Friday, March 1, 2024
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Pilotless aircraft? That’s plane stupid


IN a scathing Daily Mail article, Stephen Glover asks which ‘experts’ from Highways England came up with the idea of so-called smart motorways.  

He says the proposal by these ‘geniuses’ to turn the hard shoulder into an extra lane was jaw-droppingly ridiculous and anyone with a modicum of common sense would have sent them packing. 

Instead, ‘smart’ motorways were rolled out nationwide and according to a BBC Panorama investigation last January, 38 people died on them over a five-year period. An official report last March came up with a figure of 44 deaths since 2015. 

That’s a shocking situation. But it has an even crazier and what to many will seem a potentially more disastrous parallel in the world of aviation … pilotless passenger aircraft.  

The money-saving idea has been around for many years, but is coming closer to commercial reality. Last July, French planemaker Airbus successfully completed tests using a self-flying A350 jet to practise taxiing, take-off and landing.  

And now British manufacturer Britten-Norman is said to be working to adapt its short-haul Islander plane for domestic operations with just one pilot, followed by a version with no humans on the flight deck – so-called autonomous flying. 

The idea of pilotless flight is that the plane will carry out all its functions via its inbuilt computers while being monitored from the ground, in the same way unmanned military drones are watched remotely.  

As the project goes ahead, researchers at Edinburgh Napier University will reportedly assess the public’s willingness to use an aircraft flown by microchips instead of a pilot.   

Well, I know at least one person who’ll be giving them a negative answer if asked. I don’t know about you, but when I get on a plane, I want to know there’s a human in charge on board and not a robot. 

Yes, I’ve seen Air Crash Investigation on TV and I know most accidents are put down to pilot error.   

But come on – who wants to be zooming through the sky at 38,000ft doing over 500mph without a sentient being up front with a hand on the control column and looking out of the cockpit window? Call me a Luddite, but not me, thanks.  

Yes, I know modern planes are virtually flown by computer anyhow. But electronic brains can also get things catastrophically wrong. In the Boeing 737 Max crashes, the anti-stall programming is thought to have forced the planes into a nosedive, with deadly results. 

Computers are also vulnerable to hackers. What if some pizza-eating geek took control of a pilotless jet from his bedroom and turned it into a real-life video game? Or demanded a ransom? 

Another thought. If there are no pilots on board, who’s in charge of the clattering plane? The steward trying to flog you perfume and chocolates from the trolley? The flight attendant busy clicking the overhead lockers to make sure they’re shut?  

And when a bird strike kills the engines on take-off – as happened to US Airways Flight 1549 over New York in 2009 – is a computer going to save all 155 on board by safely landing an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River? I doubt it. It famously took the experience-honed skills, steady nerve and human decision-making of veteran pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger to do that.

Autonomous aviation is running in sync with moves towards using hydrogen to power aircraft as a supposedly cheaper and ‘greener’ alternative to the fossil fuel kerosene, which is mainly used in jet engines. That’s another potentially controversial development on safety grounds. 

But even if we eventually switch to new fuel technology, surely pilotless passenger planes will never get off the ground? As in the case of ‘smart’ motorways, anyone with a modicum of common sense must see that they’re a crazy idea. 

The basic duty of airlines is to ensure passenger safety. And they simply cannot do that by sending an aircraft full of people up into the wild blue yonder with no one on board who can fly the bloody thing.  

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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