On a recent visit to the Southwest Airlines headquarters in Dallas, I got to fly a Boeing 737. Or, at least, I got as close as someone who is not a licensed commercial pilot can: I sat at the controls of a multimillion-dollar simulator and learned how to “land” at La Guardia Airport in New York City.
Honestly, it was easier than I expected.
My instructor at the airline’s new Leadership Education and Aircrew Development Center dropped a see-through panel down between my face and the windshield, and explained how to read the indicators. Right in front of my eyes there was a small green circle and a slightly larger green circle. All I had to do to get on the ground safely, he said, was keep the smaller circle inside the larger one by adjusting the airplane’s pitch.
Autopilot features vary by aircraft type and airline, with some planes even able to land themselves under certain conditions. Southwest uses an autopilot technology that assists pilots during every part of the flight, including descent, but I experienced firsthand how the airline’s pilots are ultimately responsible for landing their planes safely.
I kept the plane as level as I could as computer-generated facsimiles of low-rise Queens buildings and the Grand Central Parkway slipped quickly beneath me. Controls around me adjusted themselves to keep us moving at the right speed, and with a big bump I made it onto the runway. The simulator, again by itself, came to a stop near Terminal B.
I stepped out of the simulation with a renewed appreciation for the sophistication of autopilot, but also for the human pilots who make sure planes operate safely.
With airline industry watchers in a seemingly perpetual state of worry about a pilot shortage, some think automation could obviate the need for those human pilots altogether. But, most experts say, the technology, the industry and the passengers are not quite ready for fully autonomous flying.
“From what I see, could it happen in the distant future? I think it probably could. Will it happen in the near future? I don’t think so,” said Michael Wiggins, the chairman of the aeronautical science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “Right now, any progress toward that area should be done very slowly, very measured and only after a bunch of research with results that suggest we should do that.”
For almost as long as planes have been in the sky, aviators and manufacturers have worked to make flying a simple experience for pilots and a smooth one for passengers.
“Automated flight controls go back into the 1920s, and through World War II they had rudimentary autopilots,” Dr. Wiggins said. “The idea was that the automation would relieve the pilots of very routine flying and monitoring tasks and would allow them to focus on situational awareness and other monitoring duties they have to take care of.”
As those autopilot features grew more sophisticated through the 20th century, Dr. Wiggins said, flying also grew safer because the systems were able to detect problems more quickly and effectively than human pilots could. A person in the cockpit might not see a single needle move on a single gauge, but a computer can detect that kind of warning sign and send out a more noticeable alert.
Sweeping technology improvements over the last 50 to 60 years have made flying safer than ever before. The large planes that once flew the longest flights in the world required three or even four people on duty in the cockpit simultaneously. Now, updated versions of those same aircraft or newer, more efficient airframes that replaced them can be managed by two pilots just as effectively.
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