Last updated: 10:46 AM ET, Tue March 31 2015

Would You Fly on a Plane With No Pilot?

Airlines & Airports | Rich Thomaselli | March 31, 2015

Would You Fly on a Plane With No Pilot?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk reaction.

Or maybe it could be reality, someday.

Either way, the crash last week of Germanwings Flight 9525 – in which prosecutors allege that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked the captain out of the cockpit and intentionally steered the plane into the French Alps, killing all 150 on board – has rekindled the debate over whether pilotless planes are in the future for commercial airlines.

The technology is certainly possible to control an aircraft from the ground. The United States military already flies the Global Hawk drone, according to CNN, which is nearly the size of a Boeing 737 passenger plane and is unmanned.

In theory, the debate is whether controlling the plane from the ground could have prevented a tragedy like the Germanwings crash.

In a CNN story, former Air Force pilot and current Duke University engineering professor Mary Cummings said “Planes can already fly themselves. Pilots only spend 3 minutes per flight flying a plane anyway, and they don't really need to do that.”


Did that make you feel any more comfortable?

And therein lies the rub. There are myriad mitigating factors to consider before even attempting such a commercial flight without a pilot on the flight deck, public opinion at the forefront.

“There has always been a desire to have the ability to control planes from the ground. … But the ground element of that was entirely pooh-poohed by the aviation industry for a whole variety of reasons, not least of which is aircraft safety,” aviation safety analyst Chris Yates told London’s Daily Mail. “Questions will always be posed as to whether pilots should be taken out of the equation in the event of something like [Flight 9525] so ground control would take over. … I personally would not feel comfortable getting on any airliner where control could be taken away from the pilots and co-pilots.”

Then there is the inevitable, such as backlash from pilots unions, insurance regulators, questions about the human element still being involved in terms of programming the flight, the potential for computer hacking, and more.

John Hansman, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at MIT, told CNN that pilotless flights are decades away.

"It's not a technical issue, it's an issue of societal trust," he said.


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