Why Pilots Still Matter

NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED: True, these days pilots spend only a short amount of time with their hands on the control column or stick. But that does not mean we aren’t controlling the airplane throughout the entire flight. Our hands might not be steering the airplane directly, as would have been the case in decades past, but almost everything the airplane does is commanded, one way or the other, by the crew. The automation only does what we tell it to do. On the 767 that I fly, there are multiple ways to set up and command any routine climb, descent or change of course. Meanwhile, more than 99 percent of landings, and a full 100 percent of takeoffs, are performed manually.

The other day I piloted a flight from the Caribbean to New York. We had bad weather the whole way, followed by a low-visibility approach into Kennedy Airport. The autopilot was on pretty much the entire time, but there were numerous altitude, course and speed changes to coordinate; holding, arrival and approach patterns to set up and fly; and all of the requisite communicating with air-traffic control, company staff and cabin crew. By the end of the flight, my voice was hoarse…

The best analogy, I think, is modern medicine. Cockpit automation assists pilots in the same way that robots and other advanced medical equipment assist surgeons. It has improved their capabilities, but a plane no more flies itself than an operating room performs a hip replacement by itself… (more)