The pilot of Air France Flight 447 was operating on one hour of sleep before the plane crashed into the Atlantic. In Philadelphia, a man impersonating a pilot made it into a US Airways cockpit. The era of robot pilots can't get here fast enough.
After a day of pilot-related news like today, it's hard not to wonder. A pilot for Air France, responsible for the lives of 228 people, stays up all night entertaining his girlfriend. The Telegraph reports that he was asleep when the plane began to display signs of trouble. It then took him more than a minute to get back to the controls. The transcript of the cockpit conversation and data from the flight recorder reveal that he and his co-pilot made a series of errors that led to the 2009 crash.
And then this morning, a French man in a shirt with an Air France logo was found sitting in the pilot's seat of a US Airways plane that was about to begin boarding. Clearly he was going to be discovered before the plane pulled away from the gate, but the incident necessarily raises questions about the security of airline cockpits.
This isn't a new problem. According to PlaneCrashInfo.com, pilot error is the cause of half of all fatal accidents — and always has been.
So why have pilots? The primary impediment isn't technology. Planes are currently flown primarily by instruments. Nor is complete autonomy impossible; after all, here's what a small plane developed by MIT can do in a confined space.
Granted, that would be a bumpy flight. But at least the plane didn't crash.
In December of 2011, IEEE Spectrum discussed the possibility of pilotless planes, outlining the existing technology and suggesting real problem: psychology.
One factor that's often cited for keeping a pilot in charge is what's known as "shared fate." That's the reassurance passengers get from knowing that the human in the cockpit wants to live just as much as they do. But shared fate is not the only way, or even the normal way, to ensure safe service. After all, restaurants don't employ food tasters to reassure diners, nor do losing defense lawyers join their clients in jail. It's usually enough for a professional to demonstrate sheer competence—the "right stuff" of aviator lore. And it's clear that automatic pilots—like those that land F-18s—now have a goodly amount of it.
But trusting software to safely shepherd hundreds of passengers across thousands of kilometers? A suspicious public isn't likely to buy into that vision, because safety is one of those things you can't have enough of.
Part of the psychological impediment stems from danger being largely imagined, not real. Oversexed-but-sleepy pilots notwithstanding, planes are an enormously safe way to travel. The New York Times notes that you could fly every day for 123,000 years before you'd be likely to be in a fatal crash. But that's not reassuring once the cabin doors close, so people seek irrational comfort in empty gestures: removing your shoes at security, human pilots at the controls. When the danger is real and immediate, there's less need for such frippery.
Like when your aircraft is on a bombing mission in enemy territory. The increased use of drones isn't only about economics; it's about safety. On June 2, 1995, Scott O'Grady was shot down in Serbia. A week later he was rescued, despite the odds of a successful retrieval. That August, an unmanned drone was similarly grounded. That one, they never made a movie about, but it did earn a mention in a 1997 report submitted to the Department of Defense: "The Pilotless Air Force? A Look at Replacing Human Operators with Advanced Technology." In the years since, that rhetorical question has been answered. The Air Force is scrambling to fill drone pilot positions, and may be considering a majority-drone force. Air Force unmanned aerial vehicles still have a human at the controls, of course — just as a commercial flight could still have a human emergency backup.
That psychological barrier may fall more quickly in a decade or so, once self-driving cars become more common. Driving is statistically much more dangerous than flying, but offers a sense of control that flying doesn't. If we become accustomed to surrendering our cars to technology, it's hard to see why we wouldn't be more likely to allow the same in the cockpit. So long as we're not afraid.
Airlines aren't known for their embrace of innovation or safety improvements. But at some point, the current streak of unprecedented airline safety may end — and tragically. If the cause is pilot error, it's worth considering how to remove pilots from the equation once and for all.