Pilot and copilot in a business jet cabin.
The ­second pilot is also an intangible asset, providing countless other non-verbal cues. (photo: Fotolia)

Crew Cuts

There’s new talk of eliminating copilots. Bad idea, says our columnist.

According to an old joke about automation, future airliners will carry one pilot and a vicious dog. The dog’s job will be to make sure the pilot doesn’t touch any of the controls. The pilot’s job will be to feed the dog. If some airline crew researchers have their way, the joke might someday be close to reality.  

Airliners in the early days had as many as five crew members in the cockpit. On globe-girdling “clipper” seaplanes of the 1930s, for example, two pilots sat in the front row, and a navigator and one or two engineers backed them up. The latter were responsible for keeping a practiced eye on as many as four engines (with 14 cylinders each, that’s 112 spark plugs), propellers, fuel pumps, hydraulic systems, etc. On Howard Hughes’s HK-1 Hercules flying boat, better known as the Spruce Goose, there were eight engines, and mechanics could actually service them in flight via catwalks inside the huge wings. On today’s jets, however, automation, simplification and increased reliability of turbine engines and computerized instruments have winnowed the crew down to two pilots. And the safety record keeps improving.

Now, a NASA research program is ­exploring the possibility of cutting airline crews even further, allowing a single pilot to assume all airborne responsibility. The primary goal is cost savings. Ground-based support personnel, linked via voice and video, would assume the duties now fulfilled by the copilot, or “first officer” when necessary, such as during departure or arrival, or in case of emergency. With further advances in aerial automation in the pipeline (including a government mandate to ramp up the incorporation of unmanned aircraft systems in the National Airspace System), there might seem to be logical basis to the concept.

But logic can be misleading if it’s founded on incomplete information. For example, if drinking gin-and-tonic, vodka-and-tonic and rum-and-tonic make you jolly, then the tonic must be responsible, right?

Proponents of single-pilot operations cite today’s low pilot workload, not just for the first officer, but also the captain. Indeed, automation has largely turned piloting from a stick-and-rudder skill to a pushbutton programming operation. Like an ocean-going vessel, a modern airliner almost always follows predetermined airways and approach procedures. The crew’s job is primarily to program and monitor the automation, stepping in to fly by hand only when they determine that human intervention will result in a better outcome than trusting the cyber-brains.

Is NASA on solid ground by proposing that a single pilot can operate an airliner—and by extension, a business jet—as safely as a crew of two? I’ve read the most recent nine-page report, including results of a second round of test “flights,” and my opinion is…no. 

That’s because I think researchers are missing vital ingredients in the equation. True, the first officer’s documented role might involve only a few minutes of active work out of an hours-long flight. But that workload covers just assigned duties, not the constant backup and teamwork the second pilot provides for the one with the four stripes on his or her shoulders.

And it’s not just a matter of double-checking checklists and operating procedures. The ­second pilot is also an intangible asset, providing countless other non-verbal cues. No one can ever know how many times a copilot’s puzzled look rebooted the captain to double-check a ­frequency or realize he’d skipped a procedure or forgotten a cross-check.

Often, in single-pilot crashes, we learn that the “accident chain” started with a minor omission or error followed by an insidious domino-like descent into mayhem. We can never know whether a second pilot with a parallel perspective would have noticed one misstep in the chain and put the flight back on track, as in, “Hey, Charlie. Didn’t he say Flight Level 250, not 290?”

“Oh yeah. Thanks.”

When such errors occur and are caught, both pilots quickly forget them, because the chain is broken.

And finally, there’s the intangible asset that comes only with actual flight experience. To fully grasp a given situation, a pilot needs to have both “been there and done that.” Ground-based crew members might be able to say they’ve “done that,” but no matter how many hours of service they’ve performed, they can’t say “been there.”

Mark Phelps is a private pilot and a managing editor at BJT sister publication Aviation International News.

Show comments (1)

With all the new technology it is possible to have one pilot fly large transport aircraft, but do you want to ride in it when the pilot is on his first trip without any previous experience. If the goal is to cut cost, then you can't afford to be in the business. German wings is an example of single pilot operation. Why is there a push to do this?Two pilots provide for a training ground, and a helping hand during emergency situations.