In theory, Free Flight (or any FAA-certified Highway in the Sky system) could have pictorially guided Alex all the way through a landing-even in low visibility. However, because landing requires quick, minute adjustments, and because the margin for error is small and the consequences of mistakes high, Hansman wisely decided to leave Free Flight out of it. Instead, the MIT professor functioned as a sort of verbal Highway in the Sky, telling Alex which corrections to make as Fitchburg’s Runway 32 loomed in front of us: “A little more to the right…nose up…add a little power…”Alex made the approach look easy, following Hansman’s instructions to level off just above the runway, cut power and then raise the nose as the slowing plane lost its lift and sunk. We touched down softly, aiming straight down the runway-a landing that wouldn’t have embarrassed a professional pilot. Hansman then took the controls for about 10 seconds to execute an immediate takeoff-a timesaving “touch and go” maneuver too dangerous to leave to a rookie. Other than an occasional tweak of the power settings, this was the only time during the nearly one-hour flight when Hansman got physically involved in controlling the aircraft. (Hansman also worked the radio to make sure we had air traffic clearances and avoided other aircraft, something future Highway in the Sky systems may do automatically.)
On the way back, we once more placed Free Flight before Alex. Not only could he pick out Hanscom, he spotted the Minute Man Air Field Airport in Stow, which we would pass on the way, as well as Logan off in the distance. Again, we shut down Free Flight as we neared our goal. This approach was complicated because of the need to weave our flight path into those of other inbound aircraft. But Alex followed Hansman’s instructions without trouble, and we landed with only a slight bounce. Alex then kept the controls down the runway and back to the parking ramp. After we exited the plane, he nodded toward the laptop with a big grin: “That was like playing the world’s coolest video game.”
Could later iterations of tools like Free Flight reliably guide inexperienced pilots from takeoff through landing, even in the presence of other aircraft? Absolutely, insists Hansman. “There wasn’t anything I told Alex that couldn’t have been told to him by a computer display,” he says. “That’s just mechanical stuff.” Once pilots are freed from such mundane demands of flying, he adds, they’ll be able to concentrate on weather issues and other higher-level decision making. At least until that’s taken over by computer, too.