of several different functions controlling speed, thrust, and both horizontal and vertical navigation – together or separately, and all of them requiring regular crew inputs in order work properly. On the jet I fly, I can set up an “automatic” climb or descent any of about six different ways, depending what’s needed in a given situation.

A flight is a very organic thing – to use a word you’ll almost never hear being applied to commercial aviation. Things are fluid; change is constant; decision-making is critical. For all its scripted protocols, hundreds if not thousands of subjective inputs are made by the crew on any given flight, from deviating around a cumulus buildup (how far, how high, how long), to troubleshooting a mechanical issue, to performing the takeoff and landing.

Emergencies are another thing entirely. I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill situations that arise every single day, on every single flight, often to the point of task-saturation. Duties ebb and flow, it’s true. There are long stretches in which, to the observer, it would seem that very little is dependent on the crew’s attention. There are also periods of very high workload, and they can arise at almost any time. You’d be surprised how busy a cockpit can become – with the autopilot on.

Getting back to that crack about the automatic landing, yes, it’s true that most jetliners are certified for automatic landings. Known as “autolands” in pilot lingo, they are designed for use in extreme low-visibility situations. In practice, well under one percent of landings are performed automatically, and the fine print of setting up and managing one of these landings is something I could talk about all day. If it were as easy as pressing a button I wouldn’t need to practice them twice a year in the simulator or need to review those tabbed, highlighted pages in my manuals.

One thing you’ll notice is how many of the more fantastical predictions about the future of flying tend to be from academics — professors, researchers, etc. — rather than commercial pilots. These people are surely intelligent and their work might be valuable, but often they are unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of flying planes.

And, yes, airline pilots too are part of the problem, and often our own worst enemies. In our attempts to explain complicated procedures to the layperson, we’re given to dumbing down. We wind up painting a caricature of what flying is really like, in the process undercutting the value of our profession. “Aw, shucks,” says a captain, “this plane practically lands itself.”

That’s a bit like a surgeon saying, “Well, we just cut in and yank out the tumor.” Granted some surgeries might be easier than others, just as some flights are more routine than others. But what does he really mean?

To some, I may sound like a Luddite pilot trying to defend his profession against the encroachment of technology and an inevitable obsolescence.

You can think that all you want.  I am not ag
ainst the advance of technology.  I am against foolish extrapolations of it.


Philippe

Thanks for not supplying a lick of data to back up your claims. This really helps your case.

Onlooker

He's writing an article, not a book. I'm sure he's love to expound on the topic, but it's not practical in the space provided. You can read his other work (of which there is a lot) and get more info, I'm sure.

Mike

I wonder how much of that is because people can't see what goes on in the cockpit. It becomes a magic black box and all people know is that there's some people in there and a thing called an "autopilot". If you never see someone needing to make a decision, you question their value.

Interestingly, no one questions the value of flight attendants, even though their jobs are often equally as automated (pre-recorded instructions, sometimes with video). But you still need a physical body to get your ginger ale.

Onlooker

"I wonder how much of that is because people can’t see what goes on in the cockpit. It becomes a magic black box ..."

Very good point. And so much of what people "know" about piloting they've learned from misleading and downright false movies, etc. Like when a passenger uses the autoflight systems, with instruction from the ground, to land a 747, and other such rot.

Mike B

The Mythbusters confirmed that was true. You can land a plane with instructions from the ground and the auto pilot system makes it even easier.

Chris

Personally, I think you are a, " a Luddite pilot trying to defend his profession against the encroachment of technology and an inevitable obsolescence." And your arguments sound exactly like those made by heads of newspapers and magazines not that long ago.

Matthew

Chris, I hope someone will give you the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of a plane during a landing someday at an airport with variable crosswinds. I did 1.5 hrs of touch and go landings in these conditions and cannot begin to describe the variability of the landing profile the pilot encounters. The problem with replacing the human is that the computer doesn't "understand" big picture; it will have to be programmed in advance for every last possibility that can occur. While it is entirely possible that this could be done, are you ready to tell 300+ souls that their lives depend on the programmers and designers having not missed that one set of input conditions that will cause a crash if not reacted to correctly?

Of course, you could just set the plane to default to a "go around." I imagine ATC at Hartsfield and O'Hare will be really pleased with that alternative.

James

I've done quite a few landings in variable crosswinds, and I'm pretty sure that a properly-designed autopilot could do them better. Human reaction time is just too darned slow for some things.

Mike B

Keep fighting for your own job there, but as DARPA has shown with its various autonomous vehicle grand challenges, the days of human operated vehicles are coming to a close, on land, sea and air. In fact you missed the nail right on the head when you said that the point of medical technology isn't to eliminate doctors...well, it actually is. As we speak non-doctor Physician Assistants and nurses are getting more and more powers to manage health outcomes backed up by technology that reduces the train and skills required to safely perform their jobs. In fact a non-doctor healthcare provider is probably more affective at delivering positive outcomes than a doctor relying solely on intuition.

I don't believe that airlines will ever become pilotless, however I am certain that some day soon flights will only be assigned one human crewperson in the cockpit whose task will be to monitor the automated system and step in in the rare circumstances where it cannot handle the task. Automated systems would have prevented the crashes of both Air France Flight 447 and Colgan Air Flight 3407. They are also designing new software to fly planes suffering from complete hydraulic failure or from portions of the wing or tail being ripped off.

You need to ask yourself, is flying a plane a complicated task or a complex task. If most of your flying is done "by the book" then you have a complicated task that is ripe for automation.

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Dave

I agree with some of your statements about piloting, but your comments on health care are outright ignorant. Technology will not eliminate the physician, the physician will be further extended by technology. As a young MD, I have seen this and am seeing it continue. The scalpel may be replaced by a keyboard and mouse in many instances, but who presses the buttons? What physicians often poorly articulate is how unique each patient’s case is, especially in the surgical field. A computer is nowhere near that currently. Why do you think we train for 7+ years out of college, working often 70+ hours a week. I’ll give you a clue: we’re not twiddling our thumbs. AI-based clinical decision support is going to be a key new technology, but physicians aren’t going anywhere. And so you know, I have a bachelors in computer science from a top 20 program, so I speak with some expertise.

Your comment about NPs and physician assistants is so ignorant that it’s comical. MDs train those people. It’s not like they go to a series of classrooms for x years and come out able to practice surgery or neurology. I know, I’ve supervised them myself. With years of experience they become more competent, just like physicians do, so there’s no shortcut to providing quality care.

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Eric M. Jones.

I used to fly a lot, I am also a small plane pilot. Once when landing in NYC, the landing was spectacularly good.

On exiting the airplane, carry-on in hand, I passed the pilot at the open cockpit door and I was going to comment on the great landing. The pilot was a black man...and in the two seconds I had to decide, I thought my positive comment might be considered patronizing.

So I didn't say anything. Sorry about that.

R. Heck

Although routine operations are second nature to most pilots, there are many situations where pilots have to make several decisions and take several actions in a very small amount of time with margins of error ranging from slim to none. Bad weather and emergencies are the first to spring to mind. Keep in mind that highly trained/skilled people can make otherwise difficult tasks look easy. I think of autopilot like cruise control in a car. Just because a car has cruise control doesn't mean it's about to start driving itself. Not to mention that flying an airplane is significantly more difficult than driving a car. I haven't heard ANY airline professional (including the executive number crunchers) talk about replacing pilots with computers. It may happen someday, but not in our lifetimes.

jcody

I don't think most people are under the impression that the plane almost flies itself, but more under the impression that the majority of the pilots work is the 5-10 minutes taking off and the 5-10 minutes landing the plane. So on a cross-country flight there is perhaps 15-20 minutes of manual work with everything else being automated.

Given modern technology we may not be able to easily replace the pilot entirely but would it be possible to place the most skill intensive parts of the flight into the most skilled hands? As in having a room full of highly experienced pilots who remotely perform all the takeoffs and landings all day long every day. Imagine that the most skilled and knowledge pilot can do 20 landings a day instead of 1 or 2. Wouldn't that make air travel even safer and maximize the value of top pilots?

There would still be a pilot on the plane, but as in the medical example they would be more like a physician assistant than a full doctor. They would work under the supervision of the experienced pilots who could be called upon whenever needed.

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Joel Upchurch

I frankly think that Mr. Smith is showing an adverse reaction to the idea that he can replaced by a machine, but that doesn't mean there is any big hurry to go to an fully automated cockpit.

The first point is the fatality rate on scheduled airline flights in the United States is so low that there is no safety advantage to eliminating the pilots. There might be some cost savings to eliminating the Co-pilots. As it is now, the co-pilot is in an extended apprenticeship.

The second point is that there is a huge cost to switching our existing airfleet to automated operation. It might be fairly easy to eliminate the co-pilot, but getting rid of the pilot will probably be a lot more expensive.

There is a lot more advantage to going to automated cars than automated planes. A lot more people are killed by manually operated cars than airplanes. Robocars would also save hundreds of billions man-hours a year.

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Tylerh

You have made a impassioned, but not compelling, case why the human being needs to be kept in the decision loop.

You have not explained why the human being needs to be on the plane.

The pentagon drones illustrate the point well. These drones still have pilots -- the pilots just aren't on board.

Here examples of how moving the pilot out of the cockpit might have forestalled tragedy.

1. Air France Flight 447. The loss of was almost entirely due to pilot error due tot he co-pilot pulling the back the stick all the way back and leaving it "pinned" for several minutes. A remote pilot not subject to the physically intimidating weather conditions would probably have noticed that the mistake.

2. The four flights of the September 11th tragedy. Had the co-pilots for each of the those four flights been on the ground, (1) the ground controllers would have known immediately there was a problem and (2) it may have been possible to affect the later course of events.

3. Alaska Airlines Flight 261. The crew of did a heroic job trying to overcome a massive mechanical failure. But at the final moment of crisis that crew was upside and subject to ferocious G forces. A ground-based pilot would have had a better chance of saving the flight at the point.

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Ross

"You have not explained why the human being needs to be on the plane."

Okay, here's my reasoning:

Remote piloting an aircraft requires continuous communication with the aircraft. Communications loss occurs occasionally today, and there are procedures to deal with it. There is no reason to believe remote piloting would not occasionally suffer the same communication loss. To account for this possibility, someone qualified to safely operate the aircraft (including land in all possible operating conditions) would need to be aboard at all times. If that is the case, then why not make use of that person all the time to operate the aircraft with appropriate ground support? Which is exactly how the system works now.

curtis

I certainly hope this article isn't implying that the Terminator films present a 'foolish extrapolation of technology' when they claim that in the far off future of 1997 (Or 2004) we will be living under the iron rule of an intelligent computer network which is more than capable of flying all sorts of aerial vehicles or, indeed, manufacturing such vehicles which can fly themselves.

Next you'll be saying things like Iron Man or Avatar are 'unrealistic.'

Eric M. Jones.

Remember that every task for which an algorithm can be written can now be done better by computer. It is foolishness to bet against electronics and the computer.

A good friend of mine had a job counselling pilots who were caught drinking (and using drugs) in the cockpit. Just sayin'....!