There are two reasons why we’ve always had more than one pilot on most commercial flights. The first is that the workload is too much for one pilot and the second is that if something happens to one pilot then we like to have someone else to land the aircraft. Neither of these reasons are valid anymore.
Despite what some pilots will tell you the workload associated with operating a modern jet is trivial compared to previous generations of aircraft. In the 1960’s and 1970’s pilots used paper charts and a written flight log to navigate from one radio beacon to the next. Vertical navigation (climb and descent) required constant mental arithmetic comparing range, altitude and vertical speed. Power settings were made manually by reference to paper manuals. Now we have flight management systems loaded with the complete route before departure. These are linked to the autopilot and engine controls. If something goes wrong, then an electronic checklist pops up with step-by-step instructions for the pilots to follow. One of my main challenges as a pilot is boredom.
Two manufacturers of single-pilot aircraft have recently announced that their aeroplanes have the capability to land safety if the pilot is incapacitated. The technology to do this has been developed by Garmin Ltd as part of their G3000 avionics package. The aircraft fitted with G3000 avionics will, at the push of a button, fly to the nearest suitable airport, land and shutdown the engine. On the way the avionics will send an emergency message to air traffic control, avoid terrain and obstacles and choose the most favourable runway. It even provides reassurance to passengers in a soothing synthetic voice (which is more than some pilots do). If there’s no-one to push the button (e.g. on a cargo flight) then the system will activate automatically if the pilot doesn’t respond to prompts and warnings. Implementing this technology for airliners would require minimal additional development.
Sack the First Officer
The current generation of airliners and operating procedures are designed for two pilots so we can’t just tell the co-pilot to stay at home. We need some changes to aircraft. We currently have autopilots that operate in normal conditions but disconnect and give control back to the pilots when things go wrong. We need to reverse this logic. We should let the pilot fly the aeroplane and have the avionics monitor what he/she is doing and point out any deviations. The system needs to be fail-safe so that, like the Garmin system, the aircraft will continue and land safely if the pilot is incapacitated.
I’m not an aeronautical engineer but I’m convinced that existing multi-pilot airliners can be modified for single pilot operations. The business case is compelling and with the right systems and procedures there is no need to compromise safety. The airline that doesn’t need co-pilots will save something like £100 per flight hour or 2.5% of total costs. Even if modifying each aircraft costs a couple of million pounds the airlines will pay. There are a lot of aircraft to be modified.
Make it happen
I’m a pilot, not an engineer. My specialisation is consulting on operating procedures and regulations. If you are an engineering company planning to develop this technology, then I’m the guy to help with the operational requirements!