Single-Piloted Commercial Aircraft

single pilot airliner

Section 744 of H.R.4 – FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which was introduced on April 18, 2018, states:


(a) Program.—The FAA, in consultation with NASA and other relevant agencies, shall establish a research and development program in support of single-piloted cargo aircraft assisted with remote piloting and computer piloting.

(b) Review.—The FAA, in consultation with NASA, shall conduct a review of FAA research and development activities in support of single-piloted cargo aircraft assisted with remote piloting and computer piloting.

(c) Report.—Not later than 6 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall transmit a report to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate that describes—

(1) the program established under subsection (a); and

(2) the results of the review conducted under subsection (b).

Make no mistake, their idea is to first eliminate a pilot for cargo then move to passenger aircraft. The idea that automation might allow for the elimination of one of the pilots on commercial aircraft is not new.  I discussed the issues at length in a previous article. Much of logic that the proponents use is based on the reasoning that if we could eliminate first the radio operator, then the navigator, then the flight engineer, the “natural progression” of automation is to eliminate one of the pilots. It is flawed thinking. At one time the job of tuning a radio was very involved, as was navigating, and also operating systems. However, one must not lose sight of the fact that each of those individuals operated at the direction of the two pilots and provided information so that the pilots could form a mental model of the flight and make decisions accordingly.  All the information went forward to the two pilots in front who took it all in to make decisions as to the safe operation of the aircraft.

The role of the F/O is not just to be a “redundant back up” to the captain, nor is it to just move switches as a PM.  It is also not simply to help offset the cognitive bias that each of us has. It is to create a shared mental model which creates a surprisingly large multiplier effect.  Two people are not just twice as capable. Somehow that reminds me of an experience many parents can commiserate with, the second child is not just twice as much work, but more like ten times (at least it feels that way!). Humor aside, the magnifying effect of shared consciousness is well documented (see D. Harris’s Human Performance on the Flight Deck, 2011).  The key, though, is that they are able to communicate effectively, each sharing their ideas, and, most importantly (and this has strong implications for how we might better manage our cockpits), the key was sharing their level of confidence in the decision making.  In other words, you need to share your doubts.  We need to share how confident (or, more importantly, the lack thereof) we are on our thought process which then apparently opens the door for the other person to fill those gaps.  This might explain the problems with overly authoritative Captains.

This reflects the typical cockpit environment, with both pilots discussing aspects and expressing the facets they are less confident about, even if not quite in those words.  The proponents of single-pilot argue that the second person can be replaced with remote consciousness, but it should be obvious that remote consciousness will not be able to replace a person next to you, with the subtle body language and other nuances we use to express doubt or confidence. As David Mindell (MIT) has outlined, we can do many things remotely but we lose quite a lot in the process. While we can also gain certain things, I would state that without question many flight-critical decisions are not well suited for it.

There is a second part to all of this. There is a pervasive myth that human error leads to accidents, but in my work as an accident investigator and in the application of system engineering approaches such as MIT’s STAMP, we see very quickly that the real cause of accidents are flawed assumptions at every level. Removing a pilot would just make those flawed assumptions at the design stage more prominent as there would no longer be a pilot to prevent tragedy. Read my article on inflight fire and imagine the problems an automated system might have with some of the scenarios.

One of my concerns (which I have outlined in many of my talks) is that we are stuck in an old, and incorrect, model of the cause of accidents.  This includes even many pilots. Most of the pilot advocate organizations promote the idea that in order to reduce accidents we need to protect the system from human error, and that means that we first try to create a design that precludes the problem, if that fails then we engineer barriers, then, if that doesn’t work, we create warnings and alerts, and following that we attempt procedural barriers, and then after that we try to train it out of people.  This is the taxonomy utilized pretty much across the airline industry. The problem is that it based on the flawed thinking that humans are the problem, rather than recognizing that by far most of the time the pilot is preventing the accident!  The reason it does not seem that way is that we fail to apply local rationality, or “how did the context of the situation lead to the decision making sense”.

Many do not understand it, but in my experience, even among those on the “pilot side” that do “get it”, too many are afraid to “rock the boat”, feeling that pilot participation in various policy bodies is too tenuous to risk stating the truth.  However, by “going along” with the status quo, we are, essentially, arguing that pilots are the problem and therefore, we should either eliminate them or prevent them from doing harm, and it provides others with the opportunity to state truthfully that they “included the pilots viewpoint”.  I view this as a significant problem.

So, we have more than a fight at the government level.  There are people at high levels of pilot advocacy organizations (i.e., unions) who are helping push this agenda, even if unwittingly or with good intentions.

I close again with this. The reason for the second pilot is not redundancy, but rather it is to expand the mental model to allow a far greater adaptive capacity to manage events that fall outside of the engineering assumptions or even the imagination of those designing the system (aircraft, ATC, etc.).


About Shem Malmquist FRAeS

B-777 Captain. Air Safety and Accident Investigator. Previous experience includes Flight Operations Duty Officer, Assistant Chief Pilot. Line Check Airman, ALPA Aircraft Technical and Engineering Chairman, Aircraft Performance and Designs Committee MEC Chair, Charting and Instrument Procedures Committee, Group Leader-Commercial Aviation Safety Team-Joint Safety Implementation Team (CAST)-Loss of Control-Human Factors and Automation, CAST-JSIT- Aircraft State Awareness. Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, full Member of ISASI, AIAA, IEEE, HFES, FSF, AFA and the Resilience Engineering Association.
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One Response to Single-Piloted Commercial Aircraft

  1. Trust in automation is a discipline all of its own. The technology is there in sufficient sophistication to generate new modes of communication between pilot and machine, or no pilot at all….could be remote operation if wanted….witness the progress with remote ATC. I like what you say ~ as always. In contradiction to my technological deterministic advances look up the Philadelphia landing on YouTube and hear the conversation between pilot and ground crew and if that isn’t reassurance for the necessity for piloting crews and teams you can serve me up a diet of microchips with ketchup…

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