The Germanwings crash has renewed a familiar argument that goes something like this: Planes pretty much fly themselves these days, so let's make them fully automated and much safer by removing humans from the cockpit. Well, that's nuts, writes Patrick Smith in the New York Times. Smith is a pilot himself and admittedly biased, but he also thinks that people have a skewed idea of what goes on in the cockpit, even when autopilot is engaged. Pilots may not be as hands-on as they were in past, but they're still busy the entire flight. "The notion of the automatic airplane that 'flies itself' is perhaps the most stubborn myth in all of aviation," writes Smith. "Almost everything the airplane does is commanded, one way or the other, by the crew."
He writes of a recent flight from the Caribbean to New York in foul weather during which autopilot was on the whole trip. He still had to coordinate altitude, course, and speed changes, set up holding, arrival, and approach patterns, and keep in constant contact with the control tower as well as his cabin crew. "By the end of the flight, my voice was hoarse," he writes. Pilotless air travel might indeed arrive someday—after billions of dollars and many years of redesigns and infrastructure changes—but until then, "the public deserves to have an accurate sense of how planes actually fly, and what we pilots actually do for a living." Click for his full column. (Read more pilots stories.)