Flying without a Pilot

All the news about driverless cars has naturally led to the next step: pilotless airplanes.

I understand that the concept of autopilot has been around a long time (by one account, since 1912), but the idea of being on a commercial flight and having the entire trip — takeoff to landing — completely handled by automation seems daunting.

My first flight was in a single-engine, two-seater plane in Saluda, South Carolina, where I grew up. I was about 16 years old — the same age as my friend (I’ll call him Mat, because that’s his name), who was also the pilot. Mat had just acquired his pilot’s license, and what better way to celebrate than to take a few of his buddies up into the wild blue yonder — one at a time, of course.

I went first. I can’t recall if I drew the short straw or what, but I was the first honest to goodness passenger Mat ever piloted. As I strapped myself in for the flight, all I could think of was that my parents had forbidden me to get into a plane with Mat. He was a terrifically responsible young man, but they were focused on the fact that he was 16, relatively new to flying and therefore almost certain to crash and die young.

It was going to be awkward when the authorities notified my parents that I was with him. What calmed me down — a little — was that I wouldn’t be there when the news was delivered. I’d be scattered across a pasture somewhere.

Once strapped into my seat, the first thing I noticed about that little plane was there was almost nothing to hold onto. It wasn’t like a modern car or truck with lots of handles all over the place. All I really had was the seat itself. The rest looked too frail for the kind of vice-grip I planned to employ.

So, I gripped the seat with all the strength I could muster, and we took off.

Mat, it turns out, was a very good pilot. Still is, so far as I know. We flew over all the fields near the landing strip, and he took us down low to check out a few farm ponds we had always wanted to fish.

I tried to look brave and to laugh when appropriate, but my death grip on the seat and the profuse sweat on my brow may have belied my otherwise cool demeanor.

After what seemed like hours, but was probably only 10 or 15 minutes, Mat brought the plane down smoothly on the dirt runway, and I got out, raving about the great experience, but wanting very much to kiss the ground.

Our friend, Kelly, was next, and Mat bounced that landing pretty badly. I was glad it didn’t happen with me aboard. They’d still be cleaning that plane.

So, what does all this have to do with retail tackle? Well, it occurred to me that a lot of the tackle shops I’ve visited were like cars without drivers and planes without pilots. Someone was behind the register, but no one seemed to be steering, no one was navigating and no one was working with the customers.

Surveys indicate that most Americans are ready for driverless cars and just over half would fly on a plane without a human pilot. Truth is, we already have retail tackle shops without drivers or pilots. They’re all over the internet, but not everyone wants that.

Most tackle is still purchased at brick and mortar retail shops, and most customers still want someone to shepherd them through the experience — not because we’re sheep, but because we still value expertise even if it costs a little more. In a car at 60 mph or a plane at 30,000 feet, the human factor could save our lives. In a retail tackle shop, it might only help us catch a few more fish or have a better time on the water, but those things are important, too.

Cars and planes may be ready to go driverless and pilotless, but I hope retail tackle shops don’t follow suit. We’re not ready for that.