Four serious accidents involving world-class airlines in the last three years have provided the world with a reminder of why pilots occupy the front office in machines that could easily be entirely directed by computers.
These four flights had a total of 1,059 souls on board.
But all those souls are alive today because their pilots had first class training which went well beyond the minimum legal requirements which an increasing number of airlines use as their benchmark for training expenditure.
The flights involved were: British Airways 38 (forced landing on final approach to Heathrow); British Airways 747-400 (Johannesburg take-off, leading edge slat failure at rotate); US Airways 1549 (Hudson River ditching following birdstrike); and Qantas QF32 near Singapore (engine blew up causing extensive structural and systems damage).
None of the accidents was preventable because none of the circumstances that led to them had been forseen, nor could they have been.
Other unforseen events will definitely occur, and it's then, as well as after less spectacular problems, that the pilots - "the system's goalkeepers" - will prove their worth.
Or maybe they will fail to do so.
Many pilots fail and, when they do, people die.
Right now the USA, UK and Australia are all conducting studies designed to find out why pilot compentency is falling. Evidence already exists for a drop which has been masked by the increasing reliability of modern aircraft, but the authorities are even more worried about a further predicted fall in standards and experience levels that will result partially from the anticipated global pilot shortage expected to materialise over the next two years.
In Australia the Senate is reviewing commercial pilot competency, and the Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) has provided it with a powerfully argued case as to why piloting standards are falling, and set to drop further.
This finding tallies with early results from a completely different study being carried out by the US Federal Aviation Administration,
The AIPA has testified to the Senate that commercial pilot competency standards are being threatened by a combination of factors, including a changed ethos that arrived with the ascendancy of low-cost carriers (LCCs) in the world aviation marketplace.
The AIPA is worried that "current industry recruitment practices are cost-driven models consistent with an oversupply of pilots". The Association adds: "Those models are entirely out of step with the now ubiquitous forecasts of a worldwide shortage of pilots that airlines and their representative organisations are currently scrambling to address in other ways."
In UK, the Civil Aviation Authority is conducting a major review of human factors in airline operations, because as equipment becomes more reliable - but more complex - human factors as a cause in accidents is on the increase.
Meawhile, also in UK, BALPA has commissioned a human factors expert from Leicester University, Dr Simon Bennett, to carry out a wide-ranging study of modern airline crew lifestyle and its potential effects on pilot competency. This will examine the effects of numerous factors like the increasing need for pilots to commute long distances to work, and the stresses caused by high levels of personal debt resulting from the fact that pilots increasingly pay for all their training. This mirrors many of the Australian Senate concerns.
A few days ago a Swearingen Metroliner operated by "virtual airline" Manx2 crashed at Cork in Ireland, killing six of the passengers. The Irish Air Accident Investigation unit will be examining this accident.
It will be interesting to see what the AAIU will find out about governance at the airline and the competency of the pilots, because Manx2, which as far as we know did not break any rules, is an example of the way commercial air transport will go if all passengers care about is cost, and all regulators care about is ticking boxes.
But will the AAIU actually do any real digging? Unfortunately, box-ticking is all the Irish aviation establishment cares about these days.