Single-Pilot Airliners?


The idea of a single pilot flying heavy jets might be gaining traction again. As online sister publication recently reported, “The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) filed a working paper with ICAO [the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization] on Monday asking that the structure be developed for ‘a safe and globally harmonized introduction of commercial air transport (CAT) operations of large aeroplanes with optimised crew/single-pilot operations while ensuring an equivalent or higher level of safety compared to that achieved in current operations.’”

The ICAO working paper is clear in its objectives. Its introduction states: “The emergence of the extended minimum-crew operations (eMCO) concept and the advent of discussions of a single-pilot operations (SiPO) concept calls upon the safety regulators to look at these factors to ensure that the enviable safety standards achieved over decades are maintained or further improved. The eMCO concept involves single-pilot operations during the cruise phase of the flight. This is distinct from SiPO involving end-to-end single-pilot. The main focus of this working paper is eMCO, although it is clear that the eMCO concept can be seen as an early step towards increased automation, ultimately leading to SiPO.”

AVweb’s report came three days after the left-seater aboard Envoy Air Flight 3556, an Embraer E175, collapsed shortly after takeoff from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (KORD). The captain-in-training, Patrick Ford, later died. The right-seater, line check airman/captain Brandon Hendrickson, returned the jet to KORD, landing safely at 7:57 p.m. local time, 37 minutes after the flight departed for Columbus, Ohio. From the ATC conversation I heard, Hendrickson handled the challenge like he’d been practicing it.

A curious thing about the incident at O’Hare is it can be used by both sides of this debate to support their position. On one hand, there were two pilots aboard, in part, to address this precise scenario. On the other hand, a (very experienced) single pilot managed the emergency and got the airplane safely back on the ground. If the sole pilot became incapacitated, technology now available aboard even a piston single would save the day.

This debate is not going away. As both pilot and self-loading cargo, I’ll simply say this: Even with all of his advanced technology, Han Solo had Chewbacca in the right seat.

— Jeb Burnside


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