Legend Cub
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4 min read

I took my first ride in a HondaJet and I have to say, I’m intrigued.  It is one of the first airplanes designed around the concept of a single pilot in the cockpit, and the level of automation was impressive.  Landing lights, pitot heat, transponder, and deice systems require no human intervention.  My mind drifted as I sat in the right seat, watching the world from FL270.


The HondaJet is one of the first airplanes designed around the concept of a single pilot in the cockpit.

Historically, cockpits were manned by up to five crew members.  Communications and navigation technology advancements rendered the navigator and radio operator obsolete, quickly followed by the flight engineer.  With the cost of pilot-labor skyrocketing, it’s only a matter of time before an airline (with shockingly high leverage over an aircraft manufacturer) requests a single-pilot, narrow-body design.  Of course, everyone will be up in arms, and alphabet groups will make the standard arguments.  Even Congress will get involved, but the copilot will be replaced.

The “new” copilot will become a ground-based operator capable of limited aircraft control.  Their duties will include setting up the auto-land system, working the radios in a high-workload environment, and assisting with a checklist.  But checklists will be eliminated (we currently have the technology to automate them), as will radio calls.  Auto-takeoff and Autoland will become standard, as will an automated taxi to and from the gate.  The advantages of automating and standardizing mundane duties ($$$) will eventually outweigh any concerns the flying public may have.

The airline pilot is becoming a “Systems Manager,” and this process will undoubtedly accelerate as automation improves.  Pilots will become more “hands-off” and require fewer flying skills.  Manual landings will be relegated to the simulator as the risk of allowing a human to manipulate the flight controls will no longer justify the reward.  As I write this, the military is moving to pilotless planes, and airlines will capitalize on our acceptance of this technology.  After all, why pay a human to sit there when we have “proven” the aircraft is safer than a human pilot.  A “remote” pilot will then become the norm.

Business jet manufacturers will follow suit (and may even lead the way), not due to the price of labor, but due to the “maturing of technology.”  Because business jets have longer service lives when measured in years, business jet pilots will be some of the last jet pilots flying.

backcountry strip

The last group of pilots will be forced into backcountry strips.

Regardless of the details, the number of active pilots will dwindle, and so too will funding for airports and navigation aids.  The last group of pilots will be forced into backcountry strips and homemade airfields.  There will be no more $100 hamburgers or practice approaches, and radio traffic will be relegated to a passing “hello.”  Aviation will be growing, mind you.  Drones will proliferate, and aircraft operators will supervise dozens of flights at a time, occasionally testing their ability to take control of a flight.  Low-Level Drone Routes will crisscross the skies and drone ports will be built in every park and technology will turn aviation into a wonder few can imagine.  But someday, only one pilot will remain.

I doubt they will know the day it happens, but the last pilot, The Last Pilot, will launch one last time on a cool spring morning from a dirt strip outside a small town.  They will open the window to smell the trees, feel the vibration of the old prop, slightly out of balance, and touch the wind.  They will fly over the place they grew up or the grave of a friend long past.  People will gaze upward in amazement and an old timer will tip his hat, reminiscing of aviation days gone by.

On the last base to final turn, the Last Pilot will make one final radio call and touch down on the old grass strip and taxi to the barn, alone in their thoughts.  After the engine is clicked off and The Last Pilot coasts to a stop, the windshield will be dutifully wiped clean, as will the leading edges.  The plane will be pushed into the barn, and the Last Pilot will hang the key on the hook for the final time.

Legend Cub

The Last Pilot will make one final radio call and touch down on the old grass strip and taxi to the barn.

Jeff Lane
Latest posts by Jeff Lane (see all)
15 replies
  1. Peter Boos
    Peter Boos says:

    People will always enjoy flying, but you’re right the last starship (although be it a rocket) self balanced with a broken wing to a perfect landing. Machines are eventually better in keeping things up (or literally up in the air), ea with the right software you can have a drone with damaged rotors and it adjusts for vibrations itself. Tesla has self driving cars, my drone flies waypoints. From an engineering viewpoint its great. Though the days of Pilots might get numbered, first i think though we get robot taxies (oh the’re already in some US states, but not in europe yet). Eventually robots make less errors than humans, insurance kicks in, and you’re a driving risk..

  2. Skip Stagg
    Skip Stagg says:

    Not a bright future your painting there my friend. I am reminded of a “war story” from my friend Dave flying a Frontier Airbus in to Washington DC area. He and the copilot were fighting with the flight control system which was confusing the white house from the airport. A software bug to be sure. The computer controlled operational system for the air defense system by the secret service which was also tracking them did not have any software problems
    The problem with computers is the software and or operating system is its a single point system failure, Place a back up software in there you say based on the same software, sorry that will have the same BUG in it.
    One of the Hazard analysis in did while at NASA based on the AI research at that time revealed that the computer logic may be valid but the outcome NOT very desirable.
    Want an example, in the movie 2001 HAL the ships computer remarked to Dave who told the computer to open the hatch so he could come in “I am sorry I cant do that.” was HAL’s reply.
    I think I will continue to advocate have a human in the loop and on board the the aircraft
    In the mean time I will continue flying my 1939 Aeronca.

  3. Dale
    Dale says:

    During my Air Force career, I spent 3 years out of the cockpit as a personnel officer working assignments for my fellow fighter pilots. Every Air Force officer submits a Form 90 (their ‘Dream Sheet’) in which they state what they really, really, REALLY want to fly, and, as a temporary personnel officer, I read a lot of them. As I read them, many times I thought, “What a dreamer!” and sometimes I would find one that stood out from all the others and would share it with my fellow temporary personnel officers who, like me, wanted to get back to the cockpit. The one that still resonates with me had the following line in it, “I want to fly the A-10 because it’s closer to Indian fighting than it is to Data Processing!” I did my best to help get that guy into the A-10 world!

  4. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    Just read another article about automation that disagrees with your premise. “Replacing pilots with automation just replaces pilot errors with coding errors”.
    Autonomous cars are always “just around the corner” (for decades now?) and then the unimagined scenario kills drivers/pedestrians.
    Let Otto pull my plane out, add fuel “just in case” & then explain to the boss why what he wants to do won’t happen because it’s unsafe.

    • David Tyler
      David Tyler says:

      Nailed it. I’ve written too much code to believe otherwise. — and the more complicated the code, the harder it is to find the errors _before_ a catastrophe.

  5. Michael J Capoccia
    Michael J Capoccia says:

    The last manned caboose. The last stage coach. the last commercial sailing ship. The last whaler. The last horse drawn cab.
    The last car with carburetors. The Chesapeake oyster boat. The last horse cart .

    It has all happend it has all been lamented.

    and the world went on with no real notice.

    The one sure thing is change.

  6. Brian Lloyd
    Brian Lloyd says:

    No, it will not happen. People still ride horses. Roping, reining, and cutting are still huge hobbies and big business when you look at the price tag. The old Stage Coach and Hansom Cab are still trotted out for a parade. Meticulously restored vintage cars (with carburetors) are lovingly driven and displayed. Like those, our Cubs, T-Carts, and Airknockers will still make airplane noises overhead. People will still attend airshows. There will still be aerobatic competitions and soaring meets. The difference is, aviation will become a real passtime with no claims of, “It’s a business tool!”

    I fly because I want to. I don’t expect that there will come a time when I won’t want to. There will only come a time when I can’t — “can’t,” as in, “unable.” Until then, I will be PIC. Today there are a lot of kids learning to fly. They may discover that they have to find jobs other than flying airliners but a lot of them are going to fly just because they can. I don’t think that the last pilot has been born yet. As long as we yearn for the freedom of the sky … or even space … the last pilot won’t be born.

  7. Peter N Steinmetz
    Peter N Steinmetz says:

    I agree with Brian Lloyd. People will likely always enjoy flying for a hobby. But it will become rarer, like riding horses.


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