Here Comes The Future
Every year around this time, when the days are short and nights are long and cold, we can’t help spending some time thinking about the future. A new calendar provides the illusion of a fresh start, though in reality the Earth continues its elliptical orbit, as it has for millions of years, oblivious to our human concepts. December 31 rings out the old, and January 1 arbitrarily rings in the new, regardless of astronomical realities.
So what does the future hold? We all know that we don’t know. But we choose to prognosticate anyway. And here’s my contribution — I think the two aviation stories to watch in the new year will be autonomy and women.
The pilot community seems to be warming up to the idea of flying airplanes that are smarter than us. Many of us still remember the days of stick and rudder, islands in the sky and dead reckoning. But even many diehard old-style pilots, who believe nothing beats the hands-on flying in a DC-3 or Cub, appreciate that technology that makes flying safer isn’t really a bad thing. And the safer it gets, and the easier it gets to be a safe pilot, the more people will be interested in learning to fly.
The idea of a “flying car” isn’t really about having a machine you can park in your garage and drive to the airport. It’s about having an airplane that’s as simple and safe to operate as an automobile. And with autonomy surging in the automobile world, “as safe as driving” is going to change … cars driven by humans aren’t all that safe, but autonomous cars are. Autonomous, or semi-autonomous, airplanes will indisputably reduce the risks in GA flying. Already, the NTSB has reported that 2016 was the safest year in 50 years for general aviation. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that’s not because pilots are being more careful and training harder. It’s because more airplanes are better equipped with safety gear, from AOA indicators to envelope protection to parachutes.
As autonomous systems take over more and more of the chores of flying, and eliminate more of the risk, interest in private flying will soar. And that takes us to the next story — women. Aviation has been failing to inspire half the population, for decades now. The reasons for that are legion, but let’s not debate that. Let’s say that if the career track is there, for the airlines — and I think it is, especially now, with pilots in short supply — then there’s something in society that needs to change. And that’s the reality that it’s harder for women to combine an airline career with family life than it is for men. If that’s going to change, men are going to have to be willing to step up at home. Will that happen? Will we look back someday at 2018 as a turning point? Hard to say, but it’s a New Year. The shortest days of winter are over, and hope for the future reigns, at least for today.