Instead of new rules making sure two people are in the cockpit at all times, how about a rule that says no one at all is allowed in the cockpit? This is precisely how I felt after 911 and even more so after the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 on March 8.

The tragedy of Germanwings Flight 9525 in which a mentally ill co-pilot deliberately flew the plane into a mountain killing all 150 on board is icing on the cake.

And it’s not just two deliberate crashes either. Please consider The Mystery of Flight 9525: a Locked Door, a Silent Pilot and a Secret History of Illness.

Just under 40 minutes into their journey, the plane’s 27-year-old co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, turned the Airbus A320 into a missile, guiding it into the southern Alps after locking its captain, Patrick Sonderheimer, out of the cockpit.

In the doomed flight’s final minutes, Sonderheimer attempted to force his way through the security door that separates the passengers from the pilots. At one stage he reportedly tried to use an axe. Recordings obtained by crash investigators capture him attempting to remonstrate with Lubitz – whose breathing, according to the microphones in the cockpit, remained sure and steady as the plane made its rapid descent. It was only in the final seconds that there was the sound of screams. Experts said death would have been instant.

As the New York Times revealed early on Thursday, French time, the voice recorder confirmed that Lubitz had locked the captain out of the flight deck and set the plane on its descent.

In November 2013, a flight between Mozambique and Angola crashed in Namibia, killing 33 people. Initial investigations suggested the accident was deliberately caused by the captain shortly after his co-pilot had left the flight deck.

In October 1999, an EgyptAir Boeing 767 went into a rapid descent 30 minutes after taking off from New York, killing 217 people. An investigation suggested that the crash was caused deliberately by the relief first officer, although the evidence was not conclusive.

And in December 1997, more than 100 people were killed when a Boeing 737 flying from Indonesia to Singapore crashed; the pilot, who was said to be suffering from “multiple work-related difficulties”, was suspected of switching off the flight recorders and intentionally putting the plane into a dive.

In an interview with the bestselling German tabloid Bild, the 26-year-old flight attendant, known only as Maria W, said that they had separated “because it became increasingly clear that he had a problem”. She said that he was plagued by nightmares and would wake up and scream “we’re going down”.

Last year he told her: “One day I’m going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember.”

A debate now rages about the extent to which companies and regulators can monitor a person’s mental health, especially if they perform a job that carries responsibility for the lives of others. The UN world aviation body has stressed that all pilots must have regular mental and physical checkups. But psychological assessments can be fallible. “If someone dissimulates – that is, they don’t want other people to notice – it’s very, very difficult,” Reiner Kemmler, a psychologist who specialises in training pilots, told Deutschlandfunk public radio.

Debate over Mental Illness

The debate over mental illness, locked doors, emergency overrides etc., is the wrong debate.

The debate should quickly turn to whether there should be pilots in the plane at all.

Post Pilot-Era

The Globe and Mail hits the nail on the head with its report Aviation is Fast Approaching the Post-Pilot Era.

Every day, dozens of unmanned jet aircraft as big as private business jets take off from airports scattered around the globe. They fly for thousands of kilometres, staying aloft for as long as 36 hours, often changing course to cope with unexpected developments, before returning to land.

To call them drones grossly understates the sophistication, safety and cost-effectiveness of autonomous and remotely piloted aircraft.

Global Hawks, for instance – long-range, sophisticated surveillance jets, controlled from Beale Air Force Base in California but flying from at least six air bases in Japan, Guam and the Middle East – range around the world. They have been flying for 15 years. They have flown to Australia and back from the United States. They fly daily over Afghanistan and Iraq but also over heavily trafficked airspace where they fly high above commercial airliners. They can be programmed to take off, fly a 32-hour mission and land, all without direct human control. Alternatively, pilots half a world away, linked by multiple, secure and redundant satellite data links can “fly” them remotely. And there are thousands of other unmanned aerial vehicles already flying daily – mostly in military service.

Pilotless aircraft aren’t a distant sci-fi concept nor the wishful dreams of bean-counters at big airlines where the nattily-uniformed flight crew is a big cost just waiting to be cut.

And, as many pilots inside cockpits lament, most of the time they do little, if any, “hand flying.” Courses, heights, waypoints, rates of descent are all programmed into flight management computers which then “fly” modern aircraft far more smoothly and achieving far better fuel consumption, than even the most suave of airline captains.

Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot suspected of deliberately crashing the Germanwings Airbus A320, didn’t seize a control stick and frantically dive the jet into oblivion. Rather, he simply dialled in 100 feet, in place of the assigned 36,000 feet cruising altitude, and the Airbus dipped the nose of the 70-tonne, twin-engined jet and flew it smoothly at a steady 800 kilometres per hour for eight more minutes until it slammed into a mountain. Mr. Lubitz didn’t need to touch anything further, except the lock override switch by his left hand that kept the captain out of the cockpit and doomed everyone on board.

Aviation experts envision an end to the era of pilots – at least pilots in cockpits – just as inevitably as elevator operators became redundant, expensive and far less precise in the operation than computerized systems.

As just as some high-end department stores kept on uniformed elevator operators who did nothing except offer reassurance by their presence to nervous shoppers, the transition to remotely-guided or autonomous aircraft may include a period of pilots present but not required on board airliners.

In many ways, autonomous operation of aircraft is far less of a technological challenge than autonomous or driverless cars – which major manufacturers expect will be sharing the roads with more dangerous human drivers within a few years. For instance, across North America, there are only about 5,000 commercial and military aircraft flying in controlled airspace at one time. That’s far fewer than the number of cars in a small city and they don’t need to dodge pedestrians, other drivers unexpectedly doing stupid things or a host of other variables that make driving far more complex. And aircraft fly pre-determined routes, at heights and speeds that can be far more easily adjusted to avoid collisions between a few hundred well-defined destinations.

David Learmount, an operations and safety expert at Flightglobal and a veteran aviation expert who has flown dozens of aircraft types, predicts pilots won’t be in cockpits in 15 years but in an airline’s operations room, rather like the U.S. Air Force pilots flying Global Hawks from Beale.

Imagine an airline crew room in 2030,” he says. “The airline has, say, 300 airplanes, but only about 50 pilots. About ten of these will be on duty in the crew room at any one time [with secure links] to any of the fleet that’s airborne. On the rare occasion that something anomalous occurs on an airplane, … they can intervene as effectively as they could have done in the aircraft.

Cargo flying and transoceanic routes, with no nervous passengers to persuade will likely be the first to make the change. United Parcel Service, the global package and freight giant operates 238 large cargo jet aircraft . In a decade, it expects to be flying pilotless freighter aircraft across the Pacific Ocean.

Transition Period

People feel safer with a pilot in the aircraft. They shouldn’t. 911, Malaysia 370, Germanwings Airbus A320, EgyptAir 767, and deliberate crashes in Namibia and Indonesia are proof enough.

15 years is too long to wait. There should have been a transition to pilotless aircraft long ago. It’s a tragedy that someone on the ground or the aircraft itself could not override these deliberate crashes.

Such fatal tragedies are very rare, but why have them at all? Self-driving cars and trucks will be safer than human-driven ones. So will automated ships and planes. If anything, ships and planes should be easier to implement than cars.

So why the delay?

Mike “Mish” Shedlock