Published in April 2016 issue

I´d just flown in from Beijing. Even though I´d had a five-hour break halfway into the flight, i´d had the lower bunk, which is about a noisy as a jet engine, and had not slept a wink. All my commute flights home looked ugly. So, after getting bumped off the first flight, I schlepped myself and my bags the dozen or so gates down the hall and sat down, hoping to remain awake long enough to see whether i´d make the next one. I had two hours, so it was going to be a long wait. 

By Clayton Taylor

The flight went out full but, thankfully I scored the cockpit jumpseat on an Embraer regional jet. It’s a nice enough airplane, but the jumpseat is more suited for someone who is four feet tall; anything above that and your legs are forced to contort into a shape that resembles one of those pretzels they sell at the airport. I will not now, nor did I then, complain; I was on my way home and that was all that mattered. And, although I’d been awake for nearly 24 hours, I knew that there was no way I could possibly fall asleep in that seat, which was good because it’s sort of illegal to do so.

During our takeoff roll, I noticed the co-Pilot literally holding the controls with both hands in what appeared to be a death grip. I couldn’t help but notice that, by the time we were airborne, his hands were white from lack of blood flow. No one had to tell me, I knew right then that he was new to the airplane.

During cruise, the Captain and I began talking about various Pilot-type things. He seemed fascinated with my reasons for bidding farewell to the Boeing 747-400 and moving to the Airbus A330. To him, as to most Pilots, I suppose, the 747 represents the top of the heap. So why, he wondered, would anyone in their right mind give that up voluntarily?

OK, ‘right mind’ might be the key there. But, rather than delve into all of that, I said, “Flying the Boeing 747 was like dating a supermodel. She looks great on your arm, all your friends are envious and you get invited to things you never would have, had you not been dating the 747, uh, I mean the supermodel. But, behind closed doors, there are lots of things not to like. After a while, you begin to compare her to regular women, the kind you used to date. It doesn’t take long before you begin to notice how much work the supermodel is and how much more pleasant regular women are to be around. So, you dump the supermodel and marry the goofy chick with a French accent that works at the 7-11 down the street, and live happily ever after. But, for the rest of your life, everyone thinks you’re nuts, which, of course, you are.”

What can I say? That’s sort of how conversations go with me when I’m tired.

After a while, I noticed that the FO had not said a word; so, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Feel free to jump in at any time. You’re not excluded from this conversation.”

He looked at me and said, “I don’t think I have anything to contribute to the conversation.”

Aside from the free-flowing topics, I didn’t agree and told him so. He then turned to look at the boss and said, “Two months ago, I was flight instructing.” He then turned back and resumed staring out the window.

“Well,” I said, “that sort of explains the death-grip on the controls. But you wouldn’t let one of your students do that, would you?” My words brought the young man, somewhat reluctantly, into our word volley.

What I learned from this former Flight Instructor was that, for a student Pilot, to rent a Cessna 172 (a four-seat, high wing, single-engine airplane; arguably one of the finest light airplanes ever built) would cost about $150 per hour. If I could have moved one inch one way or the other, I would have fallen out of my seat.

I blurted out “Who the hell can afford that?”, which was rhetorical, because I know that most people can’t. When I learned to fly, I paid $18 an hour, and that was with a Flight Instructor sitting next to me. I don’t think the $150 I was quoted included anyone in the airplane except the person writing the check.

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Bankruptcy, mergers, strikes, picket lines, age 65 retirements, greed, and whatever else you can think of have certainly put a damper on the piloting career. I have to admit that, while this young man was speaking, I had to wonder: if I were back in high school and had witnessed most of the airlines dump their Pilots’ pensions and then stick them with drastic pay cuts, would I have chosen flying as a career? Why would you opt to take on a few hundred thousand in debt for the opportunity to make nothing for the first 10 years—and, when you finally did make the big bucks, if ever, you would have to worry about the suits pulling the rug out from under you?

All of this prompted me to dig out my crystal ball from under the bed. It’s not quite as clear as it used to be, but I figured I’d give my guess as to what the future holds for the flying Pilots.

Because only the real hardcore flying-nuts will stay the course, most people will stay in school and do something that’s more reliable; something that doesn’t require you to be away from home for six months a year. And, by the way, it’s six months if you only fly two weeks per month. Some fly more than that.

It’s only a matter of time before Washington allows cabotage. That is where the likes of Air China and Emirates will be allowed to pick up passengers in New York and fly them to Cincinnati. When that happens, the Federal Aviation Administration will lose control of the situation, and we will have to rely on the country of origin to police maintenance and training. I’m sure something will be worked out. Regardless, even those countries have limits as to how many people they can entice to come and fly for them.

Based on our current use of the newest automation and on to where I see it trending, I think that there will be soon only one Pilot onboard. I think that there will also be an assistant who will be trained to monitor the airplane while in cruise flight. This person will also be trained to handle most inflight emergencies. After takeoff, the Pilot will go on a break. Later, when it’s time to land, the Pilot will return and land the airplane. Of course, he (or she) will also be available in flight if things in the cockpit overwhelm the assistant.

Of course, the assistant will probably still be called a co-Pilot, even though he really won’t have a regular Pilot’s license. This person will be very low paid, his training will be 100% in the simulator and he’ll only be qualified to monitor the airplane while the Pilot is on break. He will never be allowed to touch the controls. Actually, I think this would probably work OK in all but the most extreme circumstances. Of course, the problem becomes: who flies the airplane when, in a few years, all the real Pilots have died off? Well, the answer is no one.

We are just now approaching the cusp where computers can control the entire operation. The flight management system will contain taxi programs to get to and from the runway. The computer will control the entire operation from taxi-out to taxi-in. For safety’s sake, there will be a Pilot-type person on board every airliner, but this person will only be allowed to touch anything in the event of a serious malfunction. And, lest you think the Controllers down in the radar room have nothing to worry about, well…

With computers running the show, they will be able to man the radar facilities with a few dozen men and women to oversee the entire operation. They probably will not have voice capability with the person in the cockpit at all. If there will be a need to overrule the computer, it will be done via datalink. The same can be said for the tower Controllers. Even now, they have control towers where no one is at home. Indeed, cameras are placed in the tower cab, and Air Traffic Controllers handle everything from many miles away. Thankfully, there aren’t many of these around… yet.

As I was sitting here contemplating all of this, and turning my predictions into words, I’ve noticed that my hands have been turning white from pounding ever harder on my keyboard. All I can say is: I think I’ll have flown my last flight west by the time all of this happens.

This is the last time I look into my crystal ball. I think I’ve seen enough.