Yesterday we tweeted about an article we came across at interestingengineering.com titled “Novel Flight System Could Teach Anyone to Fly in 30 Minutes” (I’m suspecting not literally anyone?). It was reported a company called Skyryse was claiming that with its new FlightOS they could teach someone to learn how to fly a “noncommercial” aircraft in 30 minutes.
Even though they didn’t go into what “noncommercial” meant for the purposes of the article, we were interested to see exactly what they were claiming – a dubious claim at best, but great click-bait all the same.
Unfortunately the article lacked any useful details, other than the new system provided a “more intuitive” means of aircraft handling than is currently available as it enables the pilot to operate the aircraft through a tablet or joystick (I think Airbus might be trialing the latter at the moment?).
With greater use of automation, in particular through flight envelope protections and non-normal situations, someone is able to pilot an aircraft with next to no training (in the traditional time and costs of current ATPL requirements).
Perhaps we aren’t going to be seeing this system on one’s Boeing or Airbus anytime soon but it does add fuel to the growing pressures to move us towards even further automation in the flight deck. And to reduce the crewing complements this will entail. For example the most critical phases of flight are still of course take-off and landing. However on long-sectors, for example LHR to SIN, there are four pilots on board with the extra two required for crew rest during the 12 odd hours of flight time.
The increasing acceptance of automation to assist or even carryout pilot functions in non-normal situations and with increasing monitoring and enforcement of flight envelope protections, two pilots at the controls at any onetime could be removed.
When I’ve heard these points raised by others in the past the“public perception” argument normally comes up, along the lines “… the public wouldn’t accept a reduction in pilot complements on their trip down to TFS for their annual summer break”. However, I suggest they already do. I base this on two observations. The first is when one hears about an aircraft incident on the news the sequence of words is normally “ … and THE pilot did such and such …”. Which has always made me wonder where the other guy was. Of course I know they are referring to the captain, who is the legal commander of the aircraft. But what they are also doing is acknowledging that the captain is a pilot where as the other chap is not.
Which brings me to point two. I was heading down to China (when we could fly there) and a nervous passenger asked to come up to the flight deck during boarding so as to “calm the nerves”. She was genuinely surprised to see three chaps in uniform on the flight deck. Upon which after establishing who the captain was she asked “So what do you two do then?”. My piping up that I just made the coffee was somewhat overruled by the captain’s more informative response.
My point in this little aside is that the public’s understanding of a pilot’s job and what happens day-to-day is so limited that the greater use of automation and the move towards single-pilot ops for commercial passenger travel, at least during the cruise, has nothing to do with the public resistance, but only faces the regulatory hurdles such moves generate. And we perhaps should work through these hurdles as the aviation industry, through hard earned experience, has learnt over the years that changes are best done slowly.