Is one pilot enough?

Now and then the idea is raised that, to save costs in commercial aviation, airlines could introduce a one-pilot cockpit instead of the present two-pilot arrangement. One justification used is military flying and the aircraft used there – which nowadays are even unmanned. Unmanned aerial vehicles do not, in fact, fly without a pilot – with these aircraft the pilot sits on the ground and controls the aircraft through telecommunications links.

My own view is that it’s not possible to adopt a one-pilot system in passenger traffic. Besides the fact that using one pilot is prohibited by the authorities in current commercial aircraft, I present here some justifications to support my view.

Operating practices

As I highlighted in my previous blog, a process of constant checking is an essential part of our safety culture. For example, a new value is set for an aircraft’s altitude selector only when both pilots are agreed on the value to be set. In a one-pilot aircraft such integral safety factors would have to be completely rebuilt – but how?

“One becomes blind to one’s own mistakes” is an old truth with which everyone can surely agree. In the light of this truth, using one pilot would undoubtedly reduce the safety level – in practice, it would be impossible to receive feedback on one’s own actions and “bad habits” would remain unchecked.

Aircraft design

Modern commercial aircraft have been designed to be flown with a two-pilot crew. Aircraft are nowadays operated using the ‘pilot flying’ and ‘pilot non-flying’ concept. In this model, the ‘pilot flying’ is responsible for the aircraft’s flight track and the ‘pilot non-flying’ handles radio traffic and implements the pilot flying’s requests: e.g. ‘gear up’: The pilot flying the aircraft cannot reasonably even reach the landing gear lever. In an emergency, such a stretch, it’s true, could be accomplished, but not as part of normal operations. A one-pilot cockpit would look completely different from the present cockpit. One could, of course, follow the model from the military world, where one-pilot aircraft are an everyday affair. But these aircraft, let’s remember, also have ejection seats for a quick exit.

Taking into account the life span of aircraft and the time it takes to get from the design table to production, it would be impossible to obtain aircraft based on a completely new design philosophy any time soon. Currently, the Airbus A320 is the technical pioneer in terms of aircraft design for medium-haul flights. This aircraft was introduced way back in the 1980s and will be in production for the foreseeable future. Its successor is not yet known, but the present view is that it will also be a two-pilot aircraft. We can therefore reasonably assume that aircraft using two pilots will be flown for the next 30 years.

Loss of functional capacity

Now and then a situation arises in which one of the pilots losses his or her functional capacity. This may be for as simple a reason as the beginnings of flu, which blocks the airways inside the head and causes some deterioration of sense of orientation or perhaps unbearable ear pain or headache.

The possibility of food poisoning, however remote, is also an ever-present threat. In a two-pilot crew, each pilot consumes different food to minimise the danger of simultaneous food poisoning.

On a one-pilot aircraft, the collapse during a flight of the only person capable of flying the aircraft would be fateful. The idea, for example, that a specially trained representative of the cabin staff could land the aircraft in such a situation using the autopilot, is completely absurd.

Aircraft have excellent autopilots, but contrary to the common view the autopilot is no good unless one is regularly trained how to use it. The autopilot, unfortunately, can only do what it is asked to do. In addition, the autopilot is unable to land the aircraft safely, for example, in a strong side wind, in demanding winter conditions or at more modestly equipped runways. In these situations, a pilot must land the aircraft manually.


Finally, perhaps the most significant factor would be the hiring of experienced pilots if aircraft were flown by only one. A flight captain requires a vast amount of flying experience, which can only be acquired by serving as a co-pilot. In practice, even experienced military pilots must serve for several years as a co-pilot before gaining the opportunity to become the captain of a passenger aircraft. How, in future, would airlines find captains to fly one-pilot aircraft if the opportunity to learn the ropes as a co-pilot were lost?

Present cockpits have two top practitioners of their trade, in whose hands one can travel with complete confidence. Even the complete loss of functional capacity during a flight on the part of one pilot would not jeopardise safety; the aircraft would always be brought safely to the ground.

Have a safe journey.