Passenger Aircraft will fly with no pilot on board?

Ryanair’s chief executive is already planning single-pilot operation on short-haul flights. Military UAV can fly for hours, and conclude their complex mission with a mixture of remote controlled and automatic flight management.
Let’s be honest, the no-pilot airliner is just around the corner.

The US Navy has been using the Category III Automatic Carrier Landing System for years. It’s so reliable Uncle Sam’s Yacht Club has reduced the number of cross deck pendants, from four to three, on its new nuclear bird farms, so the technology exists for demanding flight environments. It’s only a matter of time.

The full implementation of the satellite-based NextGen National Airspace System is a needed component for no-pilot operations, because it completes the “video game” picture of modern aviation. There may well be one more step, however, an interim one-pilot crew, to make traditionalists feel better while the technology proves itself.

The article by SCOTT MCCARTNEY of the Wall Street Journal (hereinafter) talk of a day when airliners could use a single pilot. He is not considering the progress done in the mean time relating communication and data rate flow.

The future?
By 2015: the second pilot will be “on ground”.
By 2025: one “ground pilot” for Take-off assistance; FLIGHT IN automatic mode; one “ground pilot” for landing assistance.

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‘Imagining a Day When Airliners Are Flown Solo

SCOTT MCCARTNEY Wall Street Journal

Three … two … one … takeoff?

It once took a cockpit crew of three to fly an airliner: captain, first officer and flight engineer. Today, it’s two, the captain and first officer. But on-board computers have made flying commercial jets relatively easy—so easy there’s talk of a day when airliners could be flown solo.

Aircraft manufacturer Embraer, a major supplier of 40- and 100-seat jets to U.S. airlines, says it wants its planes capable of single-pilot flight within 10 to 15 years. And avionics group Thales says it is working on a next-generation cockpit that would enable single-pilot operations with a backup for incapacitation.
“It’s something that would be potentially feasible,” said Kevin Hiatt, a former international chief pilot for Delta Air Lines who is now executive vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation.

While it’s been a topic of discussion in the airline industry, it’s nonetheless hard to see the flying public, regulators, insurers and major airlines accepting a single-pilot system. The obvious stumbling block is what happens if the one and only pilot gets sick?

Serious episodes of pilot incapacitation—when one pilot becomes too sick to fly or even dies while in the air—happen a few times a year around the world, researchers say. An examination of those instances shows how a second set of hands in the cockpit ensures passenger safety.

In the past 16 months, there have been at least four episodes worldwide. In June, an American Airlines flight attendant who has a pilot’s license but hadn’t flown in 20 years sat in the cockpit of a Boeing 767 to assist a captain after the first officer became ill with the stomach flu. Patti DeLuna said she changed altimeter settings twice because it’s on the first-officer’s side of the cockpit, keep an eye out for traffic in the sky and listened to the radio for instructions from air-traffic controllers. When controllers called, the captain responded, though he also showed her how to use the radio just in case. Flight 1612 landed normally.

Distress Call

In a 2004 study of U.S. airline pilots, there were 39 pilots who were incapacitated and 11 who were impaired aboard 47 aircraft over a six-year period. Here’s a snapshot of those cases:

  • Average age for incapacitations was 47 years old (range 25 to 59 years).
  • Average age for impairments was 43 years old (range 27 to 57 years).
  • The most frequent categories of incapacitation were: loss of consciousness and cardiac, neurological and gastrointestinal issues.
  • Safety of flight was seriously impacted in seven of the 47 flights and resulted in two non-fatal accidents.

“I was only back-up,” she said. Though there may have been private pilots on board with more experience, the crew didn’t want to announce the first-officer’s illness. “You don’t want to make an announcement like the ‘Airplane’ movie, ‘Can anyone fly this plane?’ ” she said.

A spokeswoman for American said the captain involved in Flight 1612 declined to comment. He handled the situation “just as he was trained to do,” she said.

In March, a Jet Airways flight in India made an emergency landing after the captain fell ill.
Last October, Qantas Airways Flight 593 from Adelaide landed in Perth with an incapacitated captain. The first officer issued an international distress call to request priority to land, a Qantas spokesman said, and an ambulance met the flight.
And earlier in 2009, Continental Airlines Capt. Craig Lenell died in-flight to Newark, N.J., from Brussels. Two first officers on board (flights longer than eight hours carry extra pilots for relief) landed the Boeing 777 in Newark without incident. Continental said he died of natural causes. Passengers weren’t told in the air that the captain had died.

A 2004 study of U.S. airline pilots by the Federal Aviation Administration found 39 incapacitations and 11 impairments aboard 47 aircraft during the six-year period studied. The most frequent categories of incapacitation were loss of consciousness and cardiac, neurological and gastrointestinal issues. Safety of flight was seriously impacted in seven of the 47 flights and resulted in two non-fatal accidents, the FAA said.

Airlines say crews train regularly to handle incapacitation in the cockpit. In simulator training at Southwest Airlines that pilots undergo annually, for example, captains pick a point during approaches in low visibility to simply go silent and stop flying without any warning. First officers have to identify what happened and take control of the airplane.

Mr. Hiatt of the Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit international safety group, says when faced with incapacitated pilots, federal rules require that pilots land at the nearest “suitable” airport. That may mean continuing to a planned destination if closer airports aren’t equipped to handle large planes.

When colleagues do become incapacitated, pilots need to plan ahead more than usual because the workload increases. They have to deal with new issues—arranging for medical help for the sick pilot, making decisions on whether to divert to an emergency landing and finding a potential helper, such as an off-duty airline pilot or a private pilot. And since they’ll be likely flying approaches and landings as well as doing all the talking to air-traffic controllers, they must prepare to land sooner.

“When down to single-pilot operations, you know you have to get things set up further out [from landing] because you do everything yourself,” he said.

He personally believes that with a backup pilot on the ground capable of taking control of a plane and data constantly streaming down from planes, many of which already transmit continuous data on engines and other systems, solo flight could be a reality. The U.S. military already flies pilotless planes, flown by operators on the ground. Unmanned spacecraft fly to distant planets. Technology could allow backup pilots to take control of a passenger jet from the ground. “But public opinion, insurance companies and airline management will take a long look at that,” he added. “And if it adds more cost, what would be the actual value added?”

For airlines, there would be huge labor cost savings in flying solo instead of having two pilots in every cockpit. Ultra-cheap Irish airline Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, has already called for single-pilot operation on short-haul flights, arguing computers do most of the flying, pilot incapacitation is rare and flight attendants could be trained to pinch hit in emergencies.

Airlines typically operate with one pilot as the “flying pilot” on a particular flight and the other as the “non-flying pilot,” or “monitoring pilot,” who handles radio transmissions, calls out checklists, readies cockpit instruments and double-checks the flying pilot. With more automation, perhaps digital communications to cut down on radio transmissions, electronic checklists and advanced navigation systems, the cockpit workload could be reduced for regular single-pilot operation.

It’s the second pilot who becomes vital during emergencies—and gives passengers the assurance that if one person has a heart attack or the flu, a planeload of people wouldn’t be endangered.

The FAA’s study came to the same conclusion. “The most important factor that appears to be responsible for the exceptionally good U.S. airline safety record associated with in-flight medical incapacitations,” the study said, “is the presence of a second pilot.”

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