Ask the Pilot

You really think planes can fly themselves? Talk to somebody who flies for a living and has endured an airline training program.

Published August 24, 2007 10:25AM (EDT)

"Yeah, but these planes, they just fly themselves."

The next time I hear that -- and I hear it a lot -- he or she is getting a smack.

There's this commonly held, infernally irritating notion that cockpit automation has rendered the airline pilot all but redundant. We just sit up there, the mythology goes, reading the paper and talking about our investments, keeping an occasional eye on things "just in case," while the plane's high-tech gizmos do the actual work. As I overheard one smart-aleck passenger explaining to his seatmate, "You could train a monkey to do it."

Not quite. Admittedly, the monkeys-as-pilots prospect would have its benefits, such as better public address announcements and possible improvement of this column. Alas, technology still has a long, long way to go.

As I've been over before, people have misconstrued ideas about how much pilots are paid and how stable and predictable their careers are. Similarly, they tend to have misconstrued ideas of what pilots actually do.

To borrow a line from my book, an automated flight deck makes the jobs of pilots easier the way high-tech medical equipment helps surgeons at their job. It's all very advanced and expensive and ultimately engineered to keep your customers safe and alive. But to understand how this equipment works, and to operate it properly ... well, you still need to be a surgeon first.

Nothing gets my blood pressure up more than the presumption that airliners will soon be flying without pilots at all -- a topic that provides regular fodder for the pages of Popular Science et al. Even the Economist, an august publication for sure, but notorious for errors and distortions in its aviation coverage, recently did a piece on it. We get the usual far-fetched predictions from engineers and scientists and professors speculating how within 20 years pilotless planes will be whisking around the globe, guided by onboard electronics and/or remote control. That's fine; it's not necessarily a researcher's job to be realistic or practical. But they are blindly enamored of their silicon wafers, ignoring the boundless, practical contingencies of commercial flight -- things that no electric box can, now or in the foreseeable future, be wired to appraise.

Pilots themselves are sometimes guilty. As technophiles, we enjoy boasting of the grand and special things our huge machines can do with the simple touch of a button. Take the "autoland" for example. It is what the name implies: an automatic landing. In certain weather conditions, jetliners can and do perform autolands, as they've been doing for more than 30 years. (The first jet so certified was the British-built Trident, designed in the 1960s.) Impressive, but misleading. People envision a pilot hitting a button marked "Land," then staring out the window while the plane descends on its own to a safe touchdown. In reality, if I went on to describe the knowledge and expertise needed to program, coordinate and monitor one of these "fully automatic" landings, I would write for 10 pages.

Will pilots eventually be eliminated altogether? Perhaps someday, but here's what I believe: Nobody alive on this planet today will ever take a seat on a pilotless commercial flight. Not because they can't or shouldn't, but because the task is too massive, too complex.

Maybe I sound arrogant or self-impressed -- or scared, like the teletype operator, foolishly clinging to hope at the dawn of the computer age. But you'd be defensive too if a majority of people thought you were an overpaid slouch whose duties are better handled by a computer. If you're skeptical, don't take my word for it. Talk to somebody who flies for a living and who has endured an airline training program. Ride along on a simulator session and watch a crew battle engine fires, microbursts, single engine go-arounds and rapid decompressions over mountainous terrain. Take a look sometime inside a modern cockpit.

I only wish flying were that easy. That way, this past spring and summer, I could have avoided the five weeks of anxiety, stress and round-the-clock study it took to complete my recertification after several years of furlough.

You can argue that I was rusty (I hadn't been near the controls since 2001) and to a degree unprepared (too much writing and not enough studying in the weeks prior to class). Regardless, it wasn't going to be easy.

Start to finish, the syllabus wasn't unlike that faced by airline new hires. For all intents and purposes, I was a new hire. It begins with a computer-based, home-study course. The goal is to show up on the first day of training with a working knowledge of your assigned aircraft -- its systems and checklists, and the various maneuvers you will need to master -- as well as the many rules, regulations and operations specifications ("ops-specs" in the parlance) particular to the airline itself.

The real stuff begins with a week's worth of morning classroom instruction split with afternoon sessions in a procedures trainer -- a computerized cockpit mock-up that allows pilots to "fly" any number of prescripted profiles. There are instrument approaches galore, autolands, miscellaneous emergencies and malfunctions. Before graduating to the next phase, you're challenged with a pair of tests, including a computerized exam on aircraft systems.

The second week utilizes a more advanced flight training device called, of all things, a "Flight Training Device." Again it's a mock-up, but a far more realistic one. Each session lasts about four hours, not including the time spent for prep and debriefing. It's an eight-hour day, basically. And again, prior to moving on, there's a test.

Then come the full-motion simulators. You've seen them on television -- those giant, apocalyptic paint shakers with their strange hydraulic legs. Inside sit a couple of unfortunate trainees at the mercy of a sadistic instructor whose job it is to make them sweaty and miserable. Like many pilots, I'm scared to death of simulators and despise them with a passion. I'm supposed to, I guess.

Everyone has heard how astoundingly true to life simulators are, and likely you take this with a grain of salt. You shouldn't. A session of mock disaster in "the box" is something hardly believable until you've done it. "Lived" it is the better word, since the ride is pretty much a full mental and physical immersion -- and exertion. (A single "Level D" simulator costs tens of millions of dollars to acquire and maintain.) The experience would almost be fun, if only your livelihood weren't in the balance. For all intents and purposes, it's the real thing -- real enough that, assuming you pass your final check ride, you proceed fully qualified from the box and directly to an actual aircraft, full of paying passengers, without any sort of practice flight.

My reinitiation by fire would come soon enough, but more on that next week.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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