Who's flying this thing?

It's time to put to rest the idea that planes fly themselves. And who wants a pilotless jetliner anyway?

Published November 20, 2009 12:20AM (EST)

A US Airways jetliner is seen after it crashed into the Hudson River Thursday afternoon, Jan. 15, 2009 after a flock of birds apparently disabled both its engines. Rescuers pulled the more than 150 passengers and crew members into boats before the plane sank, authorities say. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C., when the crash occurred in the river near 48th Street in midtown Manhattan. (AP Photo/Greg Lam Pak Ng) (A. G. Lam Pak Ng)
A US Airways jetliner is seen after it crashed into the Hudson River Thursday afternoon, Jan. 15, 2009 after a flock of birds apparently disabled both its engines. Rescuers pulled the more than 150 passengers and crew members into boats before the plane sank, authorities say. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown said Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, N.C., when the crash occurred in the river near 48th Street in midtown Manhattan. (AP Photo/Greg Lam Pak Ng) (A. G. Lam Pak Ng)

William Langewiesche has a new book out, exploring last January's crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River. "Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the 'Miracle' on the Hudson" is hailed by Publishers Weekly as nothing less than a "masterpiece of modern journalism," and "an enduring work of literature."

Maybe that's a tad over the top, but it's hard for me to argue. As I've expressed before, nobody does a story better than Langewiesche. His work is immaculate and exhaustive, and he's an exemplary wordsmith to boot.

Nevertheless, there's a certain aspect of the Flight 1549 saga that nobody, not even Langewiesche, has really bitten into.

As the general public sees it, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger saved the lives of everybody on board through nerves of steel and consummate flying skills. As Langewiesche sees it, the real hero wasn't Capt. Sully, but the electronic wizardry of the Airbus A320, which was able to deftly manage the angle and speed of its perilous glide pretty much on its own.

I submit that neither plane nor pilot deserves as much credit as they've been given. The most critical factor was nothing more than plain old luck -- specifically, the time and place where things went wrong. As it happened, it was daylight and the weather was reasonably good; there off Sullenberger's left side was a 12-mile runway of smoothly flowing river, within swimming distance of the country's largest city and its flotilla of rescue craft. Sullenberger performed admirably in the face of a serious emergency, as did his jetliner. He needed to be good, but he needed to be lucky as well. He was. Had the bird strike occurred over a different part of the city, at a slightly different altitude, or under slightly different weather conditions, the result was going to be an all-out catastrophe, and no amount of talent, skill or fly-by-wire technology was going to matter.

I dare suggest that if you could put a hundred crews, flying pretty much any modern airliner, in Sullenberger's exact situation, the results would be more or less the same. Thus the passengers owe their survival not to miracles, talent or the fail-safe genius of the A320, but to the less glamorous forces of luck and, to use a word I normally dislike, professionalism.

Sullenberger, to his credit, has been duly humble. He has acknowledged the points I make above, and has highlighted the unsung role played by his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles. The media pooh-poohs this as false modesty or self-effacing charm, when really he's just being honest. As for the magic of his airplane, Sullenberger told Christine Negroni of the New York Times that Langewiesche "greatly overstates how much it mattered."

Separately, Langewiesche's analysis, with its emphasis on the role of cockpit automation, is helping to perpetuate the stubborn and widespread belief that pilots are fast becoming obsolete. It is hardly the author's fault if a book reviewer misinterprets his conclusions, but consider this from Times book critic Dwight Garner:

"What the public doesn't understand ... is the extent to which advances in aviation and digital technology have made pilots almost superfluous ... Mr. Sullenberger's airplane, an Airbus A320, was nearly capable of guiding itself gently to the ground, even after losing both of its engines."

Wow. OK, timeout.

Incidentally, William Langewiesche, Christine Negroni and Dwight Garner all are fans of and/or occasional contributors to this column, and I'm hoping not to offend my influential regulars or the companies they work for. But hang on and let me circle the wagons.

I do a fair bit of myth busting in this column. It comes with the territory, I suppose. Air travel has always been rich with conspiracy theories, urban legends and crackpot notions. Where this all comes from is easy enough to understand: Commercial flying has exactly the right ingredients to nurture paranoia -- it's scary to millions of people and steeped in secrecy. Airlines, it hardly needs saying, aren't the most forthcoming of entities, and even the most elementary technicalities of flight -- how does a plane stay in the air? -- aren't understood by vast numbers of travelers.

I've heard it all. Nothing, however, gets me sputtering more than misunderstandings about cockpit automation -- the idea that modern aircraft essentially fly themselves, with pilots on hand merely as a backup in case of trouble. "Baby sitting a flying computer" as one smartass letter writer recently put it here on Salon.

This is so far from the truth that it's difficult to get my arms around it and begin to explain how. Baby sitting a computer? Really? I'll keep that in mind during my next recurrency training and simulator check; the next time I'm weaving around thunderheads over the Amazon; shooting a VOR approach in Africa in a rainstorm at 4 a.m., or setting up for an ILS in blowing snow and a quarter-mile visibility.

But never mind the extremes. If I were to take even the most routine, trouble-free and "automated" flight, from the preflight planning stage to block-in at the destination, and break it down event by event, explaining each of the hundreds of decisions and inputs made by the crew, big and small, from rote procedure to the unexpected judgment call, I would be typing for the next three days.

Would it do any good?

Forget about the New York Times for a minute. Two weeks ago National Public Radio ran a piece on "Morning Edition" looking at the Northwest 188 incident (the flight that wandered off course after both pilots became distracted by their laptop computers). The segment included this exchange between host Renee Montagne and guest Michael Goldfarb, an aviation consultant and former Federal Aviation Administration chief of staff:

Montagne: Now, for us passengers, the pilot says hello. He might alert us to turbulence during the flight, but we tend to think that the pilot and the copilot are flying the plane. What exactly does that mean, flying the plane?

Goldfarb: Well, it doesn't mean what it meant 30 years ago. There's so much automation in the cockpit that, literally, an aircraft taking off from Los Angeles and landing in New York can have very little attendance by the crew.

What total nonsense. And Montagne's comment, "We tend to think that the pilot and copilot are flying the plane." Tend to think? I have never been so insulted.

As I wrote in a column in October, a jetliner can, in theory, take itself laterally from waypoint to waypoint along a preprogrammed route -- a basic, skeletal outline of the flight. But the idea that a jet will "fly itself" to the destination without meaningful input from the crew is preposterous and downright offensive to anybody who flies for a living.

One of the media's big mistakes is a reliance on aviation academics and bureaucrats -- professors, directors, consultants, researchers, etc. -- rather than pilots, for its expertise. These people are bright and knowledgeable, but they're often highly unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of flying planes.

Having said that, pilots too are occasionally part of the problem. By grossly oversimplifying things, we paint a caricature of what flying is really like, at the same time undermining our value as employees. It's no wonder so many people think pilots are overpaid if we're saying things to the press like, "The plane will fly to its destination without any input from the pilot at all," to quote an American Airlines pilot talking to CNN a couple of weeks ago.

You might sometimes hear a pilot describe a given aircraft as "simple to fly." Indeed, a few months back, Miles O'Brien, CNN's former aviation expert and himself a pilot, made this very comment in reference to an Airbus A320. Simple, yes, but only in the context of an airline pilot's prerequisite level of expertise.

The analogy I'm fond of making is the one about aviation and medicine. Out in the field, automation helps a pilot in the same way that it helps a surgeon. It makes flying easier, but it does not make it easy. Like O'Brien and his Airbus, you might hear a surgeon make a comment about the "simplicity" of a certain procedure or operation. That in no way implies that the layperson could give it a go and be successful, and it does nothing to diminish the knowledge and experience required to perform at that level in the first place. The technology is advanced and expensive and ultimately engineered to keep your customers safe and alive. But to understand how this equipment works, and to use it properly ... well, you still need to be a doctor, or a pilot, first.

Even passengers get into the fray. A month ago I was sitting in economy class when our plane came in for an unusually smooth landing. "Nice job, autopilot!" yelled some knucklehead behind me.

Funny, I concede, but wrong. It was a fully manual touchdown, as the vast majority of touchdowns are. Most jetliners are certified for automatic landings -- "autolands" in pilot-speak -- but in practice they are rare. In any case, 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 need to consistently review those tabbed, highlighted pages in my manuals. It's there if you need it -- for that foggy arrival in Buenos Aires, with the visibility sitting at zero -- but it's anything but simple. Guess what: An automatic landing is, in most respects, more challenging, more complicated and more work-intensive than a manual one.

But at some point we won't be having these discussions, as pilots are phased out and airplanes become fully automated. Right?

On Oct. 27 I appeared on a local TV talk show here in Boston. I was one of two guests. The other was Missy Cummings, a former U.S. Navy pilot turned researcher/academic, now an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. Cummings is of the mind that pilots are becoming expendable, and that the jetliner as we know it will eventually be replaced by fully automatic aircraft controlled from the ground.

This is so laughably far from reality that, again, it's hard to get my arms around it and begin to explain. But apparently Cummings' reality is a different one, and she contended on air that it's "just a matter of time" before the crew is engineered out of the picture.

I became visibly annoyed at this, but it was two against one. The host, Emily Rooney, who I need to point out has no aviation background or expertise whatsoever, was in eager agreement with Cummings. "We don't need them," Rooney said flatly of pilots.

The conversation continued after the cameras were off. "Drop by my lab sometime," Cummings said to Rooney (by this point Cummings was refusing to speak or make eye contact with me). "And I'll show you how to fly a UAV with your iPhone."

UAV is "unmanned aerial vehicle," like the military drones used over Afghanistan and Pakistan. These highly sophisticated, remote-control craft carry no occupant and are guided from the ground. But to compare a UAV to a commercial airliner is ultimate apples and oranges. I am happy, assistant professor Cummings, that you are able to send commands to a robot plane using an iPhone. But I would like to see your iPhone perform a high-speed takeoff abort after a tire explosion, followed by the evacuation of 250 passengers. I would like to see your iPhone 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. Oh, heck, even the simplest stuff.

Point being, there are so many contingencies large and small, so many subjective decisions required on every flight -- situations that you simply cannot get a grasp of remotely. Never mind for a minute whether or not we can come up with a pilotless airliner. Why would we want to?

And what sort of time frame are we talking? (This past September a CIA drone went out of control over Afghanistan and had to be shot down.) Look, I am not a Luddite. But I also fly for a living. Yeah, that makes me an advocate, but it also gives me a very healthy sense of just how far-fetched this idea of pilotless planes truly is. Someday, perhaps. In our lifetime? No chance.

Of course, the only people more insufferable than assistant professors and aviation consultants are the desktop simulator buffs who think they can hop into a 767 and fly it like a pro. They were given some false confidence back in 2007 when the popular show "MythBusters" tried to find out if a nonpilot could land a plane. They got themselves a NASA simulator stripped down to represent a "generic commercial airliner" -- which is to say a rather unrealistic one. A seasoned pilot, stationed in an imaginary control tower, carefully instructs the hosts via radio. On the first try, they crash. The second time, they make it.

But all they really did, essentially, is land a make-believe airplane in a contrived, tightly controlled experiment.

To be fair, the question of whether a nonpilot could land an actual jetliner depends somewhat on the meaning of "land." Do you mean from just a few hundred feet over the ground, in ideal weather, with the plane stabilized and pointed toward the runway, with someone talking you through it? Or do you mean the whole full-blown arrival, from cruising altitude to touchdown, requiring all sorts of maneuvering, programming, communicating and configuring?

You've got a fighting chance with the former. The touchdown will be rough at best, but with a little luck you won't become a cartwheeling fireball. But the scenario most people envision is the one where, droning along at cruise altitude, the crew suddenly becomes incapacitated, and only a brave passenger, who has perhaps a little desktop sim time under his belt, can save the day. He'll strap himself in, and with the smooth coaching of an unseen voice over the radio, try to bring her down.

Try this a thousand times and I reckon you'll have a thousand crashes.

Don't believe me? Let's try it. I need a willing participant who does not have a pilot's license or any formal flight training. We'll rent out a full-motion Boeing simulator and the instructor will set things up for 35,000 feet, somewhere over the middle of the United States. Ready, set, go. In you come and sit down. The rest is up to you. All of it.

If you crash, you foot the bill and I get to mock you in Salon. If you make it, I foot the bill and write a five-page retraction carefully detailing your heroics.

Any takers?

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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