The really big market for professional pilots

Airlines may not be hiring pilots at the moment, but the market will recover.

Won’t it?

Yes it will. Definitely.

One of the first sectors to get moving when the economy revives – always – is air transport.

But will new airline pilots get a lifetime career out of flying?

Maybe not quite in the way they first thought. Especially if technology, in the next twenty or thirty years, reduces the pilot crew to one.

And, maybe, a few years later, puts that one pilot on the ground, operating the aircraft remotely.

Why do I say this now? Because a lot of people who know what they are talking about are talking about this.

Last year the University of North Dakota launched the world’s first unmanned air vehicle (UAV) piloting degree course. It’s a four year course leading to a bachelors degree in  ”Unmanned Air System Operations”.

Jeffrey Kappenman, head of UND’s unmanned aircraft centre, says: “Primarily the market is still military, but a lot of that is shifting over time. It’s going to be a huge market in the future.”

Kappenman’s colleague Prof Ben Trapnell says: “What we hope to do is educate and train students with the best available technology that exists, but we know that technology is going to change extremely rapidly. We may even need to teach courses in technology that has not hit the street yet.”

There are loads of intriguing questions about this whole deal.

The mental picture of pilots sitting in Nevada controlling dispensible drones in a hostile Afghan military environment, or operating tiny remotely controlled “model aeroplanes” carrying out video surveillance on a gas pipeline, no longer challenges the modern imagination.



Where’s this UAV operating? Here, a UK Royal Air Force pilot is controlling a General Atomics Reaper UAV from his “cockpit” at Creech AFB, Nevada (Picture: UK Crown Copyright) 

The operators have to be skilled, but if their skills are not finely honed and things go pear-shaped, hell, it’s war (or an ignited remote gas leak in the wilderness somewhere), and nobody got hurt.

Unless, of course, it created a “friendly fire” or “collateral damage” incident. Chilling expressions, those. But, potentially, about as remote to individuals as a being defriended on Facebook.


Being a UAV (unmanned air vehicle) pilot is being a pilot. Isn’t it? And there are plenty of jobs.

The people who’d love a drone job would surely be those who’d love computer games? Fine, but who would want to do that for a lifetime’s career?

Not a problem for the military. Military UAV pilots have a complete military career ahead of them. They will not always be UAV pilots, unless that’s what they want.

But this career, extended into the civil arena, becomes a conundrum. In fact several conundrums.

The upside is you are unlikely to be out of a job, even during an economic downturn.

But a “remote pilot” being trained to command a large commercial passenger aircraft surely has to be trained very completely? And have plenty of experience? 

Present thinking, like that at UND, is that you have to train even military remote pilots to be normal pilots first (with normal pilot licences), and then add to their training to make them good remote pilots. 

But surely that means they will cost at least as much as a normal pilot to train, and maybe more?

But does that mean, since the pilot takes zero risk, you could you pay them less than conventional pilots?

No. Not if they’re sufficiently well trained to command a passenger airliner, you couldn’t.

Why not?

No civilian would want to do a course as demanding and as expensive as that if if they were paid less for doing a job that doesn’t even have the basic appeal of an airline pilot’s job (the view from the office, and the travel).

Would they? You tell me.

Meanwhile, does dispensing with a cockpit on an airliner save you enough space, weight and drag to provide a real cost advantage, especially if you’re talking about an aeroplane that carries 300 people or more?

It will still need to carry lots of computing power, with even more backups, and all the systems that a normal aircraft has.

The only real commercial advantage is that the highest-paying passengers could be offered the seats at the front window for a massive premium.

For Ryanair and its ilk, the small weight saving and the front end revenue advantage would be a good enough commercial argument to go with the idea. And the passengers, progressively conditioned to getting bargain prices, would go for it.

But the guys/gals in the front row might find themselves feeling lonely. Especially if they were nervous fliers in the first place.

I wonder what it feels like when you are looking out of the front window through appalling visibility on an icy night approach, the aircraft being buffeted by windshear, and you know that, whatever happens to you in the next few minutes, your aircraft commander will walk home to nice warm house and his family. 

Meanwhile, for out-of-work pilots, being a civilian UAV pilot will bring home the bacon. But not until the problems of air traffic control and sense-and-avoid technology allow civvy UAVs to operate in unsegregated airspace.

And the same pilots will have the licence to go for airline pilot jobs, once the airlines finally start hiring again. Nice to have two strings to your bow as a pilot. Just add a helicopter licence and you’d have a third.

Ah. Brave New World that hath such people in it.

Let’s hear some thoughts on the nature of the brave new world of uninhabited air vehicles.


13 Responses to The really big market for professional pilots

  1. Dave Starr 24 March, 2010 at 3:06 am #

    In 1996 when I was still a civilian employee of the USAF, I attended a class for “Advanced Communication.IT officers). At that time the Air Force had become big on calling everyone “warriors”, even those of us way back at the tail of the tiger, far from the ‘teeth’.

    We had a guest speaker, an older full colonel who would have Lieut been a general years previously except he ran a communications lab to the USAF and frequently puzzled senior officers with his progressive ideas and readiness to re-think the status quo.

    “Warriors”, he began his presentation. “How many of you are ‘warriors’? Have you ever sat at your keyboards and pressed a key and killed someone as a consequence? Let me assure you, within the next 10 years some of you will. Be sure you truly want to be a warrior.”

    Most of my fellow classmates, many of them bright young mid-term career officers were pretty dismissive in out post-presentation bull sessions. “Easy to see why he never made general” was a frequent comment. “His ideas are so out in left field I wonder why they wasted our time with him.” said a few others.

    Well the first remotely piloted (intercontinental distances involved) armed Predator missions that expended live ordnance on hostile targets were flown less than 7 years later, so his prediction was actually quite conservative.

    The issue of ‘remote’ pilots replacing any sort of ‘real’ pilots is a huge conundrum with perhaps millions of unanswered questions, but my advice to ‘real’ pilots is, do something proactive, because the idea of remotely piloted commercial aviation activities is not nearly that far off. Act or be acted upon.

  2. 121 Pilot 24 March, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    I think we are still many decades away from unpiloted or remotely piloted commercial transports.

    First the generation of aircraft being designed today (787, A350 and the A320, 737 and 777 replacements) are being designed around the two man cockpit. This means that we have probably another 30 or so years before the follow on generation begins development which might enable the introduction of the single man cockpit. Even that is questionable given the fact that humans can and do make mistakes and one of the principal reasons modern air transport is so safe is because you have two highly trained aviators in the front end catching the mistakes their partner inevitably makes. To move from a single pilot to a remotely piloted (or pilotless actually since the one would have to consider that the data link could be lost) is something that will take true sea change in technology and thinking. Because the pilotless airliner of the future will have to be capable of making on its own the kind of judgment calls made by Capt. Sullenberger when he elected to put his stricken jet in the Hudson river.

    Yes I’m aware of the major strides drones are making in the military arena but it’s quite one thing to fly an armed drone over Afghanistan and quite another to put 300+ passengers in an unmanned airliner.

    I don’t buy the jobs argument either. Talk to folks in the Air Force and it becomes quite apparent that if we exited Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow the drone fleet would shrink enormously. And while a predator does just fine in those environments it would be dogmeat in an environment where the enemy had SAM’s or other air defenses. Yes we are developing stealthy drones but today’s fleet was built for today’s conflict and would be instantly obsolete if conditions changed. Furthermore airline downturns will always result in less flying which will mean a demand for fewer pilots.

    As a professional pilot the question I think we should be asking is how we can maintain the level of professionalism we have come to expect from people in my profession. The last decade has seen massive wage cuts and job losses and the profession (as Sully testified to Congress) is no longer attracting our best and brightest. This decline in wages, working conditions, and job prospects is likely to create more situations like the one in Buffalo where you had two pilots in the cockpit of an airliner who clearly didn’t belong there. So far the traveling public seems unfazed by the loss of safety that the race to the bottom has created but one wonders if that will last if accident rates begin to increase. And the growth in air travel being projected in the years to come along with the massive waves of retirement set to impact many US legacy carriers are not going to help the situation. Perhaps a decrease in experience and professionalism and an increase in accident rates will combine to drive pilots from the cockpit. But before that can happen we need a computer that can be counted upon to make Sullenberger level decisions no matter what happens. And that is something that is still only the subject of dreams.

  3. Thomas 28 March, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

    You guys are still thinking in the box.

    Why would you have one guy sitting behind a PC screen handing a 14 hour (SIN-EWR) flight? No. You would have 10 or 15 guys handling take offs and landings at SIN, and another 15 or so dealing with the same at JFK. Half a dozen would be assigned to monitoring a few thousand other enroute flights for anything out of the ordinary.

    Flying today is 95% sitting there and 5% doing something.

    Yes, this can be automated – the question is not if, it’s when

  4. Rob 29 March, 2010 at 3:15 am #

    I’m with Thomas. The present military setup is transitional – we’ve read the articles about the “point and click setup” with no “pilot in the loop”.
    Fully automated, with a few pilots somewhere as a last resort as backup. However even that may be questionable though, with time lag in transmission, and little forewarning (nature of accidents) how a standby pilot could work out a timely response is beyond me. Maybe a standby supercomputer that gets a dump of all the latest parameters and issues last millisecond corrections – computers watching computers – I like it…! ;-(

    So when do professional pilots start striking?

  5. 121 Pilot 29 March, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    As Rob and Thomas state in an unmanned cockpit environment you could theoretically have one pilot handling multiple flights. But before we can get to that point we have several key milestones to pass.

    First we need a single pilot cockpit. This in a airline context means we essentially need an aircraft that is fully capable of safely completing a flight in the event the single pilot becomes incapacitated mid flight.

    This will require one of two things. Either a.) An autopilot so redundant, powerful and sophisticated that it can be absolutely counted on to safely bring the airplane home no matter what happens. Including dual engine failures and a total loss of electrical power. As I mentioned in my original post we need a system capable of doing what Captain Sullenberger did with absolute reliability. To the best of my knowledge we are a long way from such a system today. Or b.) We need the ability to take over and remotely pilot the aircraft. Such remote control would have to be absolutely reliable to ensure safety in the worst case scenario. The problem with this solution is that to date we don’t have a wireless link that can be counted on in all possible scenarios.

    Remember that to certify an aircraft with a single or no pilot the manufacturer will likely have to demonstrate at a minimum “that the aircraft is capable of continued flight and landing after any combination of failures not shown to be extremely improbable.” This FAA considers extremely improbable to be 1 chance in a billion. Remember too that the flap/slat system of the DC-10 was designed to the same mentioned above and yet as the Chicago crash showed events could still occur that had not been anticipated. Consequently I would not be at all surprised if the FAA required an even higher level of assurance than that mentioned above of the aircrafts ultimate safety.

  6. Miguel Peixoto 30 March, 2010 at 1:13 am #

    It dreams, an A-320, has already 2 Elacs, 3 Secs with dual channel means 10 computers plus 2 Facs and 2 pilots, yes we pilots are claimed for being responsible for most of accidents, but the figures do no count for the ones we prevent, it is nice to see how good some sim instructors fly a sim and haow diferent is the real flight.
    All new concepts like the Commet and Airbuses had its problems in the begining, it crashes so the remote computerired comercial plane will crash and the manufactor will crash along, my gran son will not have hollidays and will sleep in cockpits many nights, poor guy like gran dad.

  7. Used Aircraft 31 March, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    frankly speaking this is way to freaky for me if they would do this on a commercial airlines. but then again the technology is rapidly changing and who knows maybe 5 to 10 years from now that would happen. my main concern is that the pilots should have a high standard of skill when it comes to controlling UAV. if they will do this FAA should have caliber pilots. So we the passenger don’t have to be worried about anything when travelling.

  8. paddythegreek 31 March, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    Computers replace pilots, as an IT professional I dont see it anytime soon. The amount of redundancy needed would be more than the weight of two pilots. Despite all the advances in computing there is no way they are close to moments of inspiration/experience like raising the flaps of your 777 that is streaching for a runway. Plus you have to secure your comms and keep your core system from getting hacked. You could have another 9/11 from a room on a different continent. Look what happened to AF447, the computers gave up when they detected the speed was incorrect. I am amazed that the navigation system is not used to backup the air speed instruments. The nav system should be able to detect how fast you are going by the time taken to travel between two fixed points. Replacing pilots by silicon will not happen for a long time yet.

  9. RobH 15 April, 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    An airplane ride in the future:

    Flight attendants will essentially be in command of the aircraft. Unless you’ve got a robot with personality, CPR skills and a stun gun, an airplane could essentially be an anarchistic people-container.

    Are there vending machines so we can at least feed ourselves?

    Post 9/11 airliner architecture has any flight controls isolated from the passenger space, so there’s no possible way a human could intervene at any point, for any reason. Okay.

    So a bad person takes out our ‘Cabin Captain’. No one on the ground will get notified that something bad is happening in our happy little mailing tube. The airplane just continues on its merry way, while Freddy Krueger cavorts about the cabin, smoking.

    Are there video cameras so someone on the ground can record all the fun?

    Here’s another one: what happens when our airplane ventures into an ash cloud and all the external input needed for our ‘psychic pilot’ get sandblasted shiny smooth? Remember no one in the cabin is allowed to get to any flight controls. Engines of the future will breathe sulfur, right?

    First Class passengers to the lifeboats, please! Can anyone play ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ with plastic spoons?

    Great topic, Sir David and all!

  10. Gator Rob 16 April, 2010 at 9:35 pm #

    But then what? Once you pass the check ride and get the license, what comes next? Often it is the desire to get an Instrument Rating. But then how do you justify another $6000 – $8000 in expenses to get there? How do you get past the almost $9000 in expenses to get that Private Pilots License. Most people answer the good old fashioned way, save up or get two jobs. We do a great job promoting General Aviation to get to the Private Pilot level..but then what? How many of you have had that pilot as an Instructor or Check Airman with 4 or 5,000 hours and they are in their 60’s.
    So this is why I am writing about this topic. Those pilots, the experienced ones who have been around forever..They are like encyclopedias and full of information. But when the book stops flying all that knowledge leaves with them. We can celebrate when they retire, or give them a plaque, but when they are gone they are gone. I ask you as a community how are we pushing/promoting the pilots we already have to become better? The answer is too often we are not! We get them to Private Pilot status and then maybe one or two will become Instructors someday. I could promote my site some more and ask for funding/donations at But bottom line is, so far only $36 has been donated. How many pilots currently can find a source of funding to go to the next level? How many options are there for our general aviation community to take it to the next level? The economy is freezing funds for things like this. But the community is and will be in the need for Instructors and Check Airman for as long as we fly.
    I can’t pretend that my idea or website will fix the problem. However the more I read the less I find or read about guys going to the next rating or level. I know one thing; I am going to keep writing about this every place I can find. You get booted from Blogs like the Professional Pilots Rumor Network for bringing up the idea or problem. So how do we fix the future, before it really gets out of control? The LSA category has brought a great new excitement to our community, and I am thankful! But let’s start to get some guys moving up, to train the Instructors we will need for the future. Do any of you have better ideas? I know it seems crazy, but if 39,000 people donated a flight instructor would be created. If 6,000 people donated a dollar an instrument rating would be created. We can as a group make changes, and the change can be of little pain for everyone. IN the end the Aviation community wins and continues to grow. If the 1500 hour/ATP requirement goes into many young people will be looking to Aviation as a future?

  11. Kris 10 August, 2010 at 10:16 pm #

    This is an interesting conversation. I personally would not be happy being flown in a commercial aircraft with no pilot. However the market for UAV, drones is a very large one, the technology used in Predators and alike could easily be used in Boarder controls, pipe line recon, search and rescue with missions from 14 to 27 hours.

    The problem with using already qualified pilots is one of not being in the aircraft. As already mentioned what happens if the plane need less flap to stretch out a landing approach etc. This only comes with experience and something that can’t be programmed and very difficult to see from a screen…

    I recently went on an evaluation for an external pilot to take off and land large UAVs for the military and the problem has been that the qualified pilots do not have the hand to eye coordination of an RC pilot. I am not saying that an RC pilot is better but just the skills are very different.

  12. Matt 30 September, 2010 at 5:10 am #

    I don’t foresee passenger UAVs anytime in the near future. I do believe they will find their way into commercial use soon. I don’t believe UAVs would be obsolete once we pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be a system we would train on and be current in for the next conflict just like we do with every other military system. As we pull out of Iraq and Afghan and leave behind small amount of forces like we do in Korea, guess what will be a priority leave behind, UAVs and their operators and crew like myself. Many UAS systems are going away from the RC pilot takeoff/landing. The Hunter UAV flown by the Army moved from this method back couple years ago to the Tactical Automated Landing System. Most of the Army’s UAVs are landed this way and has shown to be safer than completely manned landings like the Airforce.
    There are a lot of jobs sprouting up all over the country and will only increase especially when FAA figures out the airspace integration issue.

  13. Dave Starr 30 September, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    Wow, some very insightful comments here to go along with the few, predictable “it won’t happen” pronunciations. The question is, as many others agree, not “if”, but when and in what manner and to what degree. And most importantly, what level of professional pilot influence will be factored in if organizations such as ALPA et al do not get far out in front of this issue.

    Here’s the real riddle, and I throw this out there with no real answers of my own, just to stimulate some further discussion.

    As someone accurately said earlier, we can point to a certain number of accidents that were actually caused by “live” pilots. What we know for a certainty, but can not prove mathematically is how many accidents were avoided by on-board pilot skills, often by pilots executing procedures that aren’t in the book, but unquestionably save lives.

    Properly designed, a remote pilot system, with a much higher level of automation that we presently see today, would unquestionably save us from accidents like pilots sucking back thew yoke in response to s a stick shaker actuation, or zooming at irresponsible climb rates to FL410 and neglecting to keep their speed and engine parameters within limits, etc.

    So the smarter of our mathematicians/statisticians ought to be able to predict over, say, a ten-year span, the number of accidents that would be prevented by perfect “book” automation techniques. Without knowing the actual number, it certainly will be greater than zero, and thus “x” lives would be saved by automation.

    But we don’t, as yet, know any way to predict the number of potential accidents that can’t be programmed for in advance, and thus would happen in spite of, or even as a result of, automation that failed to do the job properly. So it’s certainly safe to predict a number of lives, “y”, that would be terminated by automation flaws.

    In the end, everything comes down to money. At some point, those who control airline investment and thus actually determine our flying future, will decide that “x” would be sufficiently higher that “y”.

    As someone with minimal pilot skills but with an exstensive knowledge of accident causes, I would make a SWAG (Sophisticated Wild Ass Guess) that “x” is already larger than “y”. The ‘skunk-works” level of development is likely already underway.

    This I see is the important place our most experienced and thoughtful pilot community ought to be taking the initiative today … or else suffer the consequences of bureaucrats and ground-bound software engineers designing our future systems.

    Or so Dave opines.