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The Cockpit of the Future

by Ed Stephens Jr.

Private Pilot magazine, July,  2004


The automated cockpit of the future will consist of one pilot and one dog.  The pilotís job is to feed the dog.   And the dogís job?   Itís to bite the pilot if he tries to touch the controls.   

Where you stand on the automation issue depends on where you sit.  Itís clearly a windfall for private pilots; the golden age of technology has already created a silver age for general aviation.  Auto pilots, GPS, serious IFR gear, and even glass panels donít even merit raised eyebrows anymore.  What a metamorphosis!    Light planes used to be the jellyfish of the avionics world,  but a few years in the technology cocoon andĖprestoĖweíve got Cessna 182 cockpits that will put a Boeing 727 to shame.

So far, so good.

But thereís controversy brewing, especially at the heavy-iron end of the spectrum.  Cessna has succeeded in getting some Citations single-pilot certified, so when will the bean-counters with airlines demand the same thing?    I hear rumors that Boeing is planning to cook up just such an offering as a follow-up to the 7E7.  Surprisingly, Airbus doesnít seem as inclined to substitute capacitors for crews, at least publicly.  Airbus spokesman Barbara Kracht went on the record in March declaring  ďthere will always be two pilots on our planes."

Well, on the record or not, it doesnít take much imagination to envision a no-pilot airliner, let alone a single-pilot model.   If ATC can issue voice instruction to pilots, it sure as heck could orchestrate the show via a datalink to the Flight Management System.  

Recall the recent success of those nifty little Predator drones over Afghanistan and Iraq.  And the rotary-realm has been invited to the pilotless party, too.  I recently eyeballed the Grumman Northrop RQ-8A, which is under development for the Army and Navy.  Itís basically a light observation helicopter with no pilot.  On one hand, itís a cute little copter.  On the other hand, itís kind of creepy, this copter with no windows.   I used to think that being a dual-rated (i.e. helicopter and airplane) pilot would assure me a place in aviation, but it might mean Iím just twice as obsolete. 

Obsolete pilots, now thereís a thought.  They canít train us to engineer the black boxes, all those jobs will go to India, where their students were studying integral calculus while our brethren were boning up on...uh, sociology.  We canít make the boxes, the Chinese will be doing that.  ATC will be privatized and outsourced to a single center in Manila.  All that will remain in the U.S. is a few airline CEOs flying on their pilotless planes to visit their bankers in the Cayman Islands.  

My pals and I will be reduced to wandering the streets in roving gangs, leaving smoldering ruins in our wake, pillaging, marauding, and savaging vestal maidens in some twisted, Bacchanalian version of Road Warriors.  Oh, wait a minute--that was last weekend.   Well, at least weíre preparing for our future, or lack thereof.

As for our future and fledgling aviators, donít ignore the blessings of general aviation, since a silver age is nothing to sneeze at.  In pro ranks, maybe the flight attendants have the most secure jobs.   Perhaps Iíll lop a stripe or two off my epaulettes and report for duty.  Let me see if I have this right: If the plane goes into an inverted death spin, simply bust down the cockpit door and hit the ALT, CTRL, and DELETE keys simultaneously.  

And if the plane doesnít go inverted, then serve a cup of coffee to each passenger...and a bowl of Alpo to the captain.


© 2004 Ed Stephens Jr.