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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

NextGen Trial

We are moving to the next level of aviation with NextGen:

What is NextGen? 

Compliments of the FAA.Gov:

"NextGen is the transformation of how airplanes traverse the sky. It affects all of us: from the pilots that fly the planes, the passengers who enjoy the flights and the controllers who ensure the safety.

The thousands of planes overhead right now are flying indirect routes over radar towers. For close to six decades we have used this World War II era technology to transit the skies. NextGen is an upgrade to satellite-based technology.

Piece by piece we are installing this new system. It is a consistent and persistent effort to bring airplanes and airports online with NextGen technology.

Satellite navigation will let pilots know the precise locations of other airplanes around them. That allows more planes in the sky while enhancing the safety of travel. Satellite landing procedures will let pilots arrive at airports more predictably and more efficiently. And once on the ground, satellite monitoring of airplanes leads to getting you to the gate faster.

Already we are starting to see benefits. By the year 2018 we are expecting to see savings of hundreds of dollars per flight. Multiply that by the millions of flights that occur in a typical year and savings become extraordinary.

But most importantly, NextGen enhances the safety of what is already the safest airspace in the world. And it ensures our stellar safety history will continue in the same tradition.

What is NextGen? A new era of flight."

Wow... a new ERA of flight.

But I have to ask... Is this new era simply moving down the path to eventually remove your pilots from the plane?

NextGen is the wave of the future, and one of the key factors is the use of two-way electronic messaging. I'm the first to say this is a fantastic way to communicate while flying across the ocean. We communicate, but the pilot still has the power to accept, deny, and is responsible for programing the FMC. (Flight Management Computer)

However... Concerning FedEx and the Memphis airport for implementation as a test market, Wayne Risher says, "The new system will feed electronic messages directly into flight management computers, eliminating the step of manually typing information into the computer." 

What this means, is someone on the ground will be programming my plane from the ground. This goes far beyond communication.


What do you think? 

Do you want someone else programming your plane?

I'm wondering what security systems they will have in place to prevent ground infiltration of our planes. Who will have access to compromise our flights and program them from afar? Being so close to the memory of 911 last week, and being a thriller writer, my mind is wandering. But I have to ask... "What if?"

I suspect this is the first step in removing the pilots. Once they prove they can be programmed without us, we'll be history. Of course... think of the savings!

What do you think? Do you want someone on the ground programing your plane? Would you rather have your pilot responsible for your life, or a programmer sitting on the ground? Before you answer, remember... the pilot is on the plane with you.

Enjoy the Journey!
XO Karlene


  1. Hi, Karlene!

    Interesting topic. I think the odds of you and I living to see autonomous operation of air carrier aircraft are about 50:50.

    The trends are driving us this way. Demand for air travel is set to increase as far as the eye can see, especially in Asia. Traditional sources of trained, competent pilots are strained now and will become more so. Aircrew resources will soon be the neck of the bottle. Autonomous operations are an obvious goal.

    The first thing to understand is that there are no technical obstacles to doing it NOW. We'll know we're going that way when UPS and FedEx start running cargo flights autonomously, with a "safety pilot" on board. I'll give it 8 to 10 years.

    After about five years of incident-free operation they'll take the safety pilot off and go with fully autonomous cargo flights. Operating corridors will at least initially avoid heavily populated areas, but that restriction won't last long.

    The air carriers will be clamoring to join the party. Figure about 15 to 20 years out for autonomous air carrier flights with safety pilot.

    The last step - removing the safety pilot from passenger aircraft - will take another 10 years. Some time around 2040.

    My guess is that the last airline pilot is building time somewhere as a newbie CFI...or maybe it was that youngster in the right seat of the last RJ you rode on.

    Best regards,


    1. Frank, Thank you for the fantastic comment. When you put it that way, we should put out a message, "if you want to be an airline pilot, join now or forever hold your peace."

      Unfortunately, I think you're right. I will be retired by then, but they are definitely going that way.

  2. Yes if it will save money and time, it will be done. If it gets into the wrong hands and or if there is a programming error, the flight is finished. Computer error vs pilot error and training. Is saving money worth the risk? Honestly its pretty scary for me as someone who is in school to think that a computer will be flying a plane instead of live flesh and blood.

    1. Jeremy, it's pretty scary for me too. I know we'll have an override feature. I hope. But the concept of their thinking programming from the ground... I'm going to start researching this more. And this will definitely be book three.

  3. Of course this will happen. Automation will continue to be more and more advanced to the point where the risk/reward makes sense. Incremental advances like the one you describe are how these kinds of changes take place.

    This transition started a long time ago, with the development of standardized procedures and op specs. The captain has gone from pilot to manager of systems, and as the technology improves to make the systems more and more sophisticated, there's less and less need for the manager.

    What's amazing to me is that this transition is coming to aircraft before other simpler transportation modalities like trains. Why on earth are there still engineers driving trains on long-haul trips?

    1. Brad, that's a good question... why do they still have engineers? Perhaps because of runaways? Not sure.

      I do know they've been flying drones in the military for years. This technology is not new. But they will take it to the end, until pilots aren't needed.

      The real question is, will passengers get on a plane without a pilot? Would you?

      I wouldn't. There is a something comforting to know that we're all vested in the flight together.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. First of all, thank you Karlene for bringing this topic some attention. The future is coming closer each day now.

    That being said, I am highly sceptical to the idea of not having a pilot in command of the aircraft, from a passenger point of view. It's just not the same, as Jeremy has mentioned, to trust a computer with all its limitations and the potential for technical failures, as opposed to its flesh-and-bone competitor, the human being. Sure, humans have limitations too, but not in the same way. It's easier, I believe, to take corrective action if there is indeed a pilot in the pointy end of the plane, compared to a computer somewhere in the world, susceptile to power-outages, terrorist attacks, inflitration, you name it.

    From a personal point of view, we can already see where the industry is taking us. Highly automated airplanes, monitored for the most part during flight, but during those critical phases there are highly trained professional to take action if the automation fails. Because it will fail. We have seen that over the years. 447 is a number that comes to mind.

    You can never substitute a professional pilot with a computer.

    1. Ceclie, you are so right. We can never substitute a professional pilot with a computer.

      I'm with you on this... very skeptical. I have to wonder at what point automation will begin to sacrifice safety.

      They will fly these test runs with FedEx, and then prove it works. Then they'll petition for one pilot monitoring. Eventually none. We'll see the airfreight first.

      But, the first time someone accesses, and begins to use them as lawn darts of terrorism, we might think otherwise.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  5. Karlene, thank you for this astonishing post. Never had thought about that, maybe because of the studies. However, now I have the mission to comment. Here is my version:

    As a radical thinker, sometimes my thoughts goes too far. But asking "Do you want someone else programming your plane from the ground?" makes you think if the Pilot will have its power equal to null.

    The NexGen meaning involves much more of what the FAA said up there. To have SOMEONE ELSE programming your plane is just as horrible as it sounds like. The world is absolutely not the same as it was 2 years (YES! TWO!) ago. Is this someone HIGHLY qualified? Are they going to be the pilots? WHAT IF their job doesn't reach 1/3 of a real Captain's job (meaning: power)? Can we trust on them? Oh no, wait! I should put the following question at the top: Are you serious?

    The NexGen conception should not hit the Pilots this manner, not putting OTHERS on the control of an airplane (that can turn into a death machine in less than a second). NexGen should be related to REAL QUALIFIED FUTURE PILOTS (HEROES), they are the ones who should be programming the FMCs. You see, FMC is the brain of an airplane, they are impressively complex, they require you a good knowledge to use it.

    NexGen should be related to aviation education when mentioning Pilots. Why they don't invest on the education field, then the NexGen comes with highly qualified pilots? I can see how evident pilots are extremely low qualified (don't know if I wrote it correctly), and guess what? They are on the market WORKING!

    I have to agree the system is too old and we are already on a new ERA in Aviation. NexGen navigation, weather radars, communication systems, engines, airplanes, aircraft systems, materials... Many things are already inside the NexGen, but it looks completely ridiculous when saying there will be people controlling the plane from the ground. Are we talking about Commercial UAVs? What about SAFETY?

    My conclusion is: Perhaps this absurd will indeed substitute the Pilot in a very near future, the NexGen in other aviation fields is extremely efficient and it gets even more by the time and it has a good consequence on the economy, especially these days that our world is experiencing a crisis. Also, continuing to look with this different perspective, it will also improve safety.

    My phrases are:
    1- "Never substitute a man for a machine. There's absolutely nothing more intelligent than a human brain...";
    2- "SAFETY needs to be ALWAYS on the first place."

    To those who disagree with my opinion: I am sorry if I sounded rude, but this is my humble opinion about something that threats something that I love most in life.

    Karlene, I will post something similar on my blog. Spread the word. Once again, thank you for this post, love it!

    1. Alex, I love your two phrases! You're right... technology is wonderful, needed and beneficial. It can create safety. But just like water is healthy, if you drink too much in a sitting you can drown yourself.

      I am going to begin researching this NextGen, as I'm very curious where they are going and how fast. But the writing is on the wall.

      You may be one of the last few pilots. Can you imagine when you retire there many be none following you? That's a scary thought, isn't it.

      Interesting times for sure! Thank you so much for your comment!

  6. I am not sure if the goal of NextGen is to get to 100% automation and totally do away with the pilot. If I am not mistaken the electronic messages quoted above refers to clearances and amendments that are provided via data exchange rather than verbally through voice communications and most of the automation on board the a/c being designed or planned or already available allows the pilot to accept or reject if it is not feasible or ask for a modified clearance.

    1. Thank you so much for the comment. NextGen itself may not be removing the pilots. But I'm fairly certain this is the first step in that ultimate goal.

      I was actually had been told (about 10 months ago) by a fairly reliable source that FedEx had applied for flying without pilots. I thought that was odd. But now, maybe not so odd.

      Originally I thought it was for communication. But when the reports say they are programming the FMC... that is more than receiving clearance via the communication systems on board.

      Of course in the early stages the FAA will mandate the ability for the pilots to accept and reject. But eventually, when they have 90% reliability that the pilots have not been rejecting, and they are flying freight with remote controlled planes... the shift will begin.

      We all say, "oh it can't happen." And yet we all said that when they wanted to fly two engine jets over the ocean. Won't happen. What we can't believe now, will become a reality. They have the technology, and this is the first step.

      It's going to be interesting to watch.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

  7. No doubt the technology can take us there. The question is, should it? Personally, I'm not happy with the idea of being on an airplane mid-flight when the computers go down and there's no pilot!

    1. I'm not happy with that idea either. It would be one dark and scary night.

  8. I am also opposing the move. It will take away the joy of flying from pilots. Flying is an art and pilots express themselves in the cockpit by creative thinking and fine skill.

    Computer software lack this artistic element.

    1. Yes, Pilots will become monitors, not pilots. I suspect this is the way of the future. I think the only way it will change is when accidents occur.

  9. Correct me if I am wrong but if the pilot is receiving the clearance via data comm isn't it appropriate that it be programmed into the FMC instead of expecting the pilot to then enter the same route/clearance into the FMC? One of the benefits of data comm is reduction in workload both for the controller and the pilot. In a piloted aircraft I would think this will always be negotiated between the pilot and the controller.

    The success of this step leads to the full automation as can be seen by expanded use in unmanned aerial systems. As you pointed out Drones have been in use for some time but these are chiefly remotely operated by a pilot on the ground. They have many excellent uses. It is especially useful and easier to try this for freight since most of these flights occur at night where there is less traffic. Remember that there is still a lot of research happening in sense and avoid technology and a lot of difficulties involved with integrating UAS into the NAS.

    And of course the success of this step lead to the next step i.e. utilization for transportation. Note that no single agency or organization can mandate that come 2020 or some year all aircraft will be unmanned. Whether we move in that direction depends on the availability of autonomous transportation vehicles, and people/companies interested in investing time and money in them and acceptance by the general public. An agency such as the FAA comes into play only in the last stage to enforce and ensure safety of operations. If people are not ready for it, believe me it will not be lucrative for the airlines to provide such service at a loss even if mandated!

    Finally fully automated systems have been with us for a while. To cite an example, DC's metro system is designed to operate on automatic control with the operator present to do basic things. This was until June 2010 accident when it reverted to manual operation. There are other examples especially ground transportation at airports such as SFO etc.

    The intent of NextGen is to improve the system for the operator/user/service provider. There are many changes happening at a snails pace. So I think we will have to wait a while before we can fly in a pilot less aircraft :-)

    But we are definitely headed that way...

    1. Thanks for your great reply. I still am old school and would like to input the data into the FMC. There is something to be said, for the checks and balances. I think when someone is programing for you, you get complacent.

      This was the problem when the FMC first came into business, we assumed the computer was doing what it was supposed to. The common thing said, "what's it doing?"

      But pilots took for granted it was "doing" what it was supposed to. We programmed it, and assumed. Now, we're going to the next level of someone else programming. Pilots will get complacent because 99 out of 100 times it was correct. I see the writing on the wall.

      But like everything there is a learning curve. All we can say is... we'll see what happens.

      Thanks again for your comment!

  10. Everyone is looking at this from the pilot's POV, only Linda addresses the biggest issue - will customers (passengers) buy it? I really don't believe they will, they want cheap tickets, yes. But they want to feel as safe as they can, and that will always mean a pilot in the front seat with gold braid and a hat.

    I do think we will see flight plans uploaded directly into the flight computer, and it's a good idea. It eliminates human error, like the one that resulted in a B757 crash in South America, when the crew entered the wrong way point. But a human will always have to manually accept it (or reject it before a timeout).

    The FAA is talking about GPS coupled with Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), which is the mechanism that allows aircraft to exchange messages with ATC and with each other. Any competent programmer will limit the selections, so that no ground based message can even be created that says if effect "fly your plane directly into the world trade center". Having a pilot on board who monitors and approves of re-routes will also add a layer of security.

    I'm OK with 1 pilot with strong automation, I'm not OK with none. And I think the vast majority of passengers will think the same way.

    1. Excellent points. The thing with human error is that we have it. To avoid what happened in Kali, we have created procedures to eliminate these errors.

      Why will someone on the ground eliminate the error of inputting data? They are just human. Unless we let the computers do it.

      Now: ATC gives a clearance. Both pilots hear it. We read back. ATC listens to confirm we heard right. One pilot puts puts it in, and the other confirms. Checks and Balance.

      Now we will have one person sending a clearance to the plane. I'm envisioning a crisis on board, pilots distracted. ATC on ground programming...did they do it right? Do the pilots take this clearance for granted? I see a Kali all over again.

      Do you know how many planes crash in Alaska because ATC gave them a clearance into a mountain? How many that lived because the pilot knew the mountain was there and didn't do what they said? And then how many of us have lived because ATC gave us a clearance into another plane they forgot was there? I've been there and seen that.

      Human error happens on the ground too. We are not exempt. So... in my opinion, I really want to pack my own parachute.

      But pilots who are now "only" monitors, and then in 2, 3, 10 years have to identify when something is wrong, and then be able to fly the plane? It's not going to happen.

      And okay with one?

      At least if there were two people up there, perhaps there could be a discussion as to proper course of action when something goes array. And what happens if there is a medical issue? A bathroom break? Having one person monitor, in my mind, is a token for appearance. Unless of course they send the dog to bite the pilot when he falls asleep. :)

      Thanks for the great discussion. There are always multiple points of view and with that, we are able to cover all contingencies.


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