Tom Haines

George leaves Joe Pilot at home

November 17, 2008 by Thomas B. Haines, Editor in Chief

In more than 20 years writing for AOPA Pilot I’ve had the privilege of flying more than 100 models of airplanes. One of the most memorable was a Cessna Caravan on amphibious floats. I spent a couple of days piloting the big airplane around Long Island Sound, even landing on the East River in Manhattan. It was great fun and I was impressed at how easy it was to manage the hulking airplane. It was truly like flying a Cessna 182.

So, too bad that in the future some pilots will miss out on the fun. You see, the U.S. Army is working on a version of the Caravan that will be “optionally-piloted.” That’s Army-speak for remote controlled. Aviation Week and Space Technology is reporting the Army has already flown the Caravan Optionally Piloted Aircraft (COPA). It plans to deploy the COPAs for utility transport in “routine, but sometimes dangerous battlefield and ‘area of interest’ reconnaissance and patrol missions.” Sounds like trying to get into Teterboro at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning.

While remote controlled implies a pilot is required on the ground, COPA will also be configured for possible autonomous missions–meaning you enter the flight plan, wind it up, and let it go. Like a bird-dog, it comes back home after completing its mission.

The Caravan isn’t alone among GA airplanes perhaps destined to leave the pilot behind. Boeing has proposed the use of an unmanned Gulfstream G550 business jet in a military application and the Diamond DA42 piston twin is another that is being developed as an optionally-piloted vehicle. Of course, the real concern is whether these things can truly operate safely autonomously or remotely without the need for airspace restrictions for the rest of us–an ongoing debate.

Makes you wonder what “optionally-piloted” really means. Does it mean you Joe Pilot are welcome to fly, but if you get sleepy or the weather (or lead in the air) gets a little too dicey you can hand the whole mess over to George? Meanwhile, the next day, George may be assigned a mission where Joe gets left home alone to sulk. Not much fun there.

Should we lobby for a new federal mandate: No pilot left behind?

Brave new world!

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