Why Planes May Quickly Have One Pilot

(CNN) — If you could possibly get on a Fifties airliner and peek into the cockpit, you’d see 5 individuals, virtually definitely males, inside: two pilots, a radio operator, a navigator, and a flight engineer.

Over the years, technical advances in radio communications, navigation programs, and on-board management gear have eradicated the necessity for the latter three, making it attainable to securely fly an airliner with simply two pilots. . That has been the norm in business aviation for some 30 years.

However, quickly issues could possibly be additional simplified, and one of many two remaining pilots, technically the primary officer, might quickly go away, leaving solely the captain. Many small and navy plane are already manned by a single pilot, however for business aviation this could imply venturing into a brand new world.

a tough transition

“Transitioning from a two-pilot to a single-pilot cockpit will be significantly more challenging than transitions from a five-person to a two-person cockpit,” says a 2014 examine of single-pilot operations by NASA. , who has performed analysis on the topic for greater than a decade. According to the identical examine, a correctly carried out change might “provide operational cost savings while maintaining a level of safety no less than that of conventional two-pilot commercial operations.”

But how one can do away with a pilot safely? One method is to vastly improve automation within the cockpit, devoting extra duties to computer systems. Another is to delegate the identical cockpit duties to the bottom, with the remaining pilot working as a member of a “distributed crew.”

This latter strategy appears extra possible, at the very least within the brief time period, as a result of a lot of what’s wanted to implement it already exists.

“Technologically you could argue that in many cases we’re already there,” says Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who flies Boeing 767s and writer of the favored guide and weblog “Ask the Pilot.”

“But doing that,” he continues, “certain redundancies are eliminated and it’s hard for me, because I make a living flying planes and even with two pilots in the cockpit things can get extremely complex, to the point of saturation of tasks for both. “.


The 4 crew members of the Southern Cross monoplane examine a map of their route at Croydon Airport in June 1930. From left to proper: Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith, co-pilot Evert Van Dyke, radio operator John Stannage and navigator J.Patrick Saul.
Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Increased workload

In one of many situations proposed by NASA, the pilot who stays within the cockpit can be supported by a “super controller” on the bottom, a skilled pilot who might supervise a number of flights on the similar time and even management the aircraft fully from a distance if needed. needed, for instance, if the pilot within the cockpit turns into incapacitated.

Another choice is the “port pilot”, additionally a pilot skilled however specialised in a particular airport, who might supply help to a number of planes arriving and departing from that airport.

NASA has examined these configurations by putting actual crew pilots in separate rooms, earlier than presenting them with tough flight situations in a Boeing 737 simulator.

All pilots have been in a position to land their plane safely, however the examine confirmed “a significant increase in workload” in comparison with common two-crew operations, leading to “subjective security and efficiency evaluations dropped considerably. The lack of visible cues from the opposite pilot generally led to confusion or uncertainty as to which duties had or had not been accomplished.

Having a single pilot on board would save airways cash, however provided that new floor handlers and superior automation do not find yourself costing extra, NASA says. Other minor financial savings might come from smaller or lighter cabins on future planes.

Virtual home windows could possibly be the way forward for aviation 0:44

lowered crew

There can be one other technique to implement single-pilot operations, however solely on long-haul flights, which at the moment require a 3rd pilot to take over when one of many different two is resting.

In this case, the third pilot could be eradicated and the remaining two would function usually throughout takeoff and touchdown, however take alternate breaks through the cruise portion of the flight.

“In that case, you go from two pilots to one pilot in certain flight regimes,” says Smith. “But in the other flight regimes and when necessary, there will always be at least two pilots. I’m open to that conversation, I’m much more open to that conversation than the idea of ​​eliminating a pilot completely.”

A Cathay Pacific A350-1000 plane.
Courtesy of Cathay Pacific

Airbus and Cathay Pacific are already testing it on the A350: “We are conducting studies on flight crew operating patterns on long-range flights,” an Airbus spokesperson confirmed to CNN. “These studies are ongoing and are based on a minimum of two operational crews per flight. They are being carried out in conjunction with regulatory authorities and partner airlines.” The purpose is to certify the A350 for any such operation within the coming years.

Cathay Pacific additionally confirmed its involvement as “one of the airlines that is making a commitment to Airbus,” a spokesperson advised CNN, and that “this is a long-term commitment to a project that is still in its conceptual phase.”

They added that even when the idea is accredited and launched sooner or later, “each plane within the present fleet [de Cathay Pacific] are licensed to function with a minimal of two pilots on board and that there aren’t any plans to cut back that quantity.

Riders response

Airlines are rushing up single-pilot operations not simply because it might save them cash, however due to a looming pilot scarcity looming on the horizon.

Boeing predicts the necessity for 600,000 new pilots within the subsequent 20 years, however in accordance with some estimates there can be a shortfall of at the very least 34,000 pilots worldwide by 2025. Reducing the variety of pilots in some crews or plane might assist mitigate the affect. of this example.

However, the group that may supply the strongest opposition will most likely be the pilots themselves.

“This is because we advocate to save our jobs, but also because we know very well how commercial aircraft work and the breadth of challenges that come with it,” says Smith.

The International Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the biggest union of airline pilots on the earth, printed in 2019 a doc on the risks of single-pilot operations. He referred to as the concept “premature” and primarily based on “many expensive and unproven technologies”, stating that “the most vital safety feature on transport category aircraft now and for the foreseeable future [es] two experienced professional pilots, trained and rested in the cockpit”.

The doc additionally says that no autonomous system can compensate for an incapacitated pilot, and that there are a lot of examples of incidents the place two pilots have been wanted within the cockpit to recuperate from gear failures that may have in any other case possible led to catastrophe. .

One such incident, usually cited as a shining instance of cockpit collaboration, is the 2009 secure touchdown of US Airways Flight 1549 within the Hudson River by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles.

Germanwings Flight 9525 from 2015, by which the primary officer locked himself within the cabin whereas the captain was on a toilet break, then deliberately crashed the aircraft right into a mountain in an obvious suicide, can be usually talked about. to focus on the dangers of leaving a single particular person answerable for an plane.

Would the passengers enable it?

Perhaps the largest hurdle in the best way of lowering the variety of pilots is promoting the concept to passengers. In 2019, Don Harris, Professor of Human Factors at Coventry University, UK, performed a spotlight group and survey on the prospect of flying a single pilot airliner.

Only 50% of the individuals stated they’d be keen to take such a flight, and the final consensus was that eradicating a pilot is “dangerous until proven safe.” The prime three elements in individuals’ resolution course of have been pilot standing, confidence in expertise, and a mix of ticket worth and airline fame, indicating {that a} considerably lowered fare would assist promote the concept. In the examine, Harris concludes that the single-crew airliner might be nonetheless about 20 years away, however that legislative advances might make it a actuality sooner, if just for cargo planes.

Smith agrees: “There may be room for something like that further down the aviation chain, small aircraft or cargo operations, air taxi operations, or charter flights. But implementing it at the major airline level, that’s a long way off.” “.

According to Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at Teal Group, the change will take many extra years, however it’s inevitable: “I do not assume the notion of passengers is essential, however establishing assured and safe information hyperlinks with floor stations is a necessity, and naturally sufficient time for regulators and insurance coverage individuals to really feel comfy with this as nicely.

Removing a pilot from the cockpit, nonetheless, will assist develop the expertise wanted for the following and last step: eliminating human pilots altogether and flying planes remotely or autonomously. That, nonetheless, appears like an much more difficult dialog: “Two drivers to one driver is a big step,” Smith says, “but one driver to no drivers is a huge one.”

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