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