The topic of single-pilot commercial aircraft has been around for some time, but it got a big push from an unlikely source recently.
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How Does A One-Pilot Cockpit Work?
Major aircraft used for commercial flight requires at least two pilots in the cockpit with the exception of bathroom breaks or emergencies while in flight. It’s been proposed that all modern aircraft should be able to be operated remotely (in the case of an issue with the controls onboard) and in-flight command reduced to a single pilot.
One proposal has been that a remote pilot would connect to the aircraft virtually, and assist the pilot-in-command with sensitive elements of flight like take-off and landing, but the pilot-in-command would do all of the flying onboard.
Another is that there is no virtual pilot but rather technology takes a greater role and the pilot is more or less there for critical aspects of the flight and to ensure the system is operating properly or taking over in the case of an emergency.
The concept of a one-pilot commercial flight has had a mixed reception.
Boeing CEO Suggests Integration With Auto-Flying Tech
At the delivery of the final 747 off the assembly line, the end of an era also brought questions of what comes next. Boeing CEO, Dave Calhoun suggested that self-flying planes could be the future:
“Autonomy is going to come to all of the airplanes eventually,” Calhoun said on the sidelines of an event commemorating the final delivery of its iconic 747 jumbo jet in Everett, Washington. “The future of autonomy is real for civil” aviation, he said.” – Bloomberg
Complete autonomy seems a distant possibility, but it could be the eventual future of travel.
Support For One-Pilot Cockpits
There’s a model for complete autonomy in flying humans for commercial purposes. SpaceX does this when it delivers astronauts to the International Space Station completely autonomously. The FAA and NASA permit SpaceX to fly autonomously over US airspace, including experimental rockets like the Starship and more proven types in the Falcon and its self-landing rocket boosters.
However, crowded airspace and ground traffic could pose a bigger problem. SpaceX has the benefit of a cleared airspace and a single flight path but Tesla, for example, has a tougher time navigating real-world busy environments.
Of course, RyanAir would love to see a single-pilot cockpit to save money on wages and keep flight prices low, and has been fighting for the cause for more than a decade.
As we have discussed in the past and as recently as last week, the pilot shortage is a real and widespread. The reality is that a two-pilot cockpit will either mean new pilots (though we aren’t currently pacing to effectively replace retirees), bigger aircraft on some routes, large price increases due to limited supply, or some sort of adjustment to the cockpit.
As recently as 2003, Delta and Northwest Airlines were flying their 727s with a three-person cockpit (captain, first officer, and engineer) which finally went away. The DC-10 had a three-person cockpit and Northwest retired that equipment as late as 2007. Older 747 models had the same requirement. It’s madness to consider a third person required in the cockpit now as computers have replaced the need for an engineer but it really wasn’t that long ago that aircraft were flying that needed a third person.
It could be just a matter of time where the second pilot goes away too.
In severe crashes like Air France 447, even with three pilots in the cockpit, they stuggled with the most basic principle in aviation, overcoming a stall. Software, confusion, and weather all played a factor.
A recent case against a one-pilot cockpit is the recent runway incursion at New York JFK International Airport. In defense of those American Airlines pilots in the 777 cockpits that crossed an active runway, the union explained that the pilots had too many tasks to manage following new procedures by the airline.
“The operational changes that management is attempting to implement without fulsome training alters how pilots communicate, coordinate, and execute flight safety duties at some of the most high-threat times of flight. These high-threat times include, but are not limited to, rejected takeoffs, low visibility approaches, and go-arounds.” – APA Statement via Live And Let’s Fly
To that end, in the JFK incursion incident, because it was prior to take-off three pilots were in the cockpit at the time (the third sits for take-off and landing but is there for adequate crew rest.) If three pilots are struggling with procedural updates “by bulletin” as the APA notes, reducing hands-on controls in the cockpit seems like a bad idea.
The Boeing 737-MAX program suffered two fatal crashes due to software that was incorrectly operating. Human pilots onboard fought those computers and the adjustments the software made to the aircraft all the way to their fiery ends. It was the software trimming the aircraft against what the plane needed that doomed those flights. How much harder will it be for a single pilot to overcome failing software if automation is problematic?
Germanwings 9525 crashed after a suicidal pilot locked out the captain during a bathroom break. Protocols now exist to have a secondary crew member in the cockpit (usually a flight attendant) whenever a pilot leaves in case of pilot incapacitation or something more nefarious. Some remarked at the time that a remote piloting system that could have taken control of the jet (assuming it would know what was taking place) could have saved those passengers, crew, and hull but such a system couldn’t be turned off onboard the aircraft. That creates two problems, first, if the software is the issue, now the pilots in the front of the aircraft are fighting a system that cannot be disabled, and alternatively, if it can be disabled, we really aren’t any safer than before.
Boeing CEO Calhoun’s statements about an eventual move to automated flight controls may be an off-hand comment, but as the world grapples with a pilot shortage and as technology truly improves (in the case of SpaceX but not necessarily Tesla) automation can provide further assurances. However, the technology and our trust in it completely remains further off. Will that technology and trust make up needed ground before we are at critical points in the pilot shortage? Time will tell.
What do you think? Is a one-pilot cockpit in our future (near or far?) Will automation eventually completely replace pilots altogether? Or will we remain with a two-pilot minimum in perpetuity?
The possibility of remote control of the aircraft opens up the possibility of remote hijacking as well.
Is remote hijacking already possible? There was a lot of speculation with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 https://www.google.com/search?q=was+malaysia+airlines+370+hijacked+remotely
–The plane was equipped with Boeing Honeywell Un-interruptible Autopilot, designed to be installed in planes since 9/11, so that they could be remotely controlled to ensure authorities could regain control in the event of an on-board hijacking.
However the existence of this technology makes its abuse and therefore a remote hijacking by a mysterious foe a very real possibility.
“We are now in the realms of cyber warfare, with people believing if there is any future war this will take the form of cyber, ” said author and historian Norman Davies.
“With developments in technology this is in the present realm of possibility.
“The missing Malaysian Airlines plane was fitted with one of these Boeing Honeywell Un-interruptible Autopilot devices. In other words it was capable of being taken over remotely. Is this what happened? I am not an expert, but there are conclusions you can draw as to what may have happened.”
Norman said while we do not know what happened to the plane, its fate may represent a new and terrifying move into a form of cyber warfare that could be disastrous in future.
He claims it may have been remotely controlled because it had something considered valuable on board that whoever seized control did not want to get to China. Several other theories back up this possibility, pointing to the widely held belief that the official cargo manifest detailing what was actually on the Boeing 777 was wrong.
He added: “It seems that the cargo manifest was not accurate. There are reports that the cargo detailed in the manifest didn’t add up. I don’t know what it might have been carrying but it may have been carrying something somebody didn’t want to get to China.” —
I was looking into this more, apparently the functionality exists but its use is a conspiracy:
The Boeing Uninterruptible Autopilot is a system designed to take control of a commercial aircraft away from the pilot or flight crew in the event of a hijacking.
In 2006, Boeing was awarded a patent for an “uninterrupted autopilot system” with its own power supply that could be activated by those on board a plane or on the ground. However, safety concerns – including the possibility that such a system could be hacked – have prevented its roll-out.
The “uninterruptible” autopilot would be activated either by pilots, by onboard sensors, or remotely via radio or satellite links by government agencies, if terrorists attempt to gain control of a flight deck. Both Boeing and Honeywell have contributed significantly to the introduction of digital autopilot technology into the civil aviation sector.
Conspiracy theorists have claimed that the technology has been secretly fitted to some commercial airliners. Some, including historian Norman Davies, have blamed it for the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the cause of which is unknown as of January 2022.
According to Bob Mann, an airline industry consultant, evidence of the Boeing Uninterruptible Autopilot system being installed in a commercial airline has not been publicized and is not proven to exist. Safety concerns, including the possibility that such a system could be hacked, have prevented its roll-out.
–interesting use of words with “has not been publicized”. Seeing military tech is rumored to be 30-50 years ahead of civilian, I wonder what is really true here.
The idea of autonomous single-pilot airliners was sparked by Airbus with the A350 in 2021. Like the MAX, this is a case of Boeing reacting to an Airbus idea that gained momentum. Boeing should be siding with the opposite side here (keep it 2 pilots like it has been since the 1980s).
Wasn’t the QR flight saved from its dive last week (?) by a second pilot? Maybe the right software (don’t rely on Boeing) could have done the same.
Considering all the problems with Boeing, their lack of quality, their software failures that have already killed hundreds, Boeing’s best idea would be to sit down and stfu. This is a REALLY BAD idea. I hope someone at NTSB/FAA regains there sense and kills this idea before it grows. It’s simply a way for airlines to reduce some costs and build more profit, period. Anyone that thinks this will affect ticket prices in a positive (for the consumer) way is on drugs. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they charged more like the ubiquitous “convenience fee “ we often get slapped with.
How many G A planes are out there single
Pilot ,including jets. Most of which
have no computer back up?
With so much talk of the JFK incursion I hadn’t been following the Southwest/FedEx issue in Austin. The FedEx pilot saved the day there–
A Southwest passenger jet and a FedEx cargo plane came as close as 100 feet from colliding Saturday at the main airport in Texas’ capital, and it was a pilot — not air traffic controllers — who averted disaster, a top federal investigator says.
The FedEx pilot told the Southwest crew to abort taking off, she said.
The FedEx plane, meanwhile, climbed as its crew aborted their landing to help avoid a collision, the Federal Aviation Administration has said.
“I’m very proud of the FedEx flight crew and that pilot,” Homendy said. “They saved, in my view, 128 people from a potential catastrophe.”
“It was very close, and we believe less than 100 feet,” Homendy said.
Controllers had cleared the Southwest departure from runway 18 Left when the FedEx jet was about 3.2 nautical miles away, she said. Controllers also confirmed to the FedEx crew that it could land on 18 Left when the FedEx plane was 2.19 nautical miles out.
This is just downright scary. If the sole pilot is incapacitated somehow, what happens then?
We all just witnessed a complete grounding of all US flights due to a software problem. And a near miss on a runway.
And we have had 3 incidents of we don’t know what in US airspace that required emergency tracking and shooting down.
What if the communication or software fails on remote controlled aircraft? What’s the backup plan?
I’ll have to start taking the train and a ship.
As the privileged occupant of the left hand seat up the pointy end, I don’t think single pilot ops would work for all aircraft….small commuter services, fine, for a/c the size of 737/310s upward……no way….for many obvious reasons.
A glimpse of the future:
The flight deck of the future will have a pilot, a computer and a dog.
The computer will fly the plane.
The pilot will monitor the computer.
The dog is there to bite the pilot if he/she touches anything
Outside of perhaps on cargo planes under very limited circumstances there’s just no way that one pilot would work out well in the real world.
@Christian – Cargo planes are an often cited use case for one-pilot cockpits, but I would (and should have but didn’t in the post) point you in the direction of an Amazon Prime 767 (Atlas Air) crash outside of Houston in February of 2019. In that case, the first officer put the plane in an unrecoverable dive after losing spatial awareness and the captain was cited as not paying close enough attention to the actions of the FO and failing to prevent the crash. Had this taken place over a more crowded area, more loss of life could have taken place than just the two pilots and one passenger.
If pilots keep demanding stupid salaries for only working 80 hours a month and having auto-pilot on 90% of the flights then yea–single pilot operation is going to happen.
You don’t seem to fully understand how autopilot works or how much work being a pilot actually is…
Boeing and Airbus cannot even design an airplane that is safe with 2 pilots, let alone one. Anyone that has had an aircraft emergency knows that single-piloted operations are a farce. Besides, Calhoun is a worthless tractor salesman that should be in jail for manslaughter. What does that idiot know?
I don’t see it happening anytime in the foreseeable future for the reasons laid out here.
Not to mention that Boeing is especially poorly positioned at the moment to champion such a cause.
In an actual emergency, the work load becomes much higher. Wouldn’t it be better if the remote pilot did the actual flying while the onboard pilot was in reserve so that there would be the maximum alertness onboard paid to an emergency?
Passengers want to know there’s someone able to take over should the pilot become incapacitated. ️
It would be fine for cargo planes. There was one, UPS or FedcX, I can’t remember which, when the plane was so much on fire, the copilot passed up the runway in Dubai, and rather guided the plane to a military base and crashed it on the runway there. It broke my heart so much because I knew he did it to save lives; he sacrificed himself.
“Autonomy is coming to all aircraft at some point” count mean many things.
Autonomy is a broad term with a large range of applications from Pilot assistance to pilotless flights.
Airbus itself has pretty much said an autonomous airliner would be single pilot not pilotless. A system that is considered autonomous at Airbus just means it can make decisions without human input.
This would be supported by another comment made by Calhoun in 2019 where he said “we’re ultimately going to to have to almost- almost- make these planes fly on their own”
Chief Engineer Greg Hyslop also said at their investors meeting in November 2022 that “a system that can analyze situations and act, alongside a human operator would improve safety” when talking about autonomy.
To me at least, based on this and many other things sprinkled around by Airbus, Boeing, EASA and the FAA , this all means worst case scenario is single pilot ops, not pilotless operations for passenger airliners.
Air Taxis and small aircraft and even large freighters are another story.