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When 2 – 1 = 0

Single pilot operations are riskier than they seem – but we have the solution

We all know they’re doing it. Airbus, Boeing, avionics manufacturers and certain airlines – all working away behind closed doors. All trying to work out how to get rid of one of the inconvenient, ‘expensive’ pilots in the cockpit of every airliner. 

They don’t speak about it very publicly. You see they are all in competition with each other, and if they can get their system into the market first or do it ‘better’, they may gain a commercial advantage over a rival. Recent events show what a risky driver that particular motivation is…

Now don’t get me wrong, our profession has to evolve, and one day, sooner or later, that evolution will involve remote or autonomous piloting technology. As long as this happens in a such a way as to enhance the safety levels in every area – beyond what we can currently achieve with two well trained, properly rested and fully qualified pilots on board – it could well be something that we all welcome as progress. Perhaps, as the companies above hope, we’ll start with only a single pilot in the cruise, the other on a rest break to enable ultra long range flying. Perhaps, we will have a remote link to allow a pilot on the ground to step in and assist where necessary. One day in the distant future a single commander on the ground may be in charge of many flights, all semi-autonomously operated under her or his initiative.

But right now, the first, clandestine steps are being taken towards a single pilot operating some portion of the flight, and they need to be brought into the light. Without this they cannot be examined, pressure tested, and collaborated with by all in the industry to make sure they are done in a way that genuinely improves the safety standards. Without full transparency, these projects risk that a company merely scrapes through the (as yet undeveloped) regulatory minimums in pursuit of a quick sale or a cheaper ticket.

The first, clandestine steps are being taken towards a single pilot operating some portion of the flight

We have reduced crew in the past, losing first radio operators, then navigators, then flight engineers. This was possible because technology became available that allowed the two pilots to take on these tasks in an even safer way. 

But there is a fundamental and overwhelming difference between going from many crew to fewer, and going from any number of crew to just one. For a start, the ‘failure state’ for multi-crew, due to incapacitation or error is still at least one capable pilot – not such a bad position to be in. But single crew means an incapacitation gives a ‘failure state’ of zero pilots flying the aircraft – not an ideal position.

But the second pilot isn’t just there as a backup. They are also a critical part of how aviation manages to avoid accidents and incidents, day in, day out. We hear about the role of pilots in a situation when things goes wrong. What we don’t hear about are the many, many more times their presence, foresight, intervention and professional judgement avoids anything that might get reported as an incident, before it ever happens. The best practice of how the second pilot monitors, questions, pressure tests and intervenes in the operation is based on decades of experience of what can go wrong, resulting in bent metal or worse. From cross checking the actions of the other pilot or the automatic systems and computers, to an independent ability to call off an approach when they are not happy, this role is crucial in avoiding bad outcomes, or catching errors and mitigating them when they do happen. It is difficult to see how computers, AI, or remote oversight could get ‘remotely’ close to replicating this.

Single crew means an incapacitation gives a ‘failure state’ of zero pilots flying the aircraft 

On the subject of mitigating when things do go wrong, it is also worth reflecting on the problem-solving abilities of two well trained and alert human brains. Most emergencies involve some element that is not predictable, and many are circumstances that have been entirely unimagined by aircraft designers and safety experts. Whilst automated systems could to a certain extent be designed for predictable emergencies, again it is almost impossible to see how they would cope well with the unpredictable ones. At present, most emergency situations end without ever being reported in the press, even when they are unprecedented ones – because two problem solving human brains do a really good job of resolving them successfully. Do we really want to throw that in the bin? 

One pilot with one brain can certainly provide some level of useful mitigation, but removing the facility to have a sounding board; someone to pressure test your novel solution produced in the heat of the moment; to spot the obvious or less obvious flaw you may have missed in a time pressured situation; or to suggest something better that just hasn’t occurred to you, is a massive, high risk, step. One with consequences we will only get to see in more bent metal and sincere sympathies to the loved ones

It might also be worth pointing out the overriding commercial pressure in our industry is only navigated by independent safety professionals on the front line – above all the pilots who take their duty to put the safety and well-being of their crew and passengers above all else. I question whether their ability to hold the line here will be as effective when it is one lonely individual on their own in an isolated cockpit being subject to such pressures from the company.

... the overriding commercial pressure in our industry is only navigated by independent safety professionals on the front line 

So, to contribute to these exciting new technological developments, at ECA headquarters we have, in secret, developed a product to allow single pilot operation, and can proudly announce it is ready for the market!

Instead of millions of Euros in computer equipment per aircraft, it costs just €60,000 to fit in the first year of operation, and for a modest subscription of between 60 and 75,000 per year thereafter, all maintenance requirements are also covered. It doesn’t just permit single pilot cruise, but will allow a single pilot, acting as Captain, to operate the aircraft through flight preparation, from take-off, all the way to landing and disembarkation.

The name of this wonder product? 

Our working title at the moment is... 

“The First Officer”.



by Capt. Jon Horne, ECA President