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The

Last Human Pilot



An alarm buzzes. A glazed eye glances at the phone dock by the bed, its
2:30am local. Thirty five minutes later First Officer Jeffrey Eielson is stepping
into an uber. The spinning Velodyne LiDAR the only hint from the exterior of the
vehicle that nobody is at the wheel. Adjusting his tie, he peruses the aircraft
defect list, the departure and destination weather in Anchorage and Chicago, as
well as the enroute weather and NOTAM. He studies the flight plan briefly. As the
pilot monitoring, fuel quantity will be at his suggestion but ultimately not his
decision today. The car pulls up to a great white hanger building filled with rows
of humming simulators.

The Alaska noon sun sits low on the horizon. Its warm light glances off
orange clouds as they billow off a neighboring UPS Cargo A380-CF. Deicing is in
progress. Lack of orders and a short production run has led the giants down the
road of freight conversion early. Captain Matthew Lee steps on the flight deck of
his own tired looking 747-8F, clicks on the interface and makes his
introductions. A large company means that in his 22 years on the line Matt has
never flown with Jeff. Hes never even seen the man in the flesh before, nor will
he, because Jeff is sitting in a data-linked simulator 4,400nm away in Hong Kong.
Processing his inputs is a robotic arm that has been bolted to the ground where
the First Officers seat should be.

Though much less disruptive than its whirring, overheating
predecessors, the Aurora ALIAS-4 robotic arm still manages to unsettle the aging
aviator. Newer aircraft have the hardware built-in so all you have is an empty
seat with unobtrusive cameras scattered about.

Hows Anchorage looking?

Same. Bleak. Which day is this for you?

Three, all early starts.

Mmmhmm.

Fuel?

Yeah, Ive added three-and-a-half on top. That sound right to you?

Youre the Captain, and yeah that sounds about right.

At 12:52pm Anchorage time, 4:52am Hong Kong time, Matt pulls the
column back and holds it firmly as 394 tons of metal and fuel labours to leave the
earth. Jeff watches the instruments and calls positive rate as his simulator
pitches up to mimic the actions of the freighter taking off half a world away.

At 21:36UTC, theyve topped out in the cruise. At the top of climb the
paperwork starts, initial fuel checks are completed and the flight enters a
relatively low workload phase. They exchange pleasantaries but Jeff senses that
the Captain would rather be alone with his thoughts than converse with a robotic
arm. He asks for permission to sign off. Matt is keen to let him go.

Yep, thanks for the help bud. Maybe Ill see you around operations when Im
back.

For sure man.

He knows he wont. The whirring stops and ALIAS goes into standby
mode. A yellow light flashes as the simulator bridge lowers. Jeff steps off and
runs to the restroom, too much coffee and not enough food. He has less than 25
minutes to brief himself on the next aircraft and operation; a descent and landing
into Athens, this time with passengers. Breakfast will have to wait.