Advances in sensor technology, computing and artificial intelligence have made human pilots less necessary than ever in the cockpit. After the Germanwings crash some seem less worried about being branded a 9/11 conspiracy nut.
Because information collected after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has raised questions about the alleged ability and motivation of the people accused of piloting four Boeing 757 and 767 planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon building and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, speculation has since lingered regarding the covert use of technology to precisely navigate the four airliners that day without onboard pilot control.
By 1999 already, Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft contained digital flight control systems that can “automatically fly the airplanes on pre-selected routes, headings, speed or altitude maneuvers.”
On October 9, 2001, Cubic Defense Systems, Inc. applied for a U.S. patent that removes control of an aircraft from its pilot and utilizes an aircraft’s auto-pilot system to implement an uninterruptable pre-programmed autopilot flight plan in order to navigate an aircraft to a given destination during an emergency. This would be accomplished through the use of an electronic or mechanical relay or relays, that become activated by pilot operation of an aircraft hijack notification system.
Surprisingly to some, none of the four aircraft destroyed on September 11, 2001 in NY are known to have entered unique transponder hijack notification codes, suggesting either modified function or insufficient activation time.
One optional feature of the Cubic system is termination of an aircraft’s ability to communicate.
In two cases, hijacker communications aimed at passengers on-board American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 93 on September 11, 2001 were heard instead by air traffic controllers, suggesting modified communication functions.
In 2014, airlines carried 838.4 million passengers on more than 8.5 million flights. Commercial aviation is already heavily automated. Modern aircraft are generally flown by a computer autopilot that tracks its position using motion sensors and dead reckoning, corrected as necessary by GPS. Software systems are also used to land commercial aircraft.
In a recent survey of airline pilots, those operating Boeing 777s reported that they spent just seven minutes manually piloting their planes in a typical flight. Pilots operating Airbus planes spent half that time.
And commercial planes are becoming smarter all the time. “An Airbus airliner knows enough not to fly into a mountain,” said David Mindell, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics and astronautics professor. “It has a warning system that tells a pilot. But it doesn’t take over.”
The Pentagon has just that system and has deployed automated piloting software in F-16 fighter jets. The Auto Collision Ground Avoidance System reportedly saved a plane and pilot in November during a combat mission against Islamic State forces.
The Pentagon has invested heavily in robot aircraft. As of 2013, there were more than 11,000 drones in the military arsenal. But drones are almost always remotely piloted, rather than autonomous. Indeed, more than 150 humans are involved in the average combat mission flown by a drone.
Because the Flight Data Recorders (FDRs) for American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175 were not recovered, details regarding the operation of each aircraft on 9/11 are not known. The FDRs for American Airlines flight 77 and United Airlines flight 93 were recovered and indicate pilot control of each aircraft.
However, the FDR readout file for American Airlines flight 77 was completed four hours and fifteen minutes before the said FDR was recovered, suggesting false or altered FDR information.
And the FDRs for American Airlines flight 77 and United Airlines flight 93 are virtually the only ones during the previous 20 years of major National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) U.S. aviation mishap investigations, for which unique inventory control serial numbers were not published.
Such serial numbers are required to facilitate FDR data readouts. In fact the NTSB possesses no records pertaining to the positive identification of the FDRs for American Airlines flight 77 and United Airlines flight 93.