If you build it…

The two at the front

Godfather of the 747, William McPherson Allen (1900 – 1985), President of The Boeing Company from 1945 to 1968, Chairman from 1968 to 1972. (SDASM archive via wikipedia)

There was something curiously logical about a movie star who made his name riding horses lending a small wooden ship to a pair of corporate heavyweights, so they could change the course of aviation. 

The afternoon that Boeing’s Bill Allen and Pan American’s Juan Trippe spent cruising Puget Sound aboard John Wayne’s Wild Goose in 1965 has become part of aviation folklore.

And Father of the 747, Juan Terry Trippe (1899 – 1981), aviation entrepreneur, Founder and President of Pan American Airways from its 1922 inception until 1968. (LoC P&P via wikipedia)

Like any legend, it has even spawned more far-fetched versions of itself, with the two men taking a floatplane to the shores of a remote lake in the North Cascades, or even Alaska, to scare the local trout while they conferred. 

From what I’ve read, the Wild Goose version seems most likely, and the two men were probably grateful for the few hours of uninterrupted chat it gave them.

I say ‘chat’, but I suspect Trippe did most of the talking. The visionary head of Pan American had worked out that the key to airline profits wasn’t ever-increasing service levels or ticket prices – it was simply seat miles.  

Bums on seats

With the head of Boeing as captive audience, Trippe laid out his vision for an airliner that would multiply the astounding success of Boeing’s 707 by adding capacity for more than twice as many passengers. Allen, already sitting on the substantive plans of Boeing’s proposal for the USAF CX-Heavy Lift System (soon to be won by the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy), was more than interested. 

The meeting is supposed to have concluded with his famous line ‘If you’ll buy it, I’ll build it.’ To which Trippe replied ‘If you build it, I’ll buy it’.

And the seed of the Boeing 747 was planted.

N744PA (msn 19651) ‘Clipper Star of the Union’ at New York’s JFK, May 1973. (Arthur Tress | US National Archives 412-DA-5464)

These days, it’s unthinkable that two corporate leaders could have such staggering autocracy. There’d be teams of lawyers and accountants monitoring every remark and censuring every hint of a commitment.

Then again, these days the big problem isn’t the number of seats down the back of the plane…

It’s the two at the front.

640,000 pilots

So about six weeks ago, Australian TV news was suddenly alight with stories of – and you’ll want to be sitting down for this – a pilot shortage. 

Really? I don’t think anyone vaguely connected with aviation would have been surprised by the day’s banner headlines. After all, the looming then ballooning pilot shortage has been a staple of actual aviation news reporting for at least two years now.   

Boeing currently predicts a need for 635,000 new pilots by 2037, while Airbus called out 450,000 during the 2018 Farnborough Air Show. For its report, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) decided a rounded sum would make a snappier story and went with 640,000 pilots over the next 20 years.

A line-up of competing Asia-Pacific carriers at the LAX international terminal. (Photo: Alan Wilson | flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0)

Whoever you believe, those numbers are huge. But what really aroused my curiosity was the sudden interest in the practicalities of flying people from A to B at all. For the 25 years I’ve lived here, Australia’s media has been more fixated on aviation accidents than the ATSB – and that’s been the entire extent of their interest. There had to be more to this story. 

Natural career progression

The bit of the iceberg in plain view was cancelled flights. 

According to the ABC’s report, quoting the Australian Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, 10,808 domestic flights were cancelled in 2017, although that was due to all causes not just an empty front left seat. The rate of cancellations, at 1.9% of scheduled flights, was only marginally up on the long term rate of 1.4%. But up is up. 

It was also obvious that the small regional routes were being hardest hit and, as the story played out over the following days, copy began to flow about ‘the big carriers’ poaching pilots from the swarm of SAAB 340s that service Australia’s regional towns.  

A lot of Australians depend on Regional EXpress to get places. A day in the car doesn’t get you far in a country like ours. (airscape Photo CC BY-SA 3.0)

Regional Express, or ‘REX’, claimed Qantas and Virgin Australia had poached 17% of its first officers and 56% of its captains in the past two years – which makes the one-in-two-hundred uptick in cancellations look like amazing resilience.

Qantas didn’t deny the numbers either, but dismissed the job changes as pilots ‘seeking natural career progression’. Guess where. 

Boom times

Luckily, little REX has long been exposed to their pilots ‘seeking career progression’ and has strategies to cope with normal levels of MTOW envy. That’s lucky, because according to those Boeing projections, Australia is lumped into the region with the most rapacious airline growth profile – Asia-Pacific – where, driven by China, the planemaker says 240,000 new pilots will be wanted. 

Starting now. 

Big fish, but not in the global pond. The local airlines have to compete against overseas carriers with very deep pockets – and not just for passengers. (John | flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0)

Without even a hint of irony, Qantas and Virgin Australia are already complaining that, just like REX, the airlines further up the ziggurat are poaching all their pilots. That natural career progression is a bear!

Mercifully, REX hasn’t seemed to play the way they were played: From what I’ve heard, Australia is largely free of that horror scenario where the instructor pool is being drawn up the career chain (any more than normal), leaving new pilots waiting for someone to teach them.

On the contrary, the flight training industry is looking forward to boom times. Several major Asian airlines already send their direct-entry pilots to Australian establishments for training and more are on the way.

A self-made mess

But the real engine of the whole ‘breaking news: pilot shortage’ media frenzy appeared to be something a little more nefarious. As in Qantas itself, touting a $20 million plan to open a direct-entry training facility of its own. 

The news came hot on the heels of the giant China Southern Airlines announcing plans to expand their direct entry pilot school at Perth’s Jandakot Airport in WA, and a prominent Singapore-based school also looking for space there. 

Ab initio trainers and Piper Navajo VH-CYY on the tarmac at Jandakot (YPJT) airport. (Alec Wilson | flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0)

So what’s not to love? Well for one thing, Qantas’ pilot shortage is a self-made mess. Seeking to keep a cap on costs (hold that thought) the airline instigated a pilot hiring freeze in 2009 that they kept up for seven years. 

That’s a long time to not put any fresh water in your pool – and so in 2016 The Big Red Roo was forced to go into a hiring frenzy, taking on 600 pilots in the following two years with an appetite for 350 more by the end of 2018. No wonder REX felt their cockpits were being emptied out!

The direct entry model

More of a concern, though, are all the reasons not to love the direct entry model. 

For one thing, it cuts the very foundation out from under General Aviation by aggregating training into a handful of very large schools with a purely airline-focused curriculum. Worse, it gives airlines ownership of one of GA’s major food sources.

It’s a bit like giving them control of, oh I don’t know, ATC. Or the entire airport…

Still at YPJT (and still with Alec Wilson) – Classic Aircraft’s YMF-5C Waco Super taxis past a Grob trainer belonging to the China Southern West Australian Flying College. (Alec Wilson | flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0)

Small flying schools are a lot like airports: Each one offers unique insights and experiences and, more importantly, once they close they don’t open up again. 

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how tough it is to run a small independent flight school. It would be far easier to lock-step it with a reliable stream of airline-bound students who all have enough money, all go through the process in uniform order, and all come out the end as predictably as 737s at Renton. 

I just want to know that when someone wants to learn to fly – really fly – there will be schools and honest-to-goodness aviators enough to teach them. Otherwise (and perhaps anyway) you can be sure the next stage of the airlines’ direct entry pilot training will be direct entry instructor training. 

A world of experience

On that basis, every level of aviation will soon be filled with pilots who’ve never stalled, never spun, never side-slipped, never landed power off, and never done a whole bunch of other priceless, once-essential, aviating things.  

More importantly, airline cockpits will be filled with pilots whose brains turn to mush when the autopilot fails, or the ILS is out, or a pitot head ices up…

Ron Rapp wrote about this, much more eloquently and expertly, way back in 2014. I would be remiss not to mention his insights.  

Let me just make the point  this way: Raise your walking stick if you know how to drive a manual-shift car, or how to use the shift stick (even in an automatic) if your brakes fail. 


Direct entry doesn’t expose young pilots to a world of experience and it quite simply (even inevitably) erodes flying skills. It’s The Pilot Shortage Solution of Doctor Moreau. 

Let’s not forget that GA is more than training and private participation. It’s vital services like medical flights to remote areas, and skillful pilots to fly them. (airscape Photo CC BY-SA 3.0)

As my own Devil’s Advocate, I should point out that the local ‘big airline’ school, Flight Training Adelaide which trains direct entry pilots for Cathay-Pacific, China Airways, Virgin Australia and numerous others, does give its students upset recovery training in a Mudry CAP-10. So all is not (quite) lost.

On the other hand, when I talked to them I was told that: (1) as a private pilot I wouldn’t ever get my hands on the CAP 10; and (2) I’d have to wear a white shirt and blue tie every time I flew there.

The C-word

The problem is the C-word. Learning to fly is expensive. Learning to fly ‘properly’, even more so. Cost is arguably the greatest barrier for anyone who’d love to learn to fly. It’s also Kryptonite for corporate CFOs – especially in the razor’s edge world of airline accounting.

The bit I don’t get is how paying pilots could be seen as the most painful cost of operating an airline. Even a senior Captain flying a handful of long-haul A380 services between Sydney and London Heathrow each month could have his or her salary covered by $10 from every passenger they carry. And, on that basis, every four-hops-a-day 737 pilot is making their employer a fortune.

(Mike McBey | flickr.com CC BY 2.0)

I’ve done a lot of marketing work for airlines over the years, and I can tell you they’re not afraid to spend money. But the people who went to business school don’t seem to value the people who went to flight school. I can’t figure it out.

Simply nurturing GA

Anyway, just as Qantas short-changed itself (and then sabotaged everyone’s pilot pipeline) by failing to hire new pilots for seven years in the name of cost-cutting, airlines are inevitably going to see the cost of training direct entry cadets as, well, another cost.

And if they think hiring pilots has a high price tag, wait until they run a whole aviation college. You can bet every aspect of setting up a direct entry pipeline, then staffing it; fuelling it; maintaining it; and, most annoying of all, paying students to study at it, is going to exist under the accountants’ microscope.

Probably the one thing more expensive than paying to learn, is paying to teach. (Bob n Renee | flickr.com CC BY 2.0)

The crazy thing is, the airlines used to get all that for free. For at least the last sixty years, people could and would put themselves through CPL training, often with a MECIR and Instructor rating thrown in, then build hours towards an ATPL in GA and turn themselves over to the airlines when they were fully formed.

Simply nurturing a healthy GA ecosystem would have been a more efficient investment for the airlines all along. 

At sea

What we’ve really lost here is vision. Which brings me back to Juan Trippe.

If anyone’s interested, the Wild Goose is still available in Newport Beach, CA. But as I mentioned, nobody does business like that any more. These days a quick and stealthy email is much more plausible than a leisurely tête-a-tête at sea.

Still going strong… ex-John Wayne’s ex-minesweeper USS YMS-328 ‘Wild Goose’, now available out of Newport Beach (Abhishake4 | wikipedia | CC BY-SA 3.0)

And given the parlous state of the airline pilot pool, amplified by Boeing’s expansive reading of the industry tea leaves, I’d be very surprised if more than one airline executive hasn’t already emailed the big planemakers to see how soon they can build a plane that doesn’t need pilots at all. 

Yes, I just went there.

The windowless cabin

When I wrote a piece on future airliners back in 2014, I felt sure the biggest headache facing scheduled carriers would be convincing people to board the windowless cabin of an aircraft that looked more like a concert hall than a flying bus.

Now I’m not so sure. 

It’s possible the travelling public will be less interested in the shape of the airplane they’re riding in, and more concerned about whether there’s a human being up the front. I have absolutely no data on this, but my instincts tell me most people would choose a blended wing body with a pilot over a window seat on an upscaled drone. 

More accurate than they thought? Looking into the cockpit of the Boeing/NASA X-48C Blended Wing Body 6.4m scale demonstrator in August 2012 – and the Captain is a camera. (Carla Thomas | NASA ED12-0255-16)

A trojan horse

In my other life as a copywriter, I’m starting to see more and more briefs touting artificial intelligence in new cars. We’re hardly talking about the bleeding edge of technology, but there’s still a leap of faith involved: Self parking is one thing, guided lane keeping at highway speeds is something else. 

This has deeper implications than the endless ‘feature creep’ of new car marketing too. Cars can help to normalise autonomous transport – just as early Playstations doubled as a trojan horse for Sony’s Blu-Ray HD format. And if you’re not sure how that worked for Sony, the documentary won’t be coming out on Toshiba HD-DVD. Like, ever.

Just like ATC

Once upon a time, aviation developed ABS braking technology and it migrated into the auto world. Autonomous control, or at least the acceptance of it, could easily turn the tide.

My guess is the first step will be to put one pilot in the cockpit and have another on the ground. Let’s face it, they’ll both be systems managers rather than active aviators unless something goes wrong. And the guy on the ground could potentially manage several ‘systems’ at once – just like air traffic controllers do already.

While it’s not fully autonomous, this hybrid solution would have the side-benefit of placating nervous passengers. It would also slash the shortfall in pilot numbers from the current two-per-plane model we know and love.

And you can be sure that solution would only be a step on the road to full remote monitoring, to be followed – inside a generation – by truly autonomous aircraft. 

That may just save air travel, but it will devastate GA. 

In the vacuum

As soon as the airline cost cutters find another way, you can bet they’ll be shutting down those direct entry schools even faster than they opened them up. The 640,000 pilots who were trained for a single type of flying, and even the instructors who made them, may find their careers are even less solid than the cirrus at FL390. 

Besides, this script has been run on everything from wine grapes to P-51 Mustangs: You can bet the great pilot shortage of 2020 will turn into the great pilot glut of 2040.

One NASA version of “urban air mobility” – a future filled with aircraft. Pilots? Not so much. (NASA)

Meanwhile, the GA bedrock of flight schools and CFIs will have evaporated in the vacuum left by corporatised training and cash-rich ‘super schools’. No matter how hard finding a flight examiner seems today, wait and see how tough it is to get a tailwheel endorsement in 2050.

Worse still, if the upward suck of airline careers is powerful enough, autonomous flight may not advance from the top down at all. There’s another version of the future where the technology gets embedded in the light aircraft fleet first – partly to replace the gaping shortage of pilots who’ve given up freight, mail, medical, charter, and primary industry flying in the name of ‘natural career progression’; and partly because in the cold accounting of aviation business the loss of fewer lives per accident is a more affordable way to iron out any kinks.

And for all those far flung communities that rely on GA for their physical connections with the world, it will literally be the A.I. way or the highway. 

Wherever it ends up, what started out as a short term solution to a short term pilot shortage is going to cause lasting damage GA.

A ticking bomb

I’d remind you that all of the above is just one crank’s opinion. You don’t have to agree, and you don’t even have to panic. Besides, I doubt there’s any way to stop automation, or cost cutting, or the steam-roller self-interest of our corporate citizens.

There are certainly some very good arguments for automating airplanes – everything from negating pilot error to helping mom and pop investors get their dividend cheques – and I’m sure we’ll hear all of them when the day comes.

(Ted | flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0)

But in the meantime, take a minute to remember how aerial photography, from photo recon to postcard shots, used to be flown by pilots. Or see if you can spot the big difference between Tora! Tora! Tora! and Pearl Harbour…

Because if you care about manipulating the controls of an airplane, or even just admiring the kinds of planes that need people to fly them, it’s time to decide what the future of aviation – our aviation – is going to look like. (I’ll try to kick things along in a follow-up post.)

Until then, I’ll leave you with this: Having forever changed the way the world flies, Juan Trippe said ‘Mass travel by air may prove to be more significant to world destiny than the atom bomb…’ 

Thanks Juan.

It still sounds considerably less inspiring when the bomb is ticking in your own back yard.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you… This is no sign of a resurgent GA sector, it’s the the MicroCub, a 60-percent-scale remote-controlled Super Cub, currently being used to test integration of UAVs into national airspace systems. (Lauren Hughes/NASA)

19 thoughts on “If you build it…

  1. A most profound and sadly prophetic article. I too fear for the world of GA as well as the Automotive Industry (which of course I am part of). It won’t happen within my working lifespan but as the song says; “Change gonna come” and I personally do not think it will be for the better, unless you are one of those corporate bean counters. By the time they realise the damage they will have done, it will of course be all too late.

    1. Yes, it’s sad but true – change is gonna come. For better or worse, growth is the only economic model we have, and progress is an irresistible force.
      Unfortunately, GA is going to pay the price in this realm – much like anybody who drives for a living will do in yours – and I doubt those businesses that are better off as a result won’t give the damage in their rear-view mirror a second thought.

  2. Agreed, but progress it seems to me these days, is increasingly pursued purely for progress’ sake. I love it when you hear of those who say that automation removes human error from the equation, thus preventing accidents. Utopian view to say the least! Automation MAY help reduce pilot error but ANY system is only as good as the HUMAN who devised/programmed it in the first place! So the “Pilot error” that they strive to remove is now simply transferred to the system itself. That weakness may not come to light for some time, but when it DOES, it needs a proper pilot to take over, one who HAS a pilot’s instinctive “feel” for an aircraft and moreover, one who has the ability to fly by the seat of his pants, rather than flying by numbers like a trained monkey!
    Anyone who rides a motorcycle first, then drives a car, will be a far better driver than someone who has never ridden at all but drives. Likewise, a pilot who starts on gliders, progresses to powered light aircraft and then goes on to larger or multi-engined aircraft, has GOT to be a better pilot than someone who just goes through direct access on to an airline.
    My fear is that in pursuing a relentless “cut costs at all costs” approach, the necessary skills WILL be lost as nobody wants to pay for them, and you are indeed left with nothing much more than trained monkeys, who will be fine, until……! Anyone want to buy a Tesla? One owner, low mileage but some crash damage due to over-reliance on onboard tech!

    1. You’re absolutely right. All this technology still comes down to people. There will still be a human controller – whether they occupy a pilot’s seat, an operator’s station, or a software engineer’s chair.
      Modern commercial aviation is now unfeasibly safe, even if there is still an element of paying your money and taking your chances in any takeoff. But every element of airways safety – including airborne radios, radar coverage, transponders, TCAS, enroute navigation aids, ILS systems, even airport security screening and cargo doors that close properly – has been paid for with human lives.
      I am loathe to use the term ‘acceptable losses’, but I suspect that’s the system of accounting this latest aviation technology will use as well.
      As for that depth of experience that comes with learning in smaller aircraft and diverse situations, you won’t get any argument here. And it IS all about cost cutting. At the very least, the airlines’ direct entry programs should include upset recovery training. Better, would provide ongoing aerobatic and gliding opportunities for their students and fully trained pilots. Best of all be doing that in a way that improves their pilots’ handling skills AND supports general aviation operators.
      Unfortunately, the best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago.
      Mind you, the second-best time is now.

    1. But then, where will the monkey sit…?
      Actually, I think you’re right. And then there will be two dogs, followed very shortly after by ultra-premium passenger seats with forward facing windows. Pilots need to see out the front, but a guidance system doesn’t. (Plus those up-front pax will help keep ticket prices down for the rest us, riding in the windowless cavern at the back.)

  3. A fascinating discussion point. I think is inevitable. Automation and A.I. is everywhere and growing fast. From simple robots in car factories to drones on front line operations. If it’ll fit in a car, it’ll fit in an aircraft. The driverless car is on the horizon and so it won’t be long before the airline pilot is, as you point out, either miles away on the ground or none existent. Training is an expensive process in any role, which is why employees these days ask for experience, they don’t want to spend time and money showing you how to do the job, why would they? But someone has to and if the airlines or any other business wants people in place someone has to provide that training. Science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact.

    1. Its life Jim, but not as we know it! I was about to add “God help us” but of course, our technology has gone beyond that. I guess the next thing will be the unsinkable ship! Oh, hang on….we did that one in 1912, didn’t we?!

    2. That’s a good point. Cost cutting certainly isn’t limited to the aviation industry – and if any employer can get away with not paying for training, they will. Perhaps that’s why universities are doing so well.
      I suspect most members of the travelling public still has an innate (perhaps ‘instinctive’ would be a better word?) fear of flying, otherwise the media wouldn’t make so much hay out of every plane crash. So getting them to settle comfortably into a plane without a pilot on board will be something of a hurdle. At least with the current system, the people at the controls have some skin in the game if anything goes wrong…
      On the other hand, I find it quite easy to imagine RPT flights with remote pilots will be normal. Perhaps those perpetually locked cockpit doors aren’t for security at all – it’s all just part of the conditioning…

      1. I think you may well be right. Going off track slightly, much of the hype around plane crashes is because so many people are involved when it does happen and they are so infrequent. People latch onto that and it fuels their fears. Personally I’d think twice about a driverless car let alone a plane and I’m all for flying!

      2. Going back to my post, the Australian news media will pounce on any plane crash, no matter how little. But yes, the body count is like some kind of ‘news crack’.
        As for never getting in a driverless vehicle, that may just be a generational thing. I mean, I feel the same way about listening to James Blunt – but the kids these days… 🙂

  4. Thanks for the shout-out of my post on the “ab initio” subject! You know how strongly I feel about the importance of general aviation.

    As far as the inevitability of pilot-less airplanes, it may very well be only a matter of time. But for those who feel pilot-free commercial aircraft are just around the corner, I’d submit that it’s a very long way off. That’s based on everything I know about what it takes to fly a large cabin business jet. Without going into the intricacies of the job, I’ll just say that the “state of the art” in automation is so far away from what it would take that we’re not even in the ballpark. We’re not even playing the same sport.

    Ab initio helps airlines and destroys the rest of the aviation world in the bargain. But I do understand why it appeals to the bean counters. For one thing, they have to man the airplanes, and maintain a constant supply of labor over the long haul. It’s actually the same logic that is driving the push for single-pilot airliners, and eventually, completely automated ships: pilots are expensive. On my airplane, the #1 cost is fuel. Maintenance is number 2, but not by much. Labor is not far behind that. Between base salary, bonuses, and benefits, we are expensive. You might say completely overpaid for what we do.

    But every now and then something happens, and suddenly there’s no price you wouldn’t pay to have us up front.

    1. Hey Ron,
      Thanks for adding your wisdom and experience.
      I suspect anyone who thinks pilots are overpaid hasn’t really, really needed one! The passengers (and their families)of QF32, US1549, UA811, ‘The Gimli Glider’ and others probably don’t think those crews could be paid enough!
      It’s interesting how consistently genuine hands-and-feet skills feature in those saves – especially military or glider flying.
      This post and I will both be deep in dust before those skills can be translated into a fully autonomous system, or even a remote operator.
      On the other hand, I’m not fully convinced the airlines or their accountants believe that level of handling skill is absolutely necessary. Y’know, 99.99% of the time… Especially when aircraft can already avoid each other, terrain and departure from controlled flight (or even controlled airspace).
      Meanwhile, personal drones have dominated aerial photography far more quickly and ubiquitously than the regulators can think and the national airspace is being prepared for fresh tides of UAVs.
      These will eat through GA’s bread and butter at an alarming rate, in areas like small freight, forest and fire monitoring, utilities inspection, etc… Many of the fields where today’s ATPLs earned their wings.
      At the same time, these airline direct entry programs are here already. Qantas’ move – last week they announced the first of two schools would open at Wellcamp Airport, Toowoomba, in a flurry of local job opportunities – is a seismic shift for a country that, until recently, supported its national character with a strong GA culture.
      So for me, this isn’t really about airlines or corporate responsibility or tomorrow’s technology; it’s about GA. Despite a lot of hand-wringing over the last couple of years, no-one really found a solution to the pilot shortage we all saw coming.
      Now the pilot shortage is a GA crisis, and GA needs to fix it… Not in a couple of decades either. Starting now.

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