The Thought Of A Single-Pilot Airliner Is Just A Bit Scary

Illustration for article titled The Thought Of A Single-Pilot Airliner Is Just A Bit Scary

There's an old pilot joke about cockpit automation that says the ideal flight crew is a pilot and a dog. The pilot is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to bite the pilot if he touches anything. Getting closer to that reality, NASA is studying flying airliners with only one pilot, and I don't like the idea. Here's why.


One of the biggest safety buffers in aviation is that nearly everything on the flight deck is redundant. Two pilots each sit in front of their own set of instruments and controls, communicating, questioning, and verifying that everything is as it should be throughout the flight. In my opinion, the most important safety feature in the cockpit is the second pilot. It seems like a couple of times a year, we hear about a commercial pilot falling violently ill or even having a heart attack while at the helm. What would happen when there's nobody else up front to take the controls?

I reached out to my airline friend "Pilot Mike" for his thoughts on the subject, and here's what he said:

Unless humans are completely designed out of the cockpit, there will always be a need for two pilots on board.

The issue isn't a matter of aircraft being so complicated that they need two people simply to run everything, but rather one of human nature. Humans make mistakes every single day. Having a second set of eyes up front to catch those mistakes is probably the best safety device you could possibly have on a flight deck. Whether it be something as simple as helping run a checklist or offering advice on a situation the other pilot has not encounter before, having a second pilot is priceless.

In most airline operations there are two roles in every cockpit. The pilot operating the controls is known as the Pilot Flying (PF), the other is the Pilot Monitoring (PM). The pilot flying role is pretty self explanatory, so lets look at the pilot monitoring role.

It varies a bit by airline and aircraft type, but as a general rule the pilot monitoring will work the radios, read checklists, and set up the systems in support of the pilot flying. Think of it a bit like t-ball, the pilot monitoring does all the work in getting the ball onto the tee so that the other pilot just has to swing. Above all that, as the title suggests, the biggest role of the PM is to monitor. When I come to work, I try not to cut corners. I like to fly as if my family is on every single flight I operate. Despite that, I still make errors. But thanks to the wonderful people I work with, I'm lucky enough so far to have zero disciplinary or FAA enforcement actions on my record. The system works!

Any airline worth traveling on has a safety program that realizes that we are all human beings. Because of that we have the redundancy of two people built into many of the things we do. As part of a checklist we double check our route of flight, altimeter settings, takeoff data (trim, speeds, flaps, etc), and landing gear operation with the other guy. In addition to all of that stuff, we brief everything well in advance. Takeoffs and landings are discussed at length to make sure we are both on the same page. Briefings allow us not only to review material that we need for a specific situation (such as what heading we need to fly if we have an engine failure on takeoff), but also allows the other guy to give his input or corrections.

In addition to simply being a babysitter, having two pilots greatly increases the experience level in the flight deck. Despite usually being more experienced than first officers, captains don't always have all the answers. Having a second person up there can as much as double the amount of experience that the crew can draw on to make the best decision possible.

Last of all, and I think most importantly, there is situational awareness. Both at work and away from it, we've all had it happen where we thought we had a good handle on what was going on around us, but find out we were completely wrong. Especially in a critical phase such as an instrument approach in mountainous terrain, having the correct mental picture is of utmost importance. Having someone who is willing to speak up and correct a situation can literally be a lifesaver.

We have the technology to have airplanes fly by themselves, but there are still people on the ground that are making decisions related to the flight. As long as that happens, there will need to be someone to double check the human aspect of the operation. A quick read of this incident… proves that we aren't quite ready to relinquish all human control of a flight. Will we ever? I don't know. But until then, I'll be hardwired to double check everything that others are doing around me. You can imagine how much my wife loves that while she's driving. I can't help it, after almost 14 years of flying, I've been conditioned.

The NASA project will be carried out by Rockwell Collins, whose VP of Advanced Technology, John Borghese said, "The aviation industry has been looking at the potential for single-pilot operations for quite some time to address concerns about future pilot shortages, but there are a number of technical, certification and policy considerations that must be addressed along the way." AvWeb says NASA is also looking into having some aspects of the flight controlled or monitored from ground level, using some of the technologies involved in operating unmanned aerial vehicles.

Photo via Shutterstock

Paul Thompson is a aviation journalist with over 13 years of experience working in the airline industry, who maintains the website Flight Club for You can contact Paul to submit story ideas, your own "Plane Porn" photos, and comments regarding this or any other aviation topic via email at You can also follow Flight Club on Twitter: @flightclubnews


On the subject of pilot shortages. There is not a pilot shortage; there is a shortage of people willing to take on 50k - 150k in debt to go make less than a McDonalds shift supervisor to start their airline career at a regional. I made more flying a single-engine full of boxes than I did in my first three years at an airline. I made more working forty hours a week at Barnes and Noble than I did at an airline. Next time you get on one of those "small" planes just remember, the combined income of the flight crew is probably less than you think - the FO could even be on food stamps - yet they are responsible for you and the other fifty people on board, five to six legs a day, five to six days a week.