The Extra Mile

How close are we to flying on planes without pilots?

Our travel experts answer your queries

03 February 2019 - 00:03
Landing practice in a Boeing 747 simulator.
Landing practice in a Boeing 747 simulator.
Image: Paul Ash

Q. How close are we to travelling on pilotless aircraft? Surely technology has come so far that computers would be better at flying planes than humans, who may be sleep deprived or going through personal problems that could prove fatally distracting? - Dave

A. Automation has come a long way since American Lawrence Sperry and a French engineer named Emil Cachin climbed out of the cockpit of their aircraft and each stood on one of the wings as the plane flew slowly over the banks of the Seine River in front of a huge crowd.

In the 115 years since the Wright brothers took to the air in the world's first powered, controlled flight, innovation in aviation has been spectacular.

The complex computer systems found in modern aircraft allow such "miracles" as autolanding, where the plane will, as the term suggests, land itself safely on a runway.

(That said, the one time I was in an aircraft that had autolanded at OR Tambo International, I did wonder at the time why we'd come in so fast and thumped down so hard .)

All this modern tech leads to the not-unreasonable assumption that flesh-and-bone human pilots are effectively redundant, there only to babysit the computers and perhaps take over in the event of a systems failure.

However, the widespread - and erroneous - belief that modern aircraft fly themselves "is perhaps the most aggravating and stubborn myth in all of aviation", writes Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of Ask The Pilot.

Almost everything the airplane does is commanded, one way or the other, by the pilots

Noting that the issue is really about how people use technology rather than being replaced by technology, Smith writes: "Contrary to what people are led to believe, flying remains a very hands-on operation, with tremendous amounts of input from the crew.

"Our hands might not be steering the airplane directly, as would have been the case in the 1930s, but almost everything the airplane does is commanded, one way or the other, by the pilots."

Put another way, I wonder if passengers would voluntarily strap themselves into a slim, pressurised tube with no human at the pointy end but rather a "pilot" designed and built by the lowest bidder?