The Problem with Pilots: How Physicians, Engineers, and Airpower Enthusiasts Redefined Flight

  • Published

The Problem with Pilots: How Physicians, Engineers, and Airpower Enthusiasts Redefined Flight Timothy P. Schultz. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, 280 pp.


When the movie Titanic was released, theater-goers expressed amazement at the myriad ways people could die on a sinking ship other than drowning. Readers of The Problem with Pilots will be similarly amazed at the many ways even the earliest aircraft reminded everyone, particularly pilots, that flight is hostile to humans, and pilots are the weakest link in manned flight. 

The author, Tim Schultz, is a retired Air Force colonel and former U-2 Dragon Lady pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in biology from USAFA, a master’s degree in cellular biology from Colorado State University, and a doctorate of philosophy in the history of technology from Duke University. He is currently the associate dean of academics for electives and research at the US Naval War College.

Schultz has meticulously researched and reconstructed a timeline of landmark developments in manned and unmanned flight from 1903–2017. He focuses most directly on the US Army Signal Corps, which became the Army Air Service and later the Army Air Corps. During World War II, the Army Air Corps became the Army Air Forces, the forerunner of the modern, independent US Air Force, which was formally established in 1947.

The author’s account is not parochial though. Readers are also exposed to parts of the US Army and US Navy flight programs and civilian aviation programs as well. Many of the landmark developments overlapped service lines and were suitable for both civilian and military purposes. He also relates when and how gender and race were considered part of integrating the human component with the machine.

The first part of the book unfolds chronologically and is organized around the problems that pilots confronted as aircraft were improved and capable of flying higher, farther, and faster (chapters 1–2). Pilots, aeronautical engineers, and flight surgeons worked together to solve problems such as hypoxia, decompression sickness, and blackout. Chapter 3 illuminates the teamwork between pilots and flight surgeons to facilitate flying in low-visibility conditions (e.g., at night and in poor weather). Chapter 4 describes the contributions of engineers to improving the success flight operations (e.g., gyroscopes, autopilots, and improved radio guidance). Quite interestingly, chapter 4 also details “an institutional imperative” for pilotless weapons, meaning all types of missiles including those with aerodynamic stabilizers and guidance systems.

What Schultz has done, comprehensively, yet engagingly, is to tell the stories behind key milestones in a way that brings them to life. He shines a light on the human element, specifically the humanity behind the legends of Air Force history, while simultaneously placing them in the larger historical context visible now with the benefit of hindsight. In 1925, for example, then-Maj Henry H. “Hap” Arnold foresaw the capability of air operations at altitudes above 40,000 feet by the 1930s and highlighted the need for “oxygen-breathing equipment. . . or air-tight compartments” (p. 7) for pilot protection. Then-Lt Jimmy Doolittle, a pilot and a scholar with a doctorate in aeronautical engineering, successfully accomplished the first zero-visibility flight and landing in 1929. In addition to Arnold and Doolittle, there are interesting and inspiring lessons to learn from the experiences and contributions of Maj Gen Benjamin Foulois, Gen Carl Spaatz (the first USAF chief of staff), Gen Ira C. Eaker, and Gen Curtis LeMay. There are many others reintroduced in Schultz’s account whose contributions are less well-known today but, as he makes clear, were critical to how modern pilots integrate and interface with today’s sophisticated aircraft.

In the second part of the book (chapters 5–7), Schultz skillfully focuses on the progression from manned to unmanned flight. He employs the prescience of General Arnold who stated in 1945, “I think the time is coming when we won’t have any men in a bomber (p. 101),” and a visionary Air Staff that established the Pilotless Aircraft Branch that same year. The author also utilizes more recent comments in 2015 by then-Secretary of the Navy Raymond E. Mabus Jr., who said that the F-35 Lightning II—the joint strike fighter—will “almost certainly be the last manned strike fighter the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly (p. 155).” As Schultz points out, Congress authorized drone pilots more in flight pay ($1,000 versus $850 monthly) and higher annual bonuses ($35,000 versus $25,000) in 2015 than manned aircraft pilots. Congress’ support of unmanned flight suggests that it is more than the Navy secretary’s vision alone. While Schultz does not claim to know that the future of flight is entirely unmanned, he does present a sophisticated argument that will, at least, convince readers that the human/pilot role will continue to transform in amazing ways.

Schultz is aware of the intellectual discomfort that may accompany his argument. In describing the landmark development of instrument-based flight to overcome a pilot’s natural tendency toward vertigo and spatial disorientation in poor weather, he reminds readers of the work by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn described the nature of change in scientific knowledge and practice as “paradigm shifts” and emphasized that new paradigms would generate resistance from some members—more often large swathes—of the community. The transition from manned flight to unmanned flight could be just such a paradigm shift. While manned flight centers around the pilot, unmanned flight puts the machine at the center. For many, this is akin to Copernicus’ sun-centered universe supplanting the Earth-centered universe of everyone else, a revolution that took almost a century.

As Kuhn also underscored in his book, “[T]he result of successful creative work is progress.” With this in mind, readers will appreciate Schutz’s diligent research and his crafting of a well-documented argument. It is an important contribution to the public discourse around the future of flight, the future of military aviation, and the future of the US Air Force. The Problem With Pilots is a rewarding read and will be of wide interest to all USAF leaders of today and tomorrow— aspiring military and civilian pilots, flight surgeons, aeronautical engineers, and aviation historians.

Lt Col Kari Thyne, PhD, USAF, Retired
Washington, DC

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."