I love flying. And not just because it takes me to awesome places around the world. I love flying because it’s safe and because it’s computerised.
Even including the few major crashes each year, planes are astoundingly safe. NTSB reported 265 people killed in plane crashes in 2013, worldwide. Over 1700 people died on the roads in England in the same period.
But the biggest reason I love flying? Computers. A modern plane taxis, takes off, flies half way around the way and lands, often without a human having to do anything more than push a few buttons. Look at some recent crashes and you’ll see an oft-repeated pattern of the human operators going against the advice of the system.
A human pilot may have up to 20,000 hours of flight time under their belt. A computer on the other hand takes off with millions of hours, and collectively they are all getting better all the time. They don’t sleep, they don’t drink or get distracted. The code quality checks are so stringent, the human equivalent would involve running an Ironman while beating a chess-grandmaster.
Yes, there are still errors. Invalid configuration, erroneous sensors. But that’s why systems have redundancies. And the human pilots are just another backup. Systems could always be better. Planes operating in Northern Canada are required to ping their signal to a listening satellite near-constantly versus the huge intervals for oceanic flights. And getting patents for safety-critical features (Airbus, I’m talking about you) should be tantamount to murder.
But I’m about to board my ninth flight of the year. And I’m more worried about sharing a hummer limo at the other end than the flight beforehand.