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Machine VS. Man

Pilotless planes are now being used in warfare, and could one day become a reality for cargo and commercial planes too.

Words: Captain Lin Khoy Hing     Images: Inmagine 

A reader wrote in specifically to find out about pilotless cargo planes of the future. I explained that in the future, pilotless planes would not be confined to cargo alone, but applicable to commercial fare-paying passenger planes as well. It is only a question of time, perhaps about 80 to 100 years.

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A Boeing Scan Eagle UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle).

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A manned light aircraft.


This change in the aviation scene could start off with having only one pilot in the cockpit, and then, none at all. The ‘pilot’ would probably be someone on the ground performing certain flight duties like NASA mission control.

     This is precisely how the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or drones that are currently being used in the ‘war’ in Afghanistan are run.

     In fact, in 2001, an unmanned aerial vehicle from the Edward Air Force Base in California flew for 24 hours with no humans in the cockpit; it touched down safely in an air base in South Australia.


In order for this to happen, at least three conditions must be satisfied before pilotless planes can become a reality. A safe pilotless automated plane must first be built. Then, there must be good enough reason to use such a plane, and finally (but most importantly), passengers must be willing to fly in one.

     Well, safe pilotless planes are not too far from reality. The main hurdle that needs to be overcome is more a commercial one, as opposed to one pertaining to feasibility. This would require more costly equipment on the runway to be developed for automated take off. At this current point in time, the cost of this venture outweighs the benefits. As it is, the process of taking-off manually is a much easier process than engaging an automated one.

     Secondly, a very good reason for using pilotless planes would be an economical one – cost saving. Compared to other professions, a pilot’s salary is among the highest in the world. This is due to costly training required to license a pilot. Market forces also play a critical factor in determining the salary level, as well as the fact that there aren’t many professions that are responsible for so many lives. 

     Another good reason to replace man with machine is that machines tend to be more reliable; this would greatly eliminate pilot error. For instance, accidents like the Air France Flight 447 in 2009 (attributed to pilot error) would not happen; in this case, 228 lives would have been saved if it were a machine flying.

      Pilots are human and may possibly make mistakes whereas machines do not get tired and are extremely accurate when properly programmed.

      Nowadays, no one blinks an eye in a lift or train when they are not manned. A time will come when people will accept that flying on pilotless planes is just like using an elevator.

     The likely scenario in the future is that cargo planes will be the first to become pilotless. This will give the public the confidence that it is perfectly safe to have unmanned cargo planes carrying freights from A to B.

     Low cost airlines may follow suit before legacy airlines jump on the bandwagon. Despite its feasibility, the main issue would be the public’s initial acceptance of being flown by computers. Nevertheless, the day will come when passengers will have to accept that


This idea of being ‘replaced’ appears to have been a cause of anxiety among aspiring pilots. One asked whether he should pursue a flying career at all, especially if pilots could become obsolete in the future. For now, I can only say that this may not happen in my life time, or that of the next generation.

     Future planes will not have cockpits. Airlines of the future may have planes that only have few ‘pilots’ and system engineers on the ground to link them electronically to airborne airliners.

     An aircraft commander of the future would probably be the purser, the most senior cabin crew member in the air, who will be assisted by other crew in ‘managing’ the passengers. So, even though the plane may be pilotless, it will still be manned by the head of the cabin staff.

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A vehicle operator controlling an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in the Middle East.


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A trainee pilot in a simulator: The skills of a pilot will still be required to man an aircraft as commercial UAVs aren’t likely to happen so soon.


Today, the immediate concern is that most airline pilots are so accustomed to automation – relying too much on computers to the extent of gradually losing manual flying skills. This is just like an accountant relying on her desktop computer to do all the accounting works to the detriment of basic calculating skills.

     The rationale of airlines in recommending more automation usage is that it provides more comfort to passengers and saves fuel. Fuel of the future will be extremely expensive. As of now, it has killed the fuel – guzzling Concorde.

     When I first began flying many years ago, there was no automation in my first long distance transport plane, the Caribou. It was a manual operation, and can become extremely tiring especially when I had to fly a seven-hour journey on a plane that cruises at one third the speed of a current jet plane. Passengers also had to endure the discomfort of a rough journey when the pilot had to constantly navigate at the correct altitude and direction manually. In the process, extra fuel was burnt.

     After the crash of Air France Flight 447, investigations revealed that the pilots lacked the basic manipulative flying skills to recover from an engine stalling as a result of unreliable airspeed indications caused by the blocked pitot (speed sensing device). Hence, the recommendation was going back to basics – more manual flying training for all pilots.

     It is a fact that humans can never fly as accurately as the autopilot. The disclaimer is that the automation and computers must be accurately managed and programmed in order to ensure perfection.

     Many passengers are unaware that in extremely poor weather conditions with almost zero visibility, they would not have reached their destination safely if it weren’t for computers. Pilots are physically in the cockpit only to monitor and manage the autolanding system and to take over and abort the landing in case of an emergency – something easily replicated in the future.


As you can see, pilotless planes aren’t too far from reality. Airliners would be controlled by system managers on the ground. Technology of the future would be so advanced that the unthinkable would be the accepted norm.

     An article of this nature would be incomplete without a joke that has circulated in the aviation industry. The plane of the future would only require a pilot and a dog. You may ask why we need a dog in the cockpit. Well, she is there to bark at the captain when he selects the wrong button. The pilot’s last remaining job would be to feed the dog! 

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     Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to  fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500  flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with AirAsia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at  www.askcaptainlim.com.

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     Capt. Lim’s first book, Life in the Skies, has just been released. You can purchase it on-board all AirAsia and AirAsia X flights, AirAsia Megastore kiosk at LCCT Sepang or on-line at AirAsia Megastore at www.airasiamegastore.com/life-in-the-skies.html. They are also available in all major book stores in Malaysia and Singapore Enjoy the great collection of articles, anecdotal stories and observations of this veteran aviator in this book.


  • http://www.phooeytofear.com/ Neil Shearing, Ph.D. (Phooey T

    A very interesting article, thanks Captain Lim. It would be interesting to know what percentage of incidents and crashes of modern commercial airliners are due to pilot error. If it were a high percentage, that would be a powerful argument in favour of totally automated flights.

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel3sixty Travel 3Sixty

      Hi Neil,

      I am glad you enjoyed reading the article. I cannot give you an exact figure as to the percentage of incidents and crashes that are due to pilot error but the number is fairly high.

      Mechanically wise, the airline industry has been very successful in reducing accidents by way of advanced technology but the human element is a little more difficult to tackle. Better training, expecially through crew resources management is one way, and of course, ulltimately in the future, pilotless automated airplanes could be the answer.

      Captain Lim Khoy Hing