Are You Ready For Pilotless Planes?

What if the cockpit on your passenger jet looked like this? | Photo courtesy Boeing

The first self-steering, self-braking car is now on the market – in Germany. It’s the Mercedes S-Class at $92,000-$115,000. Drivable on regular roads or the Autobahn. Not yet sold with self-driving in America while we work out who’d be liable for a crash.

And engineers are at work on pilotless commercial jets. I don’t know about most of you, but I’m not ready to get on an airplane with no pilot in the cockpit. Just the guy in some room at the airport.

Most commercial flights already take off and land on a computer-assisted system but with a pilot’s hands at the ready on the controls.

There have been some test flights of remotely piloted planes without passengers but a pilot aboard for any emergency. Everything’s gone well. The same with those Google cars being tested on auto-control but with a driver at the wheel just in case.

I mean computers do crash. And can be hacked.

I feel a pilot in the cockpit can make better judgments in an emergency than one sitting at a joystick and TV monitors. An airplane is like riding a horse. You can tell a lot about its behavior in difficult moments if you have the horsehide under you – not by sending the rider instructions by cellphone from the stable.

Airplanes give you a lot of feedback through the controls in your hands. I can tell if a plane is getting near a stall with my hands faster than I can by watching the airspeed instrument.

Also, the pilot in the cockpit has his life on the line as well as yours. The one in the remote control room will go home (eventually) to dinner even if he augers the plane into a field somewhere.

I want that captain who put the jet plane down perfectly on the Hudson River sitting in the cockpit of the plane I board.

My house is at about 80 feet elevation from sea level and a couple of hundred yards back from the beach. So a tsunami or waves from a big storm would have to knock down Jim Nabors’ and John Black’s houses before getting to mine – and that would be one helluva wave!

But so many Hawaii houses on every island now are perched on beach-front land that it worries me. Not just the storm and tsunami threats, but what will happen if sea levels continue to rapidly rise – which does seem to be the trend.

Our tendency is, “What, me worry?” The state doesn’t worry because Uncle Sam will subsidize 60 percent of damage to ocean-front properties caused by wave damage.

But continuing to issue house and hotel permits (the new Moana tower) just mauka of the high-water mark seems very silly.