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Dan Payne 2013

Could Commercial Passenger Aircraft Someday Be Pilot-less? pilot-less airliner

Tens of thousands of UAV's are being flown around the world today. Many commercial companies (including Fed Ex) are working on UAV cargo aircraft to fly goods around the country and the world. Many people are asking, is the next step a commercial passenger plane with no pilot?

While no one knows for sure, the answer is most likely, NO. Even today, fear of flying is one of the most prevalent fears. It is doubtful that very many people would feel safe boarding an aircraft with no pilot up front. Even after decades of a flawless safety record, this does not seam realistic.


In the 1940's a DC-4 aircraft could carry 86 passengers and it required a crew of 4 pilots. A Captain, Copilot, Navigator, and Flight Engineer. Today a modern Airbus A-380 can hold up to 853 passengers, and it only requires a crew of two people. Note: Long haul flights require relief pilots for fatigue factors. This reduction in crew members is accomplished through automation. Computers monitor and control engine and flight parameters that once required a flight engineer. High tech cockpits with moving map displays and GPS accuracy eliminate the need for a navigator and further reduce the workload of the modern glass cockpitcurrent two man crew. Advanced Flight Management Systems coupled to advanced autopilot systems can and do most of the actual aircraft flying. The modern pilot enters route and altitude information into the computer. Shortly after takeoff the autopilot is turned on and takes over flying the aircraft. Often times, the only time the pilot will take over control of the aircraft is on short approach to the the runway.


Two scenarios that are very likely to happen are:

  1. Commercial passenger planes with only one pilot.
  2. Commercial passenger planes with a flight crew that has very limited (or less) training compared to today's pilots.


Airlines can lower cost if they have fewer pilots and less qualified pilots. Pilots are expensive and in the future, trained, experienced pilots will be even more expensive. Automation is all about increasing safety and increasing productivity. Increased productivity always means reduced work force. It cuts cost which makes the product (in this case air travel) less expensive. Increased productivity usually means improved standard of living. In this case, more people are able to travel.

Pilot Shortage, there just won't be enough pilots to fill the seats. General aviation, or private sector flying is the source of over half of our current airline pilots. General aviation is in shambles today. It is a shadow of its former self. Visit any local airport and you will find a fraction of the amount of flying today, as compared to 20 or 25 years ago. There is very little pilot training going on today. In addition, the military is doing a lot less pilot training. Currently, the U.S. Air Force is training more drone pilots than traditional aircraft pilots.


Drone technology and further automation advances will allow for even more workload reduction. The FAA is currently working on its next generation of air traffic control that will include a concept called Free Flight. This will shift a lot of the control (aircraft separation) to each aircraft's onboard systems. This means less communication with ground controllers. Believe it or not, even today, radio communication with ground controllers can sometimes be a full time job for one (the non-flying) pilot.

Cockpit technology is advancing at a crazy fast pace. While aircraft themselves look fairly similar to what they did 50 years ago, the cockpit has been undergoing a resent renaissance. Not that long ago a pilot needed to be able to:

  • Do complex math calculations inside his/her head. The controller says, "cross xyz intersection at 14,000 feet and 250 knots." Calculating when descent should be begin, and what rate of decent should be used, needed to be done quickly by hand or in the head. Today, enter the numbers into the box, presto, done.
  • Maintain "Situational Awareness" based on triangulation of information from what we called "Steam Gauges" (basically electromechanical gauges). Situational awareness is knowing precisely where you are in space (laterally, longitudinally, and altitude) and also your heading and speed. With a modern glass cockpit, with moving map it is easy to see exactly where you are and where you are going. It is hard to describe to someone how cockpit steam gaugesdifficult it can be when you are "in the soup"(in the clouds) trying to figure out where you are in relation to an airport, based on very limited information. The information is only numbers. You must translate those numbers to a point on the map... and do it quickly.
  • Be a navigator. Before GPS, you needed to constantly be tracking where you were. As you lowered your altitude, in remote areas, navigation aids could become limited or less sophisticated. The ADF which is still in use, (although being phased out) is very crude. Its a ground based beacon that sends out a signal, the needle in the airplane points to it... that's it. Its a difficult and crude way to try and make an instrument approach to a runway in the clouds.
  • Know a lot about aircraft engines and systems. Today many aircraft have auto-start systems that monitor the engine starts to insure there are no dangerous "Hot Starts", or other conditions that could be catastrophic. Also, auto-throttle system automatically adjust power settings on takeoff, climb out, cruise and descent. These are just a few examples of computers monitoring and controlling systems that no longer require pilot attention.


In the future it would not be hard to imagine a control room full of qualified pilots and aircraft systems specialist. If an aircraft is in trouble, the single pilot with limited experience would hit the panic button. Instantly the control room would be linked into the cockpit. The control room would pull up a real time virtual cockpit and be able to provide expert help and guidance to the pilot. Many of the corrections would actually be accomplished by the control room committee directly making changes to the aircraft.

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