Automation

One thing which tends to strike fear into the heart of a young student pilot working on a career in aviation is the word, automation. Young people hate to hear that word because they think it might keep them from getting a great job as an airline pilot.

Many believe fully automated airline cockpits are in our future. Some would like to have this happen sooner rather than later. Personally, I believe fully automated cockpits will probably not happen over the course of the next 30 to 50 years, but, maybe . . .

When one of my students asks about this, a couple of things come to mind. First, when I was a kid, the airline crews consisted of a lot more people on the flight deck than in today’s airliners. There was the pilot, his first officer, a flight engineer, the navigator, and the radio operator. First they eliminated the radio operator, then the navigator, and finally the engineer. Most aircraft now fly with a two-person crew. Back in the 1950s, many in the public and some in the industry did not believe this could happen.

Today, it is a very different story.

Over at FedEx, if Fred Smith had his way, all of his big freighters would now be flying without a single human aboard. Smith makes the point every airliner flying today has the capability of operating from departure to destination without input from pilots. His contention is by eliminating humans on board the aircraft, you would be able to fly more cargo at less cost. Yes, I am sure pilot salaries factor into the equation, but the real cost savings comes from the requirement to install and maintain life support systems for the flight crews.

As for passenger flights, maybe sometime in the future they will be flown remotely, but probably not any time soon. I have told others there is a possibility perhaps one day in the future, passengers will observe someone wearing four stripes on their sleeves and carrying a beat up old leather Jepp bag onto the airplane. “Who is that?” a passenger will ask.

“That is a pilot,” replies another. “I read about them in a magazine some time ago.”

“You mean there is something wrong with the aircraft’s systems?  And a human is going to fly? I am getting off this airplane right now.”

Sometimes my students and others chide me over telling that story.  Then I tell my listeners, “You know, I think sometime back in the early 1920s, someone probably said something about us flying across the Atlantic one day. Many who heard the statement probably ridiculed the speaker relentlessly, saying it would never be possible for an airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean.”

Of course, we know Charles Lindbergh accomplished the feat the first time on May 20, 1927. Today we routinely fly back and forth across the oceans as well as the Arctic pole.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are gaining a lot of attention throughout the industry and the military. The trick concerning UAS is to find the opportunities in the new systems. In other words, there may be more job prospects in operating, programming, and maintaining unmanned aerial vehicles. From what I have seen so far, potential salaries look very good. Working in the UAS industry at a high salary may allow young pilots to buy their own aircraft and have more fun flying than working as a pilot.

For more information on UAS, check out my latest Eagle Tales Report in Dan Pimental’s Airplanista online magazine

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© 2010 J. Clark

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