Friday, November 1, 2013

Pilot skills will lead to pilotless airliners

You've seen them, the articles and surveys that ask "would you get on a pilotless airliner?"

In the future it may be like asking someone today, would you get on an airliner with GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System), PWS (predictive Wind Shear warning), TCAS(Traffic Collision Avoidance System), weather radar, extremely reliable engines, or any of the other technological advances that have virtually eliminated the causes of numerous aircraft accidents over the years. Would you dare get on one without them?

The tallest tree left standing in a virtual forest of accident causes that have been cut down with technology is now Loss of Control In Flight (LOC-I).
See the statistical summary authored by Boeing here:

It is sad to study the history of LOC-I accidents and discover that most are due to the pilots' inability to maintain or regain control of the aircraft after some event. Those root of those events, of course, varies from the loss of a single instrument (e.g., AF447), to wake turbulence, engine failure, stall, weather, control failure, or even simply attempting to execute a visual approach! In far far too any cases the crash was unnecessary.

Most pilots, especially civilian trained pilots, are poorly prepared to recover from anything outside the normal flight envelope. Here's an interesting statistic I found the other day: 97% of stall spin accidents had a CFI on board! Thus inferring that those that are supposed to be teaching how to prevent and recover, are themselves poorly prepared to prevent and recover! (source: Wake Turbulence article available at

Here's my theory:
At the current time
,  I think the general attitude is that having a pilot on board is a critical safety item.
However, when it gets to the point that having a pilot in charge is more dangerous than a fully automated, or remotely controlled aircraft (or perceived as such) , the days of airliners controlled by on-board pilots are numbered. Quite frankly, we'll have deserved it!

So far there aren't any commercial airliners slated for production that are pilotless, but there are few technological hurdles in the way. I'm sure we can all think of a few things that pilots on board can do better than a computer program or an operator thousands of miles away. That list will diminish as engineers get to work on the problem, along with issues like loss of communication (link loss) and hacking experienced by the current drone fleet. Expect the cargo carriers to go first, then once we're used to the idea...

So, what can we do?
As an industry we need to better train our pilots in the aerodynamics and techniques of upset prevention and recovery. Until the industry catches up, it's on an individual or company basis.

It turns out that you can't prepare yourself by reading alone (darn!). Simulators too are severely limited, since they can't replicate realistic G-forces and no matter how real it seems, we all know it's not.

As individuals we can expand our horizons. Here's a video of me taking my first aerobatic lesson in a glider, a good start. 

There are several companies out there training pilots in upset prevention and recovery. One industry leader is APS Emergency Maneuver Training in Mesa, AZ, whose whebsite has a wealth of free information. Their stall/spin accident rate? zero.

As pilots we need to reduce the threat of loss of control in-flight accidents.The answer is better training. Our very existence will depend on it. 


Karlene Petitt said...

Bill, this is an excellent post. We do need to take control and expand our horizons. Keep growing and getting better at what we do.

I love the video. And definitely looking forward to my glider training and I'm sure... aerobatics will be on my horizon too.


Bill Palmer: flybywire said...

It is clear now what the problem is. The question is whether we will fix it or will we let the engineers "fix" us right out of the flight deck.

Anonymous said...

As a 20 year airline technician and pilot I can say skills are only a small part of a larger equation. What this truly boils down to is money! Airlines always look to save a dollar. With the potential to stop paying thousands of pilots on the payroll this will happen no matter how good the skills are. I side with the pilots but, this is just a fact.