Single-Pilot Airliners


Remember when complex transport-category aircraft had a flight engineer (FE) to manage systems? I imagine there was quite an uproar when automation progressed to the point where the FE became unnecessary and airliners were certified for two-person crews.

Now it’s happening again. Several initiatives are exploring a single-pilot airliner. There’s an old joke that automation will eventually progress to the point where an airline flight crew will consist of a pilot and a dog; the dog’s sole duty will be to bite the pilot if s/he touches anything. Are we now headed there?

I understand the replacement of the FE with automated management of aircraft systems, but replacing an actual pilot is somewhat different. Yes, technologically it can (and has) been done quite successfully. I’m not arguing the efficacy of the automation; I’m talking about the practicality of it all.

Here’s how my crystal ball tells me it’ll work: There will be one “pilot” I’ll call Jill. The real pilot, however, will be a guy named George. George will be a fully automated device. George will do all the takeoffs, all the landings, handle all the emergencies (more on that in a moment), all the navigation, all the systems management, all the … everything. Jill’s job will be to make sure George doesn’t take a vacation or otherwise muck anything up. However, I bet there will also be modalities where George will likewise make sure Jill isn’t allowed to muck anything up.

How will Jill get her expertise? Today, a newbie airline pilot sits in the right seat for years, flying every-other leg under the watchful eye of a more experienced pilot. Without that skill—and experience—building time, how’s Jill gonna ever be able to fly a Cat III ILS to mins in a gusty snowstorm after George croaks? How’s she gonna get the experience and judgment necessary to even know when to take over for George?

Remember the old saying that good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment? Well, in a single-pilot airline environment, that single pilot will need exquisitely good judgment that’s gotta come from somewhere. Today, it comes from time served with another pilot who has—that’s right—more experience and better judgment. Where will that come from when there’s only one pilot?

Also consider that in a well-run two-pilot crew, decisions are often based on consensus. With Jill working on her own, with whom is she going to discuss a situation to build consensus?

Back to emergencies. Today airliners have a Quick Reference Handbook that’s the (mostly) all-knowing version of the original programmed monkey: see the light; push the button; get a banana. Occasionally, though, the light doesn’t come on or the banana doesn’t come out. Right again—in those circumstances, you need more than a monkey. You need a real pilot with enough (Wanna guess?)experience and good judgmentto know what to do when the situation isn’t in the book or in the computer program written by somebody who’s possibly never even been in an airplane.

Single-pilot airliners? No thanks. “I’m agin ’em!”


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