Machines or Pilots?

I don’t know how genuine the featured Ryanair advert is – it could well be “fake news” – but it does fit the cost-cutting image of Michael O’Leary! He has long advocated that he wanted single-pilot airliners by 2020, as well as advocating “stand-up” cabins (no seats) and passengers paying to use the toilets. A lot of this is usually dismissed as publicity stunts, but his recent stand-off with pilot unions clearly indicates that a no-pilot airline would be his ideal. It is quite enlightening to hear him contradicting himself about the importance of pilots:

He is not alone.

Research into autonomous flight is well underway. Boeing’s research has been underway since 2013 and Airbus has been working with French aerospace research company Onera and avionics manufacturer Thales for a number of years now.

The financial impetus to move to pilotless aircraft is immense – analysts see a potential profit opportunity worth about $35 billion for the aviation and aerospace manufacturing sectors. Read more here:

Artificial Intelligence has already surpassed human ability – just research Google’s AlphaZero programme, which defeated Stockfish 8, a programme capable of calculating 70 million chess positions per second. AlphaZero, though, was not programmed or taught any chess at all. It taught itself to play chess in just four hours and then beat the 2016 World Champion (Stockfish 8) on the 7th December 2017. Yes – machines have long surpassed humans at playing chess, a game which for centuries was considered one of the greatest achievements of human intelligence.

We as pilots are inevitably quick to point out that no machine can match our intuition achieved through training and experience – forgetting that “intuition” is only pattern matching, a skill which algorithms have proved to be much faster and more consistent at.

We’re also very aware of passengers preferring two (or more) pilots in the cockpit – but younger people and new generations will be quicker on the uptake and may accept a no-pilot environment more easily. Just think of the many cockpit jobs which have become redundant over the past few decades – radio operators, navigators, flight engineers – all once essential. And now? Could pilots be next?

While I submit that we are inevitably on the road to autonomous aircraft, it will in all probability not happen very soon.

For instance, Thales is working on “genetic algorithms,” the fittest of which survive. Several variants of an algorithm are combined. The resulting second-generation algorithms are compared by having them solve a problem. Those most effective are kept and combined to create a third generation and so on. So the ninth or tenth generation will be significantly better than the first. The problem, the way I understand it, is that the algorithms’ solutions become unpredictable – not wrong, but unpredictable. And in aviation we need predictability – you cannot certify a component with unpredictable characteristics. We need to understand “why” the algorithm arrived at a particular solution.

Boeing has just learnt this lesson with the MCAS system on the B737-Max. While the designing engineers thought they understood the “hidden” system and its implications, the human-machine interface failed because of the failure to include it in pilots’ conversion training. The pilots were simply not expecting the excessive nose-down trim demanded by the system, due to the FMC being confused by a faulty AOA sensor. And here we’re not even in autonomous territory yet, because the pilot can still disengage the electric trim and revert to good old manual flight.

So while the MCAS of the Max can still be understood and be “predictable” – once we hand over complete control to the aircraft, it has to be completely predictable.

That “predictability” appears to be some way off – “If we cannot explain what the system does, we will have a hard time obtaining a certification,” said Virginie Wiels, Onera’s director of information processing and systems. Significant progress can be expected by 2021, according to Marko Erman, Thales’ chief technical officer. But Wiels does not foresee any application on the flight deck in the next 10 years.”

That would imply that the possibility exists to have pilotless aircraft airborne by 2030!

So O’Leary may have to wait a few years to see his dreams come true – until then, I’m afraid we need to understand the immense pressures pilots experience in a very demanding environment – one where their crucial role is progressively being denigrated and misunderstood.






Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington…

Noel Coward wrote this song in 1935. While there are a few theories about what induced him to write it, the gist of the lyrics is a list of reasons why Mrs Worthington’s daughter should not be allowed near the stage. Whether intended as a genuine rebuke or simply a bit of (very tongue-in-cheek British) humour, I’m appropriating it today for another ditty (you can use the original music, should you please).

Actually, it won’t be a ditty – my musical ability lags too far behind. But the revised title is:

Do or don’t you put your daughter or son in the air, Mrs Worthington?

It is a topic I’ve briefly touched on before, in 2016 and the Future for Pilots. The situation (halfway through 2018) is much the same, but a few pointers need discussion.

Over the past years, a number of forecasts have indicated that a world-wide pilot shortage is looming. At the RAeS Conference of September 2017 (Training for the new Millennium) the demand for airline pilots was depicted in this graph:


So we would need 70 new pilots per day to be trained – a total of 255 000 pilots required over the next nine years. For Africa and the Middle East the quoted number is more than 30 000 new pilots. The question is, where are they going to be found? I’ve discussed this before in Of Expensive Dachshunds and Landings, but my cue from Mrs Worthington is whether the prospective new replacements would be appropriately suitable, capable and safe.

In another RAeS paper, the International Pilot Training Association quotes the high cost as a barrier to entry for prospective pilots:
“The Outreach, Recruitment and Retention Workstream is targeting the pilot demand and aims to find ways of funding the ab initio training of pilots. With a demand of 600,000 pilots in the next 20 years and an average cost of £100,000 per Air Transport Pilot License, there are not enough pilots produced per year to cover both retirement and the growth of the industry”.

Also this:
“Next to the costs, there is a growing decline in the attractiveness of the pilot profession, as there are many other opportunities for young people. Women still represent only 7% of the pilot population. In China and India it is 13% but the interest of women in becoming pilots is likely still influenced by the myth that it is not a family friendly job”.

I would submit that this completely underestimates the current level of “unattractiveness” of the pilot profession.

The high cost should have been addressed long ago – a small group of airlines are now, belatedly, looking at finding ab-initio cadets to train. So yes, the cost is certainly a major barrier to entry.

To state that it is a myth that it is not family friendly is disingenious. The harsh reality is that a career as a pilot plays havoc with your family life. The fact is that pilots now no longer remain with one airline for a multi-decade career, but switch employers on average seven times during that career. This could mean moving a number of times to different continents – not necessarily what young families with children would find attractive.

That leads us then to the further problem our proverbial Mrs Worthington would face: The many thousands of new pilots required by 2027 would, of necessity, be so-called millennials – actually post-millennials, people born after the year 2000.

Millennials are a constantly connected, always mobile generation. Perhaps this could explain the decline in flying as a desirable career – aircraft (whether piloted by humans or machines) are simply another means of connecting them to the “now” experience. It is not something that warrants their total dedication and attention for many years.

I don’t believe that piloting could offer young post-millennials the instant rewards they seek – employers in other sectors would warn that millennials tend to “job-hop” very easily and regularly (for too many reasons to allow discussion here).

From the RAes Conference: “According to Rod Wren, CEO, Wings Alliance and Director Bristol Groundschool, around 50% of flight school graduates are not selected for airlines. “We need to train the right people,” he said. “Self-selection does not work. Instead, selection should be based on pilot core competences. Airlines need to engage with the flight training industry.” “We need to look at the person first before we look at their skills,” 

This is a scary point – one I’m afraid the training industry mostly overlooks to ensure a financial future. Not every bright-eyed millennial candidate arriving at your flight school would possess the competencies required to become a pilot – some should simply be pointed in another direction, rather than them wasting money on a very expensive training course.

These competencies have been well identified and documented, as set out in the Evidence Based Training (EBT) documents of ICAO, and IATA. In short, nine required competencies have been identified:

Two dealing with Flight Path Control – Manual and Automation;
Two dealing with Procedures – Knowledge and Application of Procedures;
and the remaining five all dealing with Human Factors or CRM competencies –
Leadership & Teamwork,
Situational Awareness,
Workload Management, and
Problem Solving & Decision Making

Generalising, I understand the millennial mantra to be (remember, Mrs Worthington is all about generalisations):
(a) I am not responsible (for anything)
(b) If you hold me responsible, I will be traumatised and need counselling.
(c) My life is ruled by social media – I don’t need to learn all this stuff. If I need to know anything I simply ask Siri or Google.
(d) I live for now, your fascination with tomorrow is your problem.

This poses the problem that most of the competencies required for pilot training would not be met – unfortunately, acquiring the required level of knowledge and skill demands unwavering dedication and the acceptance of total responsibility.

Thus it would appear that the industry is soon going to run out of willing and suitable candidates.

What does that mean – what would the answer be?

The answer lies in algorithms and artificial intelligence – which already runs much of our lives (Google and your cellphone probably already know you better than you know yourself…)

In the US there is currently a concerted effort by ALPA to avoid a vote by Congress that would mandate manufacturers to research the potential for single-pilot airliners – and, by extension, pilotless airliners.

I believe that is simply delaying the inevitable.

The future of aviation is eventually going to be a pilotless environment, with autonomous aircraft whizzing your millennials’ kids between continents – and possibly between planets.

Fortunately for me, it is not likely to happen within my lifetime – oh, hang on, my cell-phone is telling me that my roster has changed, and with it my future…

So, should you put your daughter or son in the air, Mrs Worthington?

Featured image: Noel Coward and Julie Hayden, The Scoundrel.



Ex Libris

Pilots don’t read very much.

Just ask any chief pilot or flight ops head and they’ll tell you that pilots don’t read NOTAMS or memos – or e-mails, for that matter!

However, when it comes to recreational reading, it may be a different story – certainly in my case.

I have a veritable library of “flying” books, ranging from the whole set of Ernest K Gann’s books, to many biographies and histories. I must have indicated as much somewhere in one of my posts, as about two years ago Pen and Sword contacted me to suggest that I should perhaps read some of their publications for possible review. Their logo includes the heading “Bringing you Closer to the Past” – which explains their catalogues of special interest publications. Long story short – after battling the SA postal service, I finally received From the Spitfire Cockpit to the Cabinet Office.

A typical Pen and Sword offering, this is the memoirs of the late Air Commodore JF “Johnny” Langer, CBE AFC DL. A career Royal Air Force pilot, he joined the RAF towards the end of WW2 and, as pilots could wait for up to a year for a flying posting , volunteered to fly gliders in India, preparing for airborne assaults in Burma. Later in his career he would return to the far East in various postings – the final time overseeing the creation of the Singapore Air Force.

JF Langer book

Post war he served on fighters, first in Germany and later commanding No 43 (F) Squadron – the famous “Fighting Cocks” at Leuchars. As a Group Captain he commanded RAF Valley and later became Director of Flying Training. In this position he set up the original Red Arrows in Gnats and saw their transition onto Hawks.  Of particular interest is his co-chairing of the multi-national committee to bring the Tornado into service, and his responsibilities in introducing the Hawk trainer into the RAF (and the US Navy).

Retiring after 37 years of RAF service, he served as Civil Aviation Security Adviser to the UK Government.

That’s the very short summary.

The book itself is typical of a self-written memoir, full of minutiae and sometimes quite long-winded. Bearing in mind that he wrote these memories down over three years while already in his eighties, it is easier to understand where the sometimes quaint and often almost archaic descriptions come from. Be prepared to decipher many bits of “RAF-speak” and a military attitude to most situations described – the writing often reminds one of a staff paper, but at least with some typically dry British humour thrown in here and there! At times he almost touches on ribaldry (he quite bluntly lists some of his youthful sexual conquests), but constantly one senses an understated but very detailed approach to the typical peace-time career of an air force pilot. This said, he is never shy to make mention of some of his achievements as a pilot and sportsman!

One issue, about which he minces no words, is his dislike of military personnel who did not meet his demanding expectations. He is particularly scathing about some senior officers whom he regarded as obstructive to his career advancement. His aim was to end his career as an Air Vice Marshall (AVM) – something he did not achieve.

Air Commodore Langer remained active in retirement, still acting as a tour guide at Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds well into his eighties.

From the Spitfire Cockpit to the Cabinet Office covers a period from the end of WW2 to the first military jets, through the Cold War and the Victor series, to the modern fast jets and the security threats to modern airliners. If military and aviation history is your cup of tea – then you will thoroughly enjoy this book!

Featured Image: World of Aircraft Design;






Of Expensive Dachshunds and Landings

The story goes that Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin. The artist politely agreed, quickly made a sketch and handed back the napkin adding that it would cost a rather significant amount of money. The admirer was shocked, asking how it could cost that much: “It only took you a minute to draw this!”

“No,” Picasso replied, “It took me forty years.”

It is the type of answer I am often looking for when faced with comments about my occupation as a pilot – the problem is that you only think of it afterwards!

You’ve heard these assertions before: “Does it not get boring? Surely you should know it all by now – why all the constant recurrent training? You’re paid too much for just reading newspapers, after all the autopilot does the flying! Glorified bus drivers…”

Just as any other older aviator would attest, the answer is that it has taken me almost forty years to hone my skill to its current level.

That smooth flight did not happen by chance – we checked the forecasts, decided on flight levels based on these and myriads of other parameters, drawing on experience. Then we adjusted en-route, flying around convective weather and climbing or descending just to keep our passengers’ coffee from spilling.


A busy descent ahead when that massive storm is situated exactly where you need to go.

That smooth landing was also no fluke, it took planning and concentration and a large dose of experience to achieve a touchdown in the demarcated zone, at the correct speed (adjusted for weight, wind and surface conditions) staying on the centre-line and turning off the short runway without any uncomfortable, white-knuckle braking.

That experience did not arrive via the internet. It was achieved through the traditionally accepted years of hard work and dedication, endless training, and doing a variety of flying jobs to eventually land a seat in an airliner.

But now it would appear that the long-predicted pilot shortage is starting to bite. ICAO and the major aircraft manufacturers have warned about the predicted shortage of pilots and technicians for many years now, here is an ICAO position paper from 2105 which highlights the major contributing factors and the associated safety concerns.

Until such time as AI (artificial intelligence) can safely fly passengers around in airliners, a high demand for human pilots will persist, as the huge salaries now offered by (in particular) Chinese airlines prove.

My inbox is inundated daily with job offers from all over the world, where qualified B738 Captains are currently being offered salaries of US$40 000+ per month. For an expat pilot this would (taking into account the tax free benefit) immediately mean earning your current annual salary in just a couple of months. Any wonder that we are experiencing a drain of pilots from South Africa to these lucrative positions?

The situation is exacerbated further as entry requirements to international airlines are lowered to allow younger and less experienced pilots onto flight decks – so the traditional “stepping stone” regional airlines are now missing these pilots. No longer do you find pilots with contract experience in turbines or jets clamouring to get into the local airlines – they’re being snapped up directly by the international majors.

With no viable local cadet programmes currently in place, it may well be only a matter of time before local airlines have to park aircraft due to a shortage of pilots. Perhaps it is almost too late for airlines to consider recruiting kids from school to train from ab-initio to ALTP. Flying is no longer considered a glamorous occupation and the long hours and time away from home puts paid to the idea that its a desirable lifestyle. So the recruiters may have to look much deeper into their companies’ budgets to attract new candidates.

On the other hand, should a young aspiring pilot currently have access to funding of around R 1 million for an accelerated course, an airline position is virtually guaranteed.

So, next time you fly behind an older, more experienced Captain – be reminded of Picasso: They’re not being paid for that one flight, but for all the years of honing their skills.