Could the Boeing 737 MAX be flown safely with a robot dome light third pilot?

Unfortunately, we now know that a two-pilot crew cannot safely handle the silent gradual pusher system of the Boeing 737 MAX.

“Pilot Who Hitched a Ride Saved Lion Air 737 Day Before Deadly Crash” (Bloomberg) says that a three-pilot crew was able to handle the design deficiencies in Boeing’s silent gradual pusher system. (The third pilot was in one of the comfy jump seats; I enjoyed a ride once in a B757 jump seat and it is remarkably luxurious.)

One of the ideas that I’ve been in love with for years is a robot copilot up in the dome light that can see everything the pilots see and, without anyone having to certify modifications to the legacy systems, help out with suggestions in the intercom. In the case of the 737 MAX, for example, the dome light copilot could notice when the runaway-trim-by-design system is operating and suggest “hit the trim interrupt switches!”

(Alternatively, of course, the Boeings could be returned to service with the requirement that they be flown by three pilots in the cockpit at all times, like a World War II bomber or Boeing 727. (In the not-so-good old days, a heavy airplane would have two pilots to manage the flight controls, a flight engineer (i.e., a third pilot) to manage the systems, and a navigator to watch the position over relative to the ground.))


5 thoughts on “Could the Boeing 737 MAX be flown safely with a robot dome light third pilot?

  1. You might wish to lookup Boeing’s Rotorcraft Pilot’s Associate which was some cluster of AI intended to help out Apache pilots.

    This is from 1999, but I think they were working on that a lot earlier than that (and are probably still working on it.)

    > The U.S. Army and The Boeing Company offered the world a glimpse of the future today as they unveiled the Rotorcraft Pilot’s Associate, an advanced cockpit management system destined to change how combat helicopter pilots fly in the next millennium.

    The RPA was developed by the Boeing Phantom Works under an $80 million advanced technology demonstration contract with the U.S. Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate at Fort Eustis, Va. The program included flight demonstrations that simulated combat missions and the use of advanced night-vision sensors. A Boeing rotorcraft fly-by-wire demonstration system also was demonstrated.

    The advanced cockpit management system will help combat helicopter pilots fly their helicopters and manage the battlefield of the future with greater effectiveness and increased survivability.

    RPA will assist the aircrew by maintaining comprehensive internal and external situational awareness, continuously planning for optimized reconnaissance and attack positions, coordinating the actions of team members, and managing the use of sensors, communications, weapons and other mission equipment.

    Pilots will have the opportunity to automatically control varying levels of mission activity, including planning and subsystem management.

    The RPA features an advanced helicopter pilotage system and advanced data fusion, where data from diverse sources are combined, evaluated and processed to maximize the usefulness of the information to the crew.

    Data fusion is a key benefit of the RPA, said Lee Daniel, RPA program manager, who noted that the system would be able to take diverse inputs from global positioning satellites, off- and on-board sensors, communications channels and aircrew input.

    RPA will combine inputs from these sources and evaluate the data to produce a comprehensive picture of friendly and enemy troop locations, rate and direction. RPA continuously re-assesses any impact this might have on current route and mission plans.

  2. Us blog readers are now experts on where the stab trim switches are & can rescue any 737’s losing control. In fact, they’re the only switches we know the function of. Forget about the flight management computer or the autopilot modes.

  3. I think that’s a cool idea, I like the dome light pilot assistant. Especially if the emphasis was placed on helping the crew reduce their workload or give them answers at a moment of forgetfulness, high stress, etc. To be able to talk natural language back to it and ask questions like: “Ten minutes ago, when we did [A] did we also do [B]?” could be really helpful.

    From what I’ve been able to gather from reading various things you and others have written (like stories about icing) the toughest thing a solo pilot can do is fly by instruments at night, and/or in bad weather. Do you think an the dome light assistant pilot could help in that situation? That’s got to be one of the most stressful and exhausting situations.

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