Single-pilot flightdeck – the answer to flightcrew shortage?

“They” have been talking for some time about single pilots flying widebody freighters. But all of a sudden the talk is no longer restricted to cargo aircraft.

The theory was this: 

Technology could easily make single-pilot airliners possible, but the industry needs a non-controversial way of slipping the idea into the system. Freighters could provide a proof-of-concept trial while plying their commercial trade.

Anyway, the time has clearly come to remind ourselves of why, at the moment, we insist on two pilots for almost all commercial flights, and work out whether they are both still needed, or whether more advanced technology could replace the second pilot..

What function does the second pilot perform? Here we go:
  • to monitor the actions of the other pilot and ensure that the results of his/her actions are as intended
  • to intervene if the results of the other pilot’s actions are not as intended
  • to cooperate with the other pilot, particularly when the workload is high
  • to take over if the other pilot is incapacitated
So, if new technology can carry out all those functions, we don’t need a second pilot. Not in the aeroplane anyway. But s/he could be on the ground with a full piloting interface, like drone pilots, working remotely, monitoring remotely, taking over remotely.

But there is another question, even if its importance is more for the long-term: where will the aircraft commanders of the future come from if they have no apprenticeship as first officers? Can new pilots go straight to command? 

Would you mind if the only pilot on your A380 was a 23y-old recent piloting graduate with no copilot time? Well, actually, the seniority list would kick in and you’d have the older guys and gals flying the widebodies, but that still means the first day at work for your lonely 23y-old is likely to be on a 737 or A320.

But the world will inevitably go this way. Is this the latest trick to ensure that the perennially forecast pilot shortage – which has been receding for the last 20 years every time it threatens – will recede yet again?

There’s a lot to take in, and a lot to discuss.

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9 Responses to Single-pilot flightdeck – the answer to flightcrew shortage?

  1. Roger 30 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Also missing from your list is allowing one pilot to deal with human biological issues (eg going to the toilet) while the other covers. Unless they make planes automatically do what TCAS says, there would have to be one pilot present at all times in cockpit, which is impossible for a one pilot crew.

  2. Layman 30 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    One would question what the drivers of a single pilot decision would be.

    If the answer is mainly cost then we should worry. An operator that puts costs ahead of anything else should not be allowed to operate.

    Two pilots is the minima – period. Not a long discussion is it?

  3. David Connolly 30 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Michael O’ Leary’s wet dream cometh.

  4. RC 30 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Nah, O’Leary’s dream would be to dispense with paid personnel altogether. Or even better, to get some passenger to pay for the privilege of piloting the airplane…

  5. RC 30 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    I have an even better idea for solving the alleged pilot shortage! How about the aviation industry investing some money in pilot training, rather than, you know, expecting thousands of poor young so…uls to take up hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars/euros of debt for the dubious privilege of working for a pittance for carriers that won’t hesitate to lay them off and destroy their pension funds on some financier’s whim? How about that?

  6. Scott 30 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Most modern airliners can be flown solo, the second pilot is there to reduce risk, it is a financial risk decision. None of them can be taken off or landed on autopilot without human interaction to set up the autopilot and configure the airplane.

    The second pilot is necessary only when both the first pilot and autopilot are unable to handle all the tasks required to keep the airplane safe. Better autopilots would reduce the chance of that situation, by being better able to handle system failures and severe weather.

    Autopilots can only autoland at a limited number of specially set-up runways in the world, that is a problem if there is an emergency requiring an expedient landing. The large investment in upgrading our airliners would be small compared to what it would cost to upgrade our runways, airports, and air traffic control system to allow autonomous flight. Those upgrades are happening slowly anyway, and technology is marching forward. Perhaps when all our current airliners are gone, the next generation will be set up for full automation, along with the necessary infrastructure.

  7. Glen Towler 30 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    It’s an interesting debate.Sure the aircraft makers have the tech to make this happen but would the general public trust one man cockpits ? Saying that look at the Lion air crash of course there was a two man crew but beacause one pilot thought he knew better than the TCAS system flew in the aircraft into the sea. This crash wouldn’t have happened if a computer had landed the aircraft sometimes taking a old bold pilot out of the cockpit can’t be such a bad thing

  8. Flying Hawaiian 30 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Transport category airplanes the future will operate fully autonomous with a single pilot initial and no pilot thereafter. It is forecasted that we will see the first fully autonomous (pilot optional) certified transport by 2035. Boeing 79x and Airbus A39x will be the first airplanes to replace two pilot airframes. Issues such as windshear escape, collision avoidance will be internal to the automation. When operated with a single pilot, pilot will be on the flight deck for take-off and landings. Enroute – pilot will be at rest in a designated rest area. Except for crosswinds and icy runways, weather will not be controlling for dispatch. All taxi, take-off and landings will be auto launch and recover.

    Airframe system design functional already meets the 99.9999 (6/9′s) fail safe criteria. OEM’s will be putting this technology to trial in the next 10 years to validate to single pilot transport certification. It is ground and airspace functionality that will require upgrade to support civilian autonomous flight. NextGen and airport systems will be the critical path by 2025.

  9. Will 30 May, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Something Mr. Learmount left off his list of (2nd) pilot functions is dealing with the aircraft when all that whiz-bang technology starts to fail or responds inappropriately. Which I promise you it does. Regularly.
    Everyone loves to come back to “all accidents these days are caused by pilot error.” No so much attention is given to how often pilots must “intervene” by taking their aircraft back to a lower level of automation. Which I promise you they do. Regularly. That is when you need two well-trained, experienced pilots at the controls inside the aircraft.

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