"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman, this is Captain Atal speaking. We will shortly be commencing our descent into Hong Kong International Airport. And by the way, I'm not a human” If some folks get their way, you may hear Atal on all your flights. Atal can guide you through take-off, cruise at altitude and landing. Atal will ask you to put on the seat belt for turbulence, then remind the passenger in seat 25B to comply.
Atal is a system, a series of connected computers, a vast number of algorithms and programs. Bits are in the belly of your plane, also across a telemetry network and at a control centre. Atal could replace the pilot. This is not my imagination at work, Atal exists and may soon be looking after you. The name may change (automatic take-off and landing), yet the system is there.
The Taliban and other enemies of the US are familiar with the ability of Atal-like systems to deliver. Drones loiter for hours over hostile terrain; controlled thousands of miles away. Then they swoop down to bring death with pin-point accuracy. Of course, the targets are sometimes innocent wedding parties or sheepherders. But that’s not Atal’s fault. A human got that bit wrong, while Atal puts the bomb on the required spot.
If you’re uncomfortable without a human pilot, you’re not alone. The airlines and plane manufacturers recognise the fear the public will have. For the sake of assurance and emergencies, they propose one pilot to remain at the pointy end. Manual controls stay, with the option for the pilot to take-over if needs dictate.
None of this is revolutionary. Speak to a modern commercial pilot to ask how long he’s hands-on with the controls on a long-haul flight. I’m told on a trip from Hong Kong to London the pilots will fly the plane for about 10 minutes. The rest is the autopilot, with the flight crew monitoring systems and speaking to ATC.
The flight crew earn their pay when things get out of kilter. Lousy weather, systems failures, engines shutdowns or accidents are testing. Although, these day's improved safety makes unusual events less frequent.
In 2017, more people flew to more places than ever. Despite that, it's the safest year on record for airline passengers. No commercial jets crashed in passenger service anywhere in the world. The chance of a commercial plane crashing with fatalities is one in 16 million. You’ve more chance of winning the lottery than dying in a commercial airline crash.
That remarkable achievement is due to a multitude of reasons. Systems improvements, better engineering, robust security measures and pilot training all help. The next tranche of enhancements comes from integrating systems. The aim is a remotely controlled plane
These ideas have both safety and financial advantages. The airlines recognise the potential savings. With one pilot instead of two or three, you immediately reduce costs. Less recruitment, training and re-certification. The accountants are salivating. Some of that joy will need to be offset by funding control centres.
Plus, pilots are troublesome sorts. Prone to bellicose behaviour, this self-selecting group don’t take crap from management. Commercial aviation is littered with stories of pilots confronting their bosses. I'm thinking the head office would be happy to see the back of the ‘bus-drivers.’ Although the pilots won’t like this, they do make mistakes. It’s the nature of humans to get distracted, off-your-game or unwell.
With a predicted seven-fold increase in air traffic by 2050, we need new systems, or we won’t be able to cope. The design philosophy of some manufacturers is to keep the pilots out of the way of the automation. Although, they allowing pilots to track what's going on. When something out of the ordinary crops up, the systems design gives a simple interface. This should aid understanding of complex situations. Then the pilot can decide to intervene as needed.
And yet, the evidence suggests the technology is still inferior to the pilot. The 469 passengers and crew aboard Qantas A380 QF32 on 4th November 2010 will attest to that point. As the plane cruised over Indonesia, a failure of the #2 engine sent shrapnel at supersonic speed flying. This debris punctured the fuel tanks, fuselage, leading-edge devices, hydraulic lines and cables. 21 of the 22 redundant systems were either destroyed or damaged. The onboard computers designed to diagnose inflight faults couldn’t cope. These issued 58 error messages in a matter of seconds, as a cascade of failures overwhelmed the systems.
Of the remaining engines, two reduced to 35% power, and one wouldn't shut down. Meanwhile, the aircraft had limited roll capability, no slats, no reverse thrust, damaged brakes and no ability to dump fuel. Reduced communications with the ground added to the threats with the loss of radio systems. Unable to pump fuel around from tank to tank, the plane became unbalanced.
This incident should have been the world’s worst single-aircraft accident. And it would have been if the flight computers had sought to land this crippled super-jumbo. Instead a well-trained, experienced, rested crew worked the problem. They opted to enter a holding pattern near Singapore to carry out system and handling checks. Then did their approach. They only had a four-knot approach speed window between stalling and landing too fast to stop before the end of the runway. They pulled up with 100 metres to spare, and without a single injury to a passenger.
This outstanding example of airmanship highlights the limitations of decision making machines. Moreover, it demonstrates the efficacy of humans. Until Atal is as smart as a human, I will instead prefer to put the safety of my loved ones in the hands of a human pilot. I want to hear those dulcet tones of a crusty pilot. Also, I want the pilot onboard, not in a command centre thousands of miles away.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.