- The Problem with Pilots: How Physicians, Engineers, and Airpower Enthusiasts Redefined Flight by Timothy P. Schultz
In 2015, the Secretary of the Navy announced that the new F-35 jet would "almost certainly be the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly" (p. xv). Future military aircraft—especially those that serve in direct combat roles—would either be flown remotely by ground-based technicians or operated autonomously without direct human control. Timothy P. Schultz argues that this prediction represents the culmination of a century of efforts by flight surgeons, engineers, and air-power proponents to overcome the inherent shortcomings imposed by "the weakest link in manned flight," the pilot (p. vii).
During World War I, pilots attempting to fly above their opponents encountered the debilitating and potentially fatal effects of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, at high altitudes. They also discovered—too often the hard way—that humans are physiologically incapable of maintaining level flight after entering clouds or fog. By World War II, aircraft could withstand more "G" forces than humans, leading flyers to lose consciousness during violent aerial maneuvers. Schultz describes in fascinating yet highly accessible detail how engineers and flight surgeons responded, working together to discover causes and invent cures for each newly exposed shortfall in the "weakest link" in an increasingly complex technological system. Oxygen masks (and later pressurized aircraft), blind flying instruments that allow pilots to maintain control when they cannot see the horizon, and inflatable "G suits" that prevent blood from pooling in the legs as pilots pull out of a steep dive represent just some of the technological fixes intended to augment human performance in the unforgiving environment of flight.
Schultz devotes the last third of his book to the present and future role of pilots (or lack thereof) in the cockpit. This includes a description of current technology such as Auto-GCAS (Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System), which "at the point of no return, only 1.5 seconds until impact … [automatically] seizes control from the pilot." Designed to prevent a low-flying fighter plane from colliding with the ground (such accidents account for 75 percent of fatalities in the U.S. Air Force's F-16 fleet), this new system required both cutting edge technology and cultural buy-in from the fighter pilots who had to be willing to relinquish control to a computer in an emergency (pp. 140–41). Schultz also explores the evolving relationship between military pilots who actually fly over enemy lines and those who operate Remotely Piloted Aircraft, popularly known as "drones," from a computer console on the ground, as the Air Force struggles institutionally to redefine who deserves to be called "real pilots" (p. 163). He describes the [End Page 994] potential downsides of increasing reliance on cockpit automation as well, including the horrifying case of Air France Flight 447, which in 2009 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean killing all aboard after the pilots were unable to control the highly-automated aircraft (due to lack of practice) in an otherwise survivable emergency situation (p. 130).
While many historians address the present and future only briefly in their conclusion, Schultz is writing for two separate audiences: fellow historians of technology as well as mid-career military officers who represent the rising generation of top commanders and policymakers. This may seem a tall order, but the author's diverse background—retired military pilot, Ph.D. in History of Technology, former Commandant and Dean of the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies—allows him to bridge this gap. He invokes Thomas Hughes's reverse salients (p. 24), Edward Constant's presumptive anomalies (p. 31), Thomas Kuhn's paradigm shifts (p. 58), and Norbert Wiener's theory of cybernetics (p. 71) to help explain why and how technological changes occurred throughout the past century of flight, offering succinct descriptions of each concept in the text for an educated but non-scholarly audience of military professionals...