We are told that planes basically fly themselves. How true is this?

Air travel has always been rich with conspiracy theories, urban legends, and old wives’ tales. I’ve heard it all. Nothing, however, gets me sputtering more than the myths and exaggerations about cockpit automation—this pervasive idea that modern aircraft are flown by computer, with pilots on hand merely as a backup in case of trouble. The press and pundits repeat this garbage constantly, and millions of people actually believe it. In some not-too-distant future, we’re told, pilots will be engineered out of the picture altogether.

This is so laughably far from reality that it’s hard to get my arms around it and begin to explain how the idea even arose, yet it amazes me how often this contention turns up—in magazines, on television, in the science section of the papers. Perhaps people are so gullible because they simply don’t know any better. Flying is mysterious, and information is hard to come by. If the “experts” say automatic planes are possible, then why not?

But one thing you’ll notice is that these experts tend to be academics—professors, researchers, etc.—rather than pilots. Many of these people, however intelligent and however valuable their work might be, are highly unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of flying planes. Pilots too are guilty. “Aw, shucks, this plane practically lands itself,” one of us might say. We’re often our own worst enemies, enamored of gadgetry and, in our attempts to explain complicated procedures to the layperson, given to dumbing down. We wind up painting a caricature of what flying is really like and in the process undercut the value of our profession.

Essentially, high-tech cockpit equipment assists pilots in 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 is as able to fly itself about as much as the modern operating room can perform an operation by itself. “Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology,” wrote the surgeon and author Atul Gawande in a 2011 issue of 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.” That about nails it.

And what do terms like “automatic” and “autopilot” mean anyway? Typically I click off the autopilot around a thousand feet or so and hand-fly the rest of the landing. On takeoff, I fly manually at least through 10,000 feet, and sometimes all the way up to cruise.

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 it requiring regular crew inputs to 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. The media will quote supposed experts saying things like “pilots fly manually for only about ninety seconds of every flight.” Not only is this untrue, but it also neglects to impart any meaningful understanding as to the differences between manual and automatic, as if the latter were as simple as pressing a button and folding your arms.

The autopilot control panel of a Boeing 737 (color highlight)

One evening I was sitting in economy class when our jet came in for an unusually smooth landing. “Nice job, autopilot!” yelled some knucklehead behind me. Amusing, maybe, but wrong. It was a fully manual touchdown, as the vast majority of touchdowns are. Yes, it’s true that most jetliners are certified for automatic landings, called “autolands” in pilot-speak. But in practice they are rare. Fewer than 1 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 periodically review those tabbed, highlighted pages in my manuals. In a lot of respects, automatic landings are more work-intensive than those performed by hand. The technology is there if you need it for that foggy arrival in Buenos Aires with the visibility sitting at zero, but it’s anything but simple.

A flight is a very organic thing—complex, fluid, always changing—in which decision-making is constant and critical. For all of its scripted protocols, checklists, and SOP, hundreds if not thousands of subjective inputs are made by the crew, from deviating around a cumulus buildup (how far, how high, how long), to troubleshooting a mechanical issue to handling an onboard medical problem. 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. You’d be surprised how busy the cockpit can become.

Another thing we hear again and again is how the sophisticated, automated Boeing or Airbus has made flying “easier” than it was in years past. On the contrary, it’s probably more demanding than it’s ever been. Once you account for all of the operational aspects of modern flying –- not merely the hands-on aspects of driving the plane, but familiarity with everything else that the job entails, from flight-planning to navigating to communicating—the volume of requisite knowledge is far greater than it used to be. The emphasis is on a somewhat different skill set, but it’s wrong to suggest that one skill set is necessarily more important than another.

But, you’re bound to point out, what about the proliferation of remotely piloted military drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)? Are they not a harbinger of things to come? It’s tempting to see it that way. These machines are very sophisticated and have proven themselves reliable—to a point. But a drone is not a commercial jet carrying hundreds of people. It has an entirely different mission and operates in a wholly different environment—with far less at stake should something go wrong. You don’t simply take the drone concept, scale it up, build in a few redundancies, and off you go.

I would like to see a drone perform a high-speed takeoff abort after a tire explosion, followed by the evacuation of 250 passengers. I would like to see one troubleshoot a pneumatic problem requiring an emergency diversion over mountainous terrain. I’d like to see it thread through a storm front over the middle of the ocean. Hell, even the simplest things. On any given flight there are innumerable contingencies, large and small, requiring the attention and subjective appraisal of the crew.

And adapting the UAV model to the commercial realm would require, in addition to gigantic technological challenges, a restructuring of the entire commercial aviation infrastructure, from airports to ATC. We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars, from the planes themselves to the facilities they’d rely on. We still haven’t perfected the idea of remote control cars, trains, or ships; the leap to commercial aircraft would be harder and more expensive by orders of magnitude.

And for what? You’d still need human beings to operate these planes remotely. Thus I’m not sure what the benefit of this would be in terms of cost.

It amuses me that as aviation technology progresses and evolves, so many people see elimination of the pilot as the logical, inevitable endpoint. I’ve never understood this. Are modern medical advances intended to eliminate doctors? Of course not. 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.

I know how this sounds to some of you. It comes across as jealousy, or I 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 against the advance of technology. I’m against foolish extrapolations of it.


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