Weapons and bombs are being fired from drones in the air and package delivery to your business or home may soon be done via drone. Do we really need pilots anymore for air travel?
I would say yes, but that may be just because I am a pilot. There has been a strong drop in the number of flight deck crewmembers over the past few decades.
There was a minimum of three pilots in each airline cockpit when I began my career way back in the ancient late 1970’s. A captain, a co-pilot (or first officer) and a flight engineer (or second officer) were required crew on all big jets. Only a few jets, like the Douglas DC-9 had only two pilots and no engineer.
International and foreign carriers had much more crowded cockpits. I visited an Aeroflot cockpit one day at JFK back in the early 1980s. They had a captain, first officer, flight engineer, navigator, radio operator, and a political officer all crammed onto the flight deck!
We members of the Airline Pilot’s Association howled when the then brand-new Boeing 767 was going to show up on our property with only two pilots and no engineer. Truth be told, the first few 767s my airline bought were supposed to come with flight engineer panels in the cockpit! I know this, because I was slated to become one of those 767 flight engineers.
The battle was lost before it even really began. There was no way that the more modern airliners like the 767 needed a third crewmember to monitor what by then were almost totally automatic aircraft systems. All other airliners since the seven-six have come to us without the flight engineer position.
Losing the third crewmember was no big loss for us pilots in terms of operating the aircraft but the lack of a third set of eyeballs and a brain meant there was more for the remaining two people to watch and manage. Trust me, the flight engineer was sorely missed – mainly because of the added workload on the two remaining crewmembers.
Corporate and charter jets all used to require a two person crew. This was also due to the high workload of the earlier, less automated jets. A few decades ago, single pilot biz-jets became the popular thing because it made the pilot-owner phenomenon a real thing. A single pilot Citation, for example, could now be owned and flown by the same person.
Single pilot operations are safe enough and single pilot air taxi governed by Federal Aviation Regulations Part 135 have been in existence for quite a long time.
Time has proven the single pilot concept
Operations with one pilot are safe enough and I don’t think there are any hard numbers out there to prove that statement wrong. The idea that your one and only pilot will keel over and die in the air leaving you pilotless has not really happened. As a matter of fact, crew incapacitation accidents seen to always happen to two pilot crews for some reason.
I am an older (ahem) pilot and based on my decades of airline flying I prefer to fly with a crew of two, even though I know that under normal circumstances, flying with one pilot is as safe as being a puppy in a laundry basket.
The real problem with a single pilot operation, in my opinion, is when circumstances get complicated. A horrible weather day turning into a very long horrible weather day is my best example. In a two-person crew the pilots can lean on each other a little bit. The pilot flying the airplane can have his or her hands full. It is nice to have another pilot on board to monitor the situation and do the busy work found in all cockpits.
Sometimes simple airplane system problems can take all the attention of the second pilot to manage. A single pilot might be able to handle manually controlling the pressurization system when the automatic controller goes out, but to do so he or she must divert a large part of their attention to get it done.
Passenger needs and service sometimes make having a second crewmember a bonus. In an aircraft without flight attendants it is nice to have that second person to go to the back and help a passenger who is a little sick or a little discombobulated.
Having said all of the reasons for having a two pilot aircraft I can totally get behind a single pilot operation with just a few addition and adjustments.
Under no circumstances should a single pilot flight be done without an available and usable auto flight system, or autopilot. Pressurization, cabin temperature control and most other systems must be automatic and must be working properly. The weather can be not so nice, but the pilot must be allowed to call a time out if fatigue becomes a factor, even if it seems like featherbedding to the passengers or throws them off of their schedule.
Somebody needs to be looking out for the single pilot at all times. Help with flight planning and flight following is a must as is frequent and thorough recurrent flight training. With no other pilot in the cockpit to monitor the single flyer, bad habits can creep in and there is a total lack of reliable crosschecking of performance and knowledge.
The No-Pilot Aircraft?
Is it possible that we will soon see pilot less aircraft in the charter and corporate flight world? I would say no, but to tell you the truth, I never thought they would do away with flight engineers.
Overseas cargo routes are being studied for using drone transport aircraft. It is possible that modified 777’s in a cargo configuration may be flying over oceans without a pilot within the next decade.
The military, most prolific users of drones to date are studying the use of drones to evacuate wounded and other from battlefields. There are literally hundreds of military applications for drones.
There are so many pilot decisions that computers aren’t up to making yet that I doubt that passenger aircraft, especially charter and corporate aircraft, will see a pilot free cockpit any time soon. Weather decisions, ride decisions, passenger comfort and lets face it, overall safety concerns will probably keep at least one pilot on the job for the foreseeable future.