The old joke goes that the ideal airline crew of the future will be one pilot and one dog: the dog to bite the pilot if she tries to touch anything, and the pilot to feed the dog.
You laugh, but for U.K. television network Sky1, it was food for thought. So in six hour-long episodes, they attempted to answer a question nobody had asked: Can a dog fly an airplane?
Sky1 sent a team of expert dog trainers (and an animal psychologist, who once taught a dog to drive on a similar TV show) to tour kennels across the U.K. and pick out the best and brightest. Twelve rescue dogs, many of them strays, made the initial cut and went through a series of rigorous tests to assess their communication skills, empathy, and tolerance for speed and heights.
Three dogs (all under three years old) performed well enough on those tests to make the cut: Shadow, a Staffordshire bull terrier/collie mix; Reggie, a formerly stray German shepherd/Labrador mix; and Alfie, a collie-lurcher.
The three successful dogs were seated in front of a PC-grade flight simulator, with front paws on the control yoke, and were trained using lights and tones to cue them when to turn right or left, or level out (altitude was handled by a human copilot). A nearby trainer cued the lights and handed out treats for correct behavior. After ten weeks of flight training, the dogs were brought out to a grass airfield near London to sit in the left seat of a Cessna 182.
All three dogs successfully completed a Figure-8 maneuver without much difficulty. A human copilot sat in the right seat for safety, with a trainer in the backseat controlling the cue lights. Everything seemed to work just fine.
That’s not to say human pilots are now free to doze off and let Fido shoot the approach. Laurie Santos, head of Yale’s Canine Cognition Center, points out that the associative techniques used to train these dogs will work on pretty much any animal (including famously stupid ones), and even though the video looks impressive, the dogs are just following simple commands.
“From the video I don’t think there’s much to suggest that the dogs understand the consequences of what they’re doing beyond the reinforcement of simple behaviors,” Santos wrote in an email. “We’d need a lot more experimental work to show that the dogs understood that they were really controlling the plane themselves or flying.”
That raises even more questions: Can dogs even conceive of that kind of height or speed? How did they fill out their logbooks?
Virtually any animal you can name has flown at some point in aviation history (including Roscoe Turner’s pet lion, Gilmore, whose stuffed body now resides in the National Air and Space Museum), though none are known to have taken the controls. Several dogs were launched into space as part of the Soviet space program, the most famous of which was Laika, a Moscow stray that became the first living creature in orbit following her 1957 launch. But those dogs were just along for the ride, and had no particular responsibilities to discharge. NASA took a slightly different approach: Ham, a chimpanzee launched into suborbital space, actually had to press buttons at certain times and in specific sequence during his brief flight. He did just as he was trained to do, but the buttons didn’t actually do anything—they were just there to prove the concept of a monkey-operated spacecraft, an idea that never caught on.
The point of the show, Sky1 says, aside from pure entertainment, is to remind people that rescue dogs are quite capable of being good companions—and are smart enough to, for example, fly airplanes. When the show ended, all 12 dogs went to good homes, some with the show’s staff.