Vehicle: Airplane: Pilot
Drop the Pilot   (+5, -2)  [vote for, against]
Nothing to do with Bismark nor Joan Armatrading. Allow airline pilots to do the exciting bit more often and save airlines money.

Modern commercial aircraft can pretty much fly themselves these days. The only phase of the flight that still needs a pilot is take-off when, if things get sticky, it still requires human judgement.

Pilots are extremely expensive to employ. An Economist article just before Christmas said that in a typical airline, of the 100 highest paid employees, 97 will be pilots. Not only that, on long haul flights more than one is required and they have to be put up in expensive hotels over night. And yet they are only really needed for the first 15 minutes of the flight. Why not make them more cost effective.

I propose a flying tender that is attached to the underside of the fuselage ahead of the front landing wheel for take-off. It would be a little bigger than a light aircraft and with a low wing (even delta, like a space shuttle perhaps). It would contain all the controls and displays that the pilot would usually have in a conventional aircraft . The docking mechanism which joins the two craft would contain an interface to all the main aircraft’s avionics.

Thus the pilot, sitting in his/her tender would control the plane/tender combo through take off and once on the climb out to cruise would separate the two craft. The main aircraft would then fly itself to its destination. The pilot would then fly the tender back to the departure airport where the tender would be attached to another plane and the process restarted. An individual pilot could manage say five or six take-offs per shift and could go home between shifts. The pilot would also be an expert at dealing with any unusual local conditions.

The main aircraft would benefit from all the advantages of pilotlessness. No cockpit - seats all the way to the front (and I’d like to have a Heinkel 111 style perspex nose - possibly without the Spandau) and no controls for hi-jackers to get hold of.

The wings of the tender would not only allow the tender to fly back to base but would also provide additional lift during take-off, allowing a higher take-off weight or slower take-off speed. The tender would probably need some propulsion if only to provide a bit of loiter time in case the departure airport is busy. This could also provide a bit more thrust during take-off. Perhaps the tender could also contain a large fuel tank, providing fuel for the main engines during take-off further reducing the weight and size of the main aircraft.

Not happy with this idea? Maybe we should start with cargo planes.

One downside I can see, is that there’d bound to be a Hollywood movie with Harrison bloody Ford saving the world by re-attaching a tender to a plane (controlled be an evil genius and containing the world’s supply of anthrax or some such) and landing it safely to stirring music, cheers from all round and tears from his formally estranged wife. Pass the sick bag.
-- Gordon Comstock, Jan 30 2003

Instrument Landing Systems
[jonthegeologist, Oct 04 2004, last modified Oct 05 2004]

Flight 232 http://www.pilotfri...crash/united232.htm
I guess you could just put a pilot on early when the engine blew up. [normzone, Sep 09 2007]

//The only phase of the flight that still needs a pilot is take-off...//
...and landing, perhaps?
-- st3f, Jan 30 2003

[St3f] Apparently not. From the same Economist article (I'm afraid it's part of their premium site so no link) most landings especially in poor visibility are done automatically. They can also be managed on one engine.
-- Gordon Comstock, Jan 30 2003

A surprise indeed. In which case, have this airborne croissant.
-- st3f, Jan 30 2003

Good idea but I think that the pilot tender should sit on top of the plane rather than trying to connect to the underside where all that vital equipment (landing gear) is sitting, just waiting to be damaged by a collision.
-- DrBob, Jan 30 2003

Since the advent of Die-by-Wire systems, you don't even need to physically re-attach the tender. All you need is a bidirectional high-bandwidth link between the aircraft and the "pilot" on the ground, the same way that Predator UAVs are controlled. This would allow "pilots" to double as air traffic controllers.

But there are so many downsides. We think it will be a long time before the public would accept this, however for cargo flights it seems perfectly reasonable. It could be proved out in that arena. The risk would be that a hacker/hijacker could control a large, fuel-laden civil aricraft and use it as a weapon with no risk to their own life. If for no toiher reason than security we think that human pilots will be around for a while yet.
-- 8th of 7, Jan 30 2003

[8th] // All you need is a bidirectional high-bandwidth link between the aircraft and the "pilot" on the ground//

//a hacker/hijacker could control a large, fuel-laden civil aricraft and use it as a weapon with no risk to their own life//

That's why I think the pilot and tender should be physically attached. The Main aircraft would not be controlled from the ground at all but would fly intelligently. It could receive Air traffic directions such as "Use the Portland holding circuit (if there is such a thing) at FL150" or "use runway 09L to land" electronically but would make up its own mind how to do it. Direct remote electronic control would not be possible.
-- Gordon Comstock, Jan 30 2003

I am *definitely* not flying on your airline.
-- DrCurry, Jan 30 2003

[Dr] It's an irrational fear. You'd be safer with ComstockAir, honest. To quote from the same article:

" Yet more than half of air-travel deaths are the result of “controlled flight into terrain” (CFIT), which is industry-speak for “the plane was working perfectly, but the pilot flew it into the ground”. CFIT accidents cause the most casualties because few passengers survive them. People are far more likely to survive if a plane overshoots a runway, or its landing-gear collapses, than if it flies into a mountain. Of the 18 fatal air accidents in the first half of 2002, nine are thought to have been due to CFIT, resulting in 397 deaths."
-- Gordon Comstock, Jan 30 2003

[G C] You are precisely and chillingly correct. You have spelled out in consummate detail one of the many reasons that we will no longer travel as a passenger on commercial aircraft. CFITs (or DBT's , "Descents below terrain") are a major cause of crashes.

We prefer to sit where we have a good forward view and can keep an eye on the instruments, especially the altimeter ("We will remember to set QFE ......... we will rememeber to set QFE........ we will rememeber to set QFE......").

It's a shame you can't post a hyperlink to that article; we can think of a few colleagues that would like to read it.
-- 8th of 7, Jan 30 2003

Interesting, I'm no pilot, but I would've thought landings to be more difficult than take offs.
-- RoboBust, Jan 30 2003

[RoboBust], generally speaking, you are entirely correct. Landings are usually rather more challenging than takeoffs. Modern autoland systems are, however, pretty good.
-- 8th of 7, Jan 30 2003

[8th] Check your email. Oh I see Jutta's just put something up.
-- Gordon Comstock, Jan 30 2003

landings are more 'difficult,' requiring more skill, but takeoffs are more 'critical,' because things can go from good to bad faster - the most obviously example being an engine failure shortly after takeoff, when the plane is at its heaviest and airspeed is about at its lowest.
-- sth624, Dec 05 2003

There is a flaw with [Gordon's] idea here : A pilot is required for three things on a flight : take off, landing and to take over should anything untoward happen.

This fundamentally means that the pilot is required at all times during the flight. Take Offs and landings can now be done automatically at most international airports due to ILS (Instrument Landing System) technologies, but a computer cannot take over when something goes awry.

I wouldn't be remotely comfortable on flights without pilots. It would effectively mean that every issue could be catastrophic.

Pilots are glorified bus drivers but I don't begrudge a penny of their high salaries.
-- jonthegeologist, Dec 05 2003

Pilots could do some waiting between take-off and landing perhaps on those budget airlines? They just need to change their suit inbetween the jobs so nobody would notice the difference.
-- Pellepeloton, Sep 12 2006

The problem is that the plane's autopilot can't deal with problems with the airplane, so a minor problem like a sticky flap could mean disaster. And what about rough-weather landings?

You need a pilot for these things, because as of now there's no computer practical and advanced enough to do it.
-- croissantz, Sep 08 2007

// It could receive Air traffic directions // "Flight 295, due to adverse weather conditions you are being diverted to 1600 pennsylvania Avenue"

I think we are missing a key point here. The pilot is required to be present, but in 99% of flights does not need to do anything. Perhaps pilots could have a second job, with the cockpit fitted out more like an office. They would only need to take over when the shit-fan-interface alarm goes off.
-- marklar, Sep 09 2007

Harbour pilots do something a bit like this.
-- wagster, Sep 09 2007

I’m not sure I buy this idea that pilots are completely indispensable. And while on a visceral level I’m not sure how happy I’d be without a pilot, I cannot agree that having one is necessarily a good idea – they are prone to mistakes – witness the recent catastrophe in Sao Paulo. I do realize however that there may well be many cases of accidents avoided by good airmanship but I think we still have an image of a plucky pilot (played by Richard Todd, who believe it or not is still alive! – I’ve just checked on imdb) who can wrestle the controls of his plane against all the odds and bring it safely home. It simply is not like that anymore. More aircraft have fly by wire systems that do not directly translate the pilot’s input to the control surfaces but make the aircraft do what the input is requesting.

In real life, when a problem occurs, one of the crew reaches for a checklist that refers to that problem and the crew go through a series of set procedures. With automated systems this could be done instantly. As for bad weather, I cannot see humans being able to react as quickly as a computer. They might fly by hand now in such circumstances but it can only be a matter of time before the computers give a much smoother ride.

I have however found an objection that no-one has raised: when trying to allay the fears of fearful flyers (viz: ‘er indoors), the argument that the crew “wouldn’t fly if it were dangerous” would no longer hold. The fact that the crew aren’t held “hostage”, might make that walk-round check not quite so thorough.
-- Gordon Comstock, Sep 10 2007

//And yet they are only really needed for the first 15 minutes of the flight. Why not make them more cost effective. //
Maybe they could be made to do clerical work for the airline (customer service, maybe, since they have such smooooooooth voices) during their idle time up in the plane.
-- phundug, Sep 10 2007

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