Re: The future of "pilots"

From: (George Hull)
Organization: DirecTell L.C. - Park City, UT. - 1.801.647.0214
Date:         20 Apr 95 01:51:45 
References:   1
Followups:    1
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In article <airliners.1995.438@ohare.Chicago.COM>, Brett Wakeman
<> wrote:

>I just recently was on a Boeing 767 and during the flight, I went
>up to talk to the pilots.  They showed me how little they had to
>do in order to get the aircraft from point A to B.  Most of their
>time was spent on the airwaves and entering data into the Navigational
>Aid computer.  The co-pilot even pulled up a graphic of the landing
>strip and a dotted line which represented how the aircraft was
>going to land itself.  They told me they only take over the controls
>about 500 feet away on aproach and touch the aircraft down.  Then
>they switch on Auto Brakes and the aircraft stops itself.

I think that there were some misconceptions transmitted here.  I fly the
767 for a major airline.  I'm interested that you were talking to the
pilots during the flight . . that ain't allowed by regs.  On the ground
it's OK, but in flight we're not supposed to allow access to the flight
deck to unauthorized people.

It is "possible" to do the following:  Taxi onto the runway, advance power
toward takeoff thrust and engage autothrottles.  Autothrottles set takeoff
thrust.  The aircraft is manually flown during the takeoff . . it cannot
takeoff automatically.  We can engage the autopilot shortly after takeoff
. . but that is rarely done.  Typically the aircraft is hand flown during
the departure, although it is possible to engage the autopilot at about
1000 feet and engage appropriate modes to cause it to follow the
programmed lateral and vertical navigation paths.  I would guess that the
typical departure is hand flown at least for several thousand feet of

Modern airliners are typically _not_ handflown at higher altitudes (during
cruise) because, frankly, it's a lot of work to do it smoothly . . the
autopilot is a much better cruise pilot.  But it is not uncommon to hand
fly the aircraft all of the way to cruise, set the trim correctly, and
engage the autopilot after establishing the aircraft in cruise.

The descent can be hand flown or flown on autopilot.  I think that a
telling point is the fact that we are required to exercise the autoland
system at least once each month on each aircraft in order to maintain
authorization to use the system when it's necessary.  As the end of the
month approaches, it is common to see notes on our flight plans reminding
us that a particular aircraft needs an autoland.  That particular aircraft
has been landed manually all month.  The point here is that we almost
_never_ autoland in normal conditions, except to practice occasionally.
Pilots tend to want to fly during the interesting parts of the flight . .
those parts are the departure and arrival.  The demands of the air traffic
system do not allow the long, stabilized approaches necessary for
autolanding.  When the weather is good, we fly shorter approaches with
traffic sequences closer together.  We are required to use the autoland
system during approaches in very low visibility . . _not_ during "severe"
weather.  Severe implies thunderstorms or high winds . . the autoland
can't hack it in those conditions as well as the pilot can, in my view.
Wind limitations are far more restrictive for autopilot approaches than
they are for hand-flown approaches.  I would be very surprised to see a
pilot conduct a landing during gusty or stormy conditions using the
autopilot for the landing.  Most of our landings, even in the aircraft
which are capable of autolanding, are conducted manually.

During very low visibility approaches (we can land the 767 in 300 foot
visibility) we use the three autopilots and autobrakes to land the
aircraft.  If the visibility is indeed that low we will conduct the
approach to touchdown, at which time the pilots will still not see the
runway lights.  The lights become visible as the nosewheel touches down .
. and there will only be about 3 of the bright centerline lights visible
at that point . . not enough forward visibility to reliably taxi at 150
mph.  So the autobrakes slow the aircraft as we manually select reverse
thrust.  The autopilot maintains the aircraft on the runway centerline.
We will slow to taxi speed, at which time we'll disengage the autobrakes
and the autopilot and taxi manually to the end of the runway . . we go all
the way to the end because the lighting changes in a predictable way and
we can then be sure exactly where we are on the runway.  We don't want to
turn off at midfield and get lost.  We turn off at the end and then have
to deal with the problem of actually finding the terminal.  We're still up
in the goop and it's very hard to taxi in low visibility.  Most US
airports which are equipped for low-visibility operations have special
lighting and markings on the taxiways to help with navigation on the
ground.  Frequently we'll have a "follow me" truck guide us to the

>The automation was quite impressive, yet got me to thinking about
>the future for these pilots.  I asked them where they thought
>piloting was going in the future, and I got an interesting response.
>What they predicted is that in the next two generations of aircraft,
>the concept of a 'pilot' will be replaced by a 'piloting technician',
>someone who will monitor the aircraft's operations but essentially
>will have little involvement in actually 'flying' the aircraft.
>It is almost that way now, they said.  For example, in severe
>weather conditions, they are not even allowed to touch the controls
>when landing -- the plane lands and stops itself entirely.
>I highly doubt that we will see the abolition of the cockpit in
>the near future, but what they predict seems plausible.  In the
>meantime, pilots' jobs seem secure, since I don't think you'll find
>to many people wanting to fly in a 'pilotless aircraft'.  Just my

I don't want to fly in a "pilotless" aircraft any time soon either,
because all of the procedures that I've described are quite intense
maneuvers for the pilots.  The aircraft doesn't do it alone . . it's
programmed and "told" what to do at each step.  The pilots monitor the
systems at all times to be sure that the automation is actually doing what
they want it to do.  Transitions into the automated aircraft have proved
difficult for many pilots because there is actually _more_ to learn and
understand and master in a highly automated environment.  There is still
an aircraft under all of those layers of automation and it can . . and
should . . be flown with the appropriate level of automation at all times.

As to the "piloting technician" idea: I think that there is some truth to
this, but I don't dislike it.  With the automated systems, we're able to
sit back a little during many phases of flight and improve our situational
awareness.  We're not just "flying" the aircraft . . any aircraft.  We're
also responsible for navigation and communication and weather avoidance.
The newer aircraft provide their pilots with good tools to improve their
ability to perform those tasks.  A B727 pilot has the same
responsibilities as a B767 pilot . . most of us have flown both
generations of aircraft.  But the B767 pilot can superimpose his weather
radar display on his navigation display . . he has a real-time wind vector
displayed on his nav display . . he can autoland in lower visibility,
etc.  The autopilots and displays are different, but the responsibilities
are the same.

One of the messages I'd like to convey here is that the pilots of any
airliner are using automation to varying degrees . . we all have
autopilots and instrument landing systems and weather radar and radios.
But they are different machines and pilots are trained and experienced in
using them appropriately.  The newer airliners make some of the tasks
easier and some of the displays are more intuitive.  But the results tend
to be the same (ie: it's very safe) because of the people involved and the
maturity of the industry.  I'm looking at pictures on my wall of a 727 and
a 757 during approaches.  They're both getting the job done and I like
flying them both.

I hope that my long response provides some illumination of this subject.
Let me know what needs a little more explanation.