July 16, 2014

Automation Myths: Do Planes Really Fly Themselves?

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Written by: Patrick Smith
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Air travel has always been rich with conspiracy theories, urban legends, and old wives’ tales. I’ve heard it all. Nothing, however, gets me sputtering more than the myths and exaggerations about cockpit automation—this pervasive idea that modern aircraft are flown by computer, with pilots on hand merely as a backup in case of trouble. The press and pundits repeat this garbage constantly, and millions of people actually believe it. In some not-too-distant future, we’re told, pilots will be engineered out of the picture altogether.

This is so laughably far from reality that it’s hard to get my arms around it and begin to explain how the idea even arose, yet it amazes me how often this contention turns up—in magazines, on television, in the science section of the papers. Perhaps people are so gullible because they simply don’t know any better. Flying is mysterious, and information is hard to come by. If the “experts” say automatic planes are possible, then why not?

But one thing you’ll notice is that these experts tend to be academics—professors, researchers, etc.—rather than pilots. Many of these people, however intelligent and however valuable their work might be, are highly unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of flying planes. Pilots too are guilty. “Aw, shucks, this plane practically lands itself,” one of us might say. We’re often our own worst enemies, enamored of gadgetry and, in our attempts to explain complicated procedures to the layperson, given to dumbing down. We wind up painting a caricature of what flying is really like and in the process undercut the value of our profession.

Essentially, high-tech cockpit equipment assists pilots in the way that high-tech medical equipment assists physicians and surgeons. It has vastly improved their capabilities, but it by no means diminishes the experience and skill required to perform at that level and has not come remotely close to rendering them redundant. A plane is as able to fly itself about as much as the modern operating room can perform an operation by itself. “Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology,” wrote the surgeon and author Atul Gawande in a 2011 issue of The New Yorker. “But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology.” That about nails it.

And what do terms like “automatic” and “autopilot” mean anyway? Typically I click off the autopilot around a thousand feet or so and hand-fly the rest of the landing. On takeoff, I fly manually at least through 10,000 feet, and sometimes all the way up to cruise.

The autopilot is a tool, along with many other tools available to the crew. You still need to tell it what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. I prefer the term autoflight system. It’s a collection of several different functions controlling speed, thrust, and both horizontal and vertical navigation—together or separately, and all of it requiring regular crew inputs to work properly. On the jet I fly, I can set up an automatic climb or descent any of about six different ways, depending what’s needed. The media will quote supposed experts saying things like “pilots fly manually for only about ninety seconds of every flight.” Not only is this untrue, but it also neglects to impart any meaningful understanding as to the differences between manual and automatic, as if the latter were as simple as pressing a button and folding your arms.

The autopilot control panel of a Boeing 737 (color highlight)

The autopilot control panel of a Boeing 737 (color highlight)

One evening I was sitting in economy class when our jet came in for an unusually smooth landing. “Nice job, autopilot!” yelled some knucklehead behind me. Amusing, maybe, but wrong. It was a fully manual touchdown, as the vast majority of touchdowns are. Yes, it’s true that most jetliners are certified for automatic landings, called “autolands” in pilot-speak. But in practice they are rare. Fewer than 1 percent of landings are performed automatically, and 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 periodically review those tabbed, highlighted pages in my manuals. In a lot of respects, automatic landings are more work-intensive than those performed by hand. The technology is there if you need it for that foggy arrival in Buenos Aires with the visibility sitting at zero, but it’s anything but simple.

A flight is a very organic thing—complex, fluid, always changing—in which decision-making is constant and critical. For all of its scripted protocols, checklists, and SOP, hundreds if not thousands of subjective inputs are made by the crew, from deviating around a cumulus buildup (how far, how high, how long), to troubleshooting a mechanical issue to handling an onboard medical problem. Emergencies are another thing entirely. I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill situations that arise every single day, on every single flight, often to the point of task saturation. You’d be surprised how busy the cockpit can become.

Another thing we hear again and again is how the sophisticated, automated Boeing or Airbus has made flying “easier” than it was in years past. On the contrary, it’s probably more demanding than it’s ever been. Once you account for all of the operational aspects of modern flying –- not merely the hands-on aspects of driving the plane, but familiarity with everything else that the job entails, from flight-planning to navigating to communicating—the volume of requisite knowledge is far greater than it used to be. The emphasis is on a somewhat different skill set, but it’s wrong to suggest that one skill set is necessarily more important than another.

But, you’re bound to point out, what about the proliferation of remotely piloted military drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)? Are they not a harbinger of things to come? It’s tempting to see it that way. These machines are very sophisticated and have proven themselves reliable—to a point. But a drone is not a commercial jet carrying hundreds of people. It has an entirely different mission and operates in a wholly different environment—with far less at stake should something go wrong. You don’t simply take the drone concept, scale it up, build in a few redundancies, and off you go.

I would like to see a drone perform a high-speed takeoff abort after a tire explosion, followed by the evacuation of 250 passengers. I would like to see one 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. Hell, even the simplest things. On any given flight there are innumerable contingencies, large and small, requiring the attention and subjective appraisal of the crew.

And adapting the UAV model to the commercial realm would require, in addition to gigantic technological challenges, a restructuring of the entire commercial aviation infrastructure, from airports to ATC. We’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars, from the planes themselves to the facilities they’d rely on. We still haven’t perfected the idea of remote control cars, trains, or ships; the leap to commercial aircraft would be harder and more expensive by orders of magnitude.

And for what? You’d still need human beings to operate these planes remotely. Thus I’m not sure what the benefit of this would be in terms of cost.

It amuses me that as aviation technology progresses and evolves, so many people see elimination of the pilot as the logical, inevitable endpoint. I’ve never understood this. Are modern medical advances intended to eliminate doctors? Of course not. What exists in the cockpit today is already a fine example of how progress and technology have improved flying—making it faster, far safer, and more reliable than it once was. But it has not made it easy, and it is a long, long way from engineering the pilot out of the picture—something we needn’t be looking for in the first place.

I know how this sounds to some of you. It comes across as jealousy, or I sound like a Luddite pilot trying to defend his profession against the encroachment of technology and an inevitable obsolescence. You can think that all you want. I am not against the advance of technology. I’m against foolish extrapolations of it.

This article was originally published on and is used here with the author’s permission. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and host of His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

About the Author

Patrick Smith



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  • Not Given

    Here’s a less biased article than yours “Where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit.” 30 years ago when I was in college I told one of my roommates who wanted to be a pilot that pilots would eventually not fly from a cockpit but from the ground. He thought I was nuts. Yet that is gradually what is happening. Just as surgeons are performing surgery remotely, pilots (first hobby now military) are flying planes remotely. And yes, just like people laugh at Google’s automated cars, they laughed to at horseless carriages and the “absurd” if not downright oxymoronic indoor outhouses. I predict (say within 50 years) planes will fly themselves, safer and better than any person ever can.

    • Ken

      There’s no sense in flying a commercial aircraft remotely. With a military drone, you remove the danger to the pilot. You also dramatically decrease the size and weight of the aircraft, and remove pilot fatigue from the equation. Flying a commercial aircraft remotely would not improve any of those issues. It would just add risky electronics to the equation. If you have 300 people on board the aircraft already, it doesn’t make sense to reduce that by only two, while adding enormous technological complexity and risk. Who wants to fly on the first passenger airliner without pilots? Not me.

      This may make sense for cargo flights, however.

      • Steven

        Eventually the technology could be good enough where it becomes cheaper to operate the plane without humans at all, thus saving the airlines on pilot salaries and benefits. For difficult landing situations, the airlines could have a small staff of remote pilots that could take control of any plane to assist the landing. There wouldn’t be a need to retain and pay pilots for easy portions of a flight that a computer can manage. A bleak thought for future jobs, but it seems to be the way we are headed with every industry. Who knows, it might be too far in the future for any of us to worry about.

        • Ken

          If that ever happens, it’ll be 50-100 years in the future. That was the whole point of this article, people vastly overestimate the ability of automation to replace human pilots. If you actually were a pilot, you’d know that the automation only does a small fraction of our job, and isn’t nearly good enough. There isn’t even much of an incentive to remove pilots, given that their pay really isn’t very high, especially in comparison to fuel costs. Pilot pay is generally only a small percent of total revenues, around 3%-5%. The technology costs to actually replace pilots would likely be far higher, at least in the 21st century.

          That’s not even touching the question of emergencies. Drone actually crash quite frequently, because the computers aren’t smart enough to figure out when something has gone wrong.

        • Corey Newton

          The cost of a pilot relative to the cost to fly large jet aircraft is minuscule. The additional costs incurred to add further redundancies to an already safe machine would likely be prohibitive.

          • Not Given

            You seem to be implicitly assuming that large jet aircraft are a given. They are not. In part, planes are large to defray the cost of the pilot. Please see “Taxis in the Sky”

          • Corey Newton

            I didn’t assume anything of the sort – you inferred that. I read (and enjoyed) the article you referenced but I’m not sure you understand how DayJet operates relative to large jet aircraft. From that article:

            Firstly –
            not really going up against the airlines,” Herriott said. “Where there’s good
            air service, we want to stay out of the way. Our sweet spot is the trip of 300
            or 400 miles where the air travel is so complicated or inconvenient that you
            finally throw up your hands and say, ‘I’ll just drive!’ We can beat driving,
            especially with time and lodging costs.”

            Thus, their trips are shorter in duration which means a greater portion of the flight is spent in take-off and landing phases. Autopilot is currently used more for cruise segments with pilots hand-flying the more precarious portions.

            Secondly –
            the biggest airport we’ll ever go into?” Traver Gruen-Kennedy, the company’s
            vice president for strategic operations, said to me. “A place like Savannah or
            Knoxville. Where the airlines are is where we don’t want to be.”

            Thus, smaller (and more numerous) airports that are less likely to be able to afford exceptionally complex ground-based navigation systems to guide pilot-free aircraft.

            DayJet claims to be all sorts of things (a software company and then a logistics company that happens to move people) but it’s just an air carrier with a clever business model. A flying service that serves a niche market. Besides,

            DayJet will not replace airline travel for the same reason I gave initially; and DayJet is not suited to fully automated air travel for (at a minimum) the two reasons I just gave (infrastructure and operational limitations). Beyond that is a discussion about the nature of risk and all sorts of techno-social problems (such as legal and moral culpability if an aircraft disappears over an ocean).

          • Not Given

            In one of your posts you indicated, “The cost of a pilot relative to the cost to fly large jet aircraft is minuscule.”

            I responded, “You seem to be implicitly assuming that large jet aircraft are a given.”

            You responded, “I didn’t assume anything of the sort – you inferred that.”

            Please allow me to clarify. If an airplane were to contain 300 passengers then the cost to employ the pilot would be low. However, if the airplane were to contain 5 passengers, then the cost to employ the pilot would be high. Therefore, to defray the cost of the pilot, airlines have an incentive to fly large planes.

            You indicated, “I read (and enjoyed) the article you referenced but I’m not sure you understand how DayJet operates relative to large jet aircraft.”

            First, DayJet is defunct. In other words, they “operated”; they no longer “operate.”

            Second, let us take a look at the concept of disruptive innovation:

            The following snippet comes from

            In low-end disruption, the disruptor is focused initially on serving the least profitable customer, who is happy with a good enough product. This type of customer is not willing to pay premium for enhancements in product functionality. Once the disruptor has gained a foothold in this customer segment, it seeks to improve its profit margin. To get higher profit margins, the disruptor needs to enter the segment where the customer is willing to pay a little more for higher quality. To ensure this quality in its product, the disruptor needs to innovate. The incumbent will not do much to retain its share in a not so profitable segment, and will move up-market and focus on its more attractive customers. After a number of such encounters, the incumbent is squeezed into smaller markets than it was previously serving. And then finally the disruptive technology meets the demands of the most profitable segment and drives the established company out of the market.

            “New market disruption” occurs when a product fits a new or emerging market segment that is not being served by existing incumbents in the industry.


            I do not mean to sound harsh but, to bolster your arguments, you were quoting disingenuous marketing claptrap designed to lull incumbents into complacency.

            Let us take a look at how Southwest Airlines started.

            The following snippet comes from

            Southwest Airlines began with the March 15, 1967 incorporation of Air Southwest Co. by Rollin King and Herb Kelleher to fly within the state startegy of Texas.[2][3]

            Kelleher believed that by staying within Texas, the airline could avoid federal regulation.[8] Three airlines (Braniff, Trans-Texas, and Continental Airlines) started legal action which was not resolved for three years. Air Southwest prevailed in 1970 when the Texas Supreme Court up held Air Southwest’s right to fly within Texas.[9] The Texas decision became final on December 7, 1970 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, without comment.[10]

            Southwest was just a cute little regional carrier. They was hardly worth a bother? Wasn’t they? Shucks. They couldn’t hardy even hurt a fly.

            Right? Eventually that cute little harmless regional followed the McDonalds/Walmart strategy of “stack ’em high, and sell ’em fast.” Of course the incumbents tried to squash Southwest but failed.

            If we apply the concept of disruptive innovation to passenger air travel, then we can see how as the price drops (in part by cutting the cost of pilots), passengers will transition from flying in large jets to small ones. Rich passengers (such as CEOs of large corporations) have long flown in this manner.

            People do not want to book a flight weeks in advance, when they can simply go online a few hours in advance, and book a flight on what James Fallows cleverly refers to as “sky taxis”

            From the innovators perspective, the key problem here is cutting the cost of sky taxis. Having an “air escort” (someone who is like a flight attendant/security guard) on board who earns, say, $15/hour and having one pilot on the ground sitting at a desk piloting half a dozen sky taxis remotely via computer is something we could probably see within next decade. Of course, the incumbents (commercial airline industry) will fight it. They fought Southwest. The conventional taxi industry is fighting uber today.

            Who typically wins these battles? The side with the most money, influence, and best team of sharp thinkers. I would not bet in favor of the commercial airlines winning against companies such as Apple, Google, Oracle, Amazon, etc. After being trounced by Amazon (known as the cute little seller ecommerce seller of books as recently as 2000) IBM just announced a partnership with Apple (the maker of cute little computers as recently as 1978).

        • Not Given

          These days many venture capitalists and many of the folks who run the startup companies they fund are obsessed with the concept of “disruptive innovation.” See,

          Commercial airline pilots will certainly be disrupted. It is not a question of “if” but of “when.” First is was hobbyists flying toy planes; now it is the military flying drones; next it will probably be commercial airline pilots flying planes from desks. Then increasing automation will probably allow one pilot to monitor multiple flights. Finally, pilots won’t be needed at all. Pilots, believe it or not, are machine operators. Of course they are typically highly trained, well educated, and hard working.

          But they machine operators nonetheless. And just as robots have replaced millions of machine operators on factory floors, robots will eventually operate the machines we call airplanes.

          Companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Oracle, et al have taken the low hanging fruit but they are inexorably climbing higher up the technology tree as they embrace hardware.

          They have enormous stockpiles of cash, tens of thousands of “the best and brightest” engineers in the word, hard charging executives who are maniacally focused on growth, and sophisticated investors who demand ever increasing profits.

          • ed

            The safety issue has vastly changed, since machine operators started to be replaced by machines. This mostly happened in industries, where relatively simple work was replaced by automated systems and/or machines. The advantage in those industries, is that most accidents involved personal injuries on the operators themselves. Machines now a days do better work than any craftsman, cheaper and with less risk. (The only craftsmanship that cannot be replaced by machines is probably art, because art involves so much more than mechanics). However, in complex industries like medicine, air transport and similar, replacing humans is so vastly more difficult, that it is arguable, whether this can happen within an overseeable future. One can never be sure, but imagine people being operated on by robots, without humans even being in the same room. That is hard to imagine. Flying large jets is even more complex than any surgery, especially when something unexpected arises. Remember, unexpected situations arise and are handled by pilots all the time, every day! You just don’t hear about them, because the situations are handled by trained professionals and don’t lead to any consequences. Operating planes remotely would not remove that challenge of handling a complex, unexpected abnormality. I don’t think pilots will be replaced within the next 50 – 100 years. Flying drones is something entirely different and involves hardly any of the real challenges of aviation safety.

          • Not Given

            I doubt that the following assertion is correct, “Flying large jets is even more complex than any surgery, especially when something unexpected arises.” Surgery seems far more akin to art than flying a plane.

            For example, planes are mass produced machines which have interchangeable parts. People, on the other hand, not only vary tremendously, but are all actually unique. A surgeon is occasionally surprised by what he finds inside a person.

            Also, although pilots certainly face unforeseeable problems resulting from challenging weather conditions and equipment malfunctions, the number, variety, and presentation of human ailments a surgeon contends seem to dwarf those faced by a pilot.

            Are you familiar with popular concept of “disruptive innovation”? Frankly the gist of your arguments sound very similar to those made by many of incumbents indicated in the following post:

            Sure elevator operators were some of the first to be replaced by automation. (One of my grandfathers was an elevator operator). Over the last few decades it has been factory workers who have been losing their jobs to automation. Clearly, the machine operators who we call “airplane pilots” will be rendered obsolete by automation in a similar fashion.

            The prospect of becoming structurally unemployed is painful. I realize that. If the primary source of one’s self-worth comes from one’s work, then one is probably not part of a viable community. Furthermore, a person in this situation is apt to think, “I am valuable because of the work I produce.” This thinking then leads to remarkable bias which in turns to denying facts and presenting dubious arguments. We might not like the truth. But if we look truth straight in the face and deny it, then we set ourselves up for pain and misery.

          • John Bisscheroux

            As a matter of fact operating room surgical procedures have only relatively recently adopted CRM, introduced by the airline industry. Humans working as a team following a common checklist of SOP for the type of operation.

    • John Bisscheroux

      So you did not read the entire article, otherwise you would rethink your comments. I am a pilot for over 50 years and, believe me, all the promises of “pilots” on the ground with a cup of coffee by their side are hogwash and make mistakes and the tragedy would be that his arse is not in front of 250 passengers !!! I had several encounters with small pilotless craft at altitudes where I thought I would not encounter them, so here is an account of a “real” pilot.

      • Not Given

        You did not address my arguments. Instead, you essentially asserted, “It didn’t happen properly in the past, therefore it won’t happen properly in the future.”

        • John Bisscheroux

          Hypothesizing seems to be your hobby and, yes in all the replies I have seen the majority debunk yours by a long shot. Why don’t you tell us what your (workable) solution is based on the science we have now that ensure added safety to the present pilotless risks of colliding with other piloted passenger, and other, aircraft with people on board. Sure things will change in the future, but we live in the present and don’t want to lighten the safety requirements on pilotless aircraft operations !

          • Not Given

            First and foremost, please let me be clear: I am neither pro-pilot nor anti-pilot, technophobe nor technophile. I am simply trying to imagine how planes might be flown in the future.

            Once again you did not address my arguments. Furthermore you have resorted to an ad hominem attack and a straw man argument. Apparently the thought of pilots becoming unnecessary rankles you so much that you are not thinking clearly about this subject. I do not mean to offend you, but it seems to me that you are ranting like a religious zealot.

            Finally, I am not advocating how planes should be flown in the present. Instead, I am predicting how I suppose they will be flown in the future (say, 25 to 50 years from now).

          • John Bisscheroux

            It seems you are foreseeing a robot that can be programmed to replace the senses of a trained human being with an ego that is very concerned with protecting ITS arse.and, subsequently, the load of passengers in the back. It will need to be programmed with a minimum of 10,000hours of a captain’s experience and a power source that is as reliable as a human. It needs peripheral vision and a back-up in case it blows a fuse (so to speak) And that is not cheap ! Any ground control with respect to observing what goes on around it is subject to reliability as is now the case.
            The expense of such a RELIABLE system may very well be cost prohibitive ! And this is the last I will devote to this subject. I post with my real name and I wonder why you find it necessary to resort to a cover name .

          • Not Given

            Yet again you did not address my arguments. Furthermore, you seem like
            you are angry that I am so foolish that I not to agree with the
            obviously self-evident truths you set forth. Thank you for opening my eyes to the truth.

          • John Bisscheroux

            “Not given” Have fun with you “theoretical “world and computer.. In my opinion I have addressed your original posting and I leave you to your own opinions. OUT !

          • Not Given

            You seem to have confused opinions with arguments. In this discussion you certainly have passionately opined but you have not even come close to properly addressing my arguments. That assertion, by the way, is not merely my opinion. It is a demonstrable fact. Furthermore, it seems to me that you have allowed your emotions to overwhelm your thinking. Some of your posts in this thread ooze with anger and self-righteousness. Instead of seething and ranting, why not think and argue?

          • John Bisscheroux

            Thank you for your amusing replies. Shall we leave you with the last words ? TaTa

          • ed

            Not Given: I agree what your saying: Many might try to debunk your arguments, because they simply don`t like the consequences of pilots loosing their jobs.
            However, I also think that many do not agree with your logic.
            Replacing a elevator operator (sorry about your dad loosing his job…) was an early step in replacing human work force. I percieve your logic to be that elevators where the first transports where the humans where replaced. The next should be train drivers, right? Then? Busses? Then cars. Then aeroplanes. Seems logic at first glance.
            By the way, I`ll take back that surgery is less complex than flying an airplane. Not because I think I was wrong, but because I am not sure, and it doesn`t really matter.
            The human factor in neither fields can be replaced by robots/computers in the foreseeable future.
            My point is, the human factor in all complex industries is the reason why things go right. The human factor is also, sadly enough, often the reason why things go wrong. However, the importance of people making things go right is undervalued by your logic. Remember, 99,99% of all flights go well, even when under threat of going wrong.
            Systems are not flawless, even with elevators. And they never will be. People identify and overcome design flaws. People recognise actual demands and adjust their performance accordingly. Machines do not. When procedures are applied, people interpret and apply them according to conditions. Machines do not. People detect and mitigate, when things go wrong or even before things go wrong. People stop situations from escalating. Machines do neither.
            What I am saying here is not my opinion, it is the findings and arguments of professors in the forefront of Safety systems research. (Hollnagel)
            Me being a pilot, you might say I am biased, sure. But it is also probably true, that replacing pilots by automation is a far cry from coming true yet.
            Like the original article says, many seem to think that flying an aeroplane is pretty similar to driving a bus. Hell, it sometimes even feels similar or even easier, when you`re sitting there. That doesn`t mean that it is. There are so many layers in an airlines organisation, there are so many implications, regulations, duties, changes, unpredictabilities and what have you. Even an experienced pilot cannot grasp how much it takes from all involved parties to plan and excecute flight operations. Pilots often underestimate how much is behind him being able to do his job. It`s pretty impressive actually. As are all industries that rely heavily on the human factor 🙂

    • Nate Stetler

      I don’t think you have any idea of what pilots actually do in a cockpit. Did you even read the above article?

    • Tristan Torres

      That spectrum article you quote is biased, just in the other direction

  • Boeingflyer

    Spot on!

  • Chris

    As an Airline Captain with over 14000 hours I can honestly say the number of times an Autopilot or related system has failed me is not that often. That being said if a human was not on board to take over each one of those incidents would have resulted in a catastrophic event and loss of everyone on board. No matter how good the automation is it can fail. This article is spot on


    Autopilots only help for when the pilot is drunk and the copilot is wicked hot and got her blouse stuck in the pilots zipper.

  • David Sparks

    Completely automated cockpits will happen eventually but articles such as this – – reinforce why it is still a way off happening.

  • Mike Roper

    Im not getting on a plane without a human that doesnt know how to fly it onboard. What if the electronics fail or something mechanically goes wrong and the remote system goes out? Then we have terrorists to worry about. What if they figured out how to access the remote systems? There are too many variables that we can’t control to justify this.

  • Mike Brown

    For all those who think that automation is the way ahead, I ask does the name “Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger” mean anything to you?