The recent intentional crash of Germanwings flight 9525 by a suicidal pilot demonstrated for the second time in the past year the risks associated with having humans completely in control of an airliner. The German co-pilot of flight 9525 committed suicide and the mass murder of 149 others when he locked the pilot out of the cockpit and intentionally crashed the Airbus A320 into the French Alps on March 24. In March 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was lost in the Indian Ocean with 239 fatalities. Although the aircraft has not been found and no conclusive proof of the cause has been found, the evidence suggests that human intervention caused the disappearance. And, of course, most Americans don’t need a reminder of the dangers of terrorists using commercial jets as weapons.
The flying of airliners has become increasingly automated over time, a trend that has improved air safety. The development of military drones has provided technologies that can be used to take the next logical step. The most sophisticated drones use a combination of line-of-sight and satellite communication to completely control operation remotely. Why not commercial flights?
Having an airliner controlled remotely would take some getting used to; the flying public may never be comfortable with boarding a plane when the person piloting it does not have an equal stake in the outcome. An interim (or maybe ultimate) step could be to have pilots at ground control stations – properly supervised – monitoring all flights, with the capability of taking control away from the pilot(s) onboard.
For instance, on flight 9525 the rapid, unplanned descent of the aircraft could have triggered an alarm, causing the ground pilot to take control. A hijacking attempt or other incident with a terrorist or deranged passenger are other possible scenarios that could trigger a takeover. I’m making it sound easy – it would take a lot of expensive infrastructure and cultural change, but I believe that’s the direction in which we’re headed.