From Five to None? Evolution of the Flight Crew

From Five to None? Evolution of the Flight Crew

 DALLAS – Single Pilot Operations (SPO) refers to flying commercial aircraft with only one Pilot in the cockpit. The sole Pilot would be assisted by advanced onboard automation and/or ground operators, providing piloting support services.

Improvements in automation technology may eventually eliminate the need for a Co-Pilot on commercial flights, a potentially disruptive trend that has already generated safety concerns among Pilots and Cabin Crew.

According to a whitepaper from the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the evidence and experience that includes more than a decade of study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), show that the safety risks and challenges associated with SPO far outweigh any potential benefits.

The paper further adds that the increased workload for the sole Pilot, the loss of a layer of monitoring and operating redundancy in the cockpit, and the difficulty of a single Pilot to handle several emergency scenarios are the most significant risks of SPO.

The Autonomous Taxi, Take-off and Landing (ATTOL) project leveraged computer-vision technologies and techniques to successfully complete fully autonomous tests (taxi, take-off, approach, and landing) using a commercial aircraft. Image: Airbus

An Industry Shift?

Commercial flights must have at least two Pilots in the cockpit, according to the current US law, FAA rules, and EU legislation. However, in January of this year, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) revealed it was considering the relaxation of the rules, which restrict Single-Pilot operations in commercial aviation.

Back in June 2021, several media outlets reported that Cathay Pacific (CX) and Airbus were working on a project named Connect, which was intended to reduce the number of Flight Crew on long-haul flights by using a single Pilot in the cockpit for most of the flight time.

According to sources familiar with the matter, Airbus aims to certify its A350 XWB family aircraft for single-pilot operations starting in 2025. On its website, Airbus claims that autonomous flight has the potential to deliver increased fuel savings, thus reducing operational costs of operators, while supporting Pilots in their decision-making and mission management while in the cockpit.

As the idea of autonomous flight creeps its way into the commercial aviation Zeitgeist, we want to take a look at the evolution of the flight crew throughout its history.

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5, 4, 3, 2… One Pilot in the Cockpit?

Since the beginning of air travel, the role of Piloting a commercial aircraft has been divided into different members of a Flight Crew, each one of whom has defined duties and responsibilities. Some position titles were a creation from Pan Am, drawn from nautical terms, denoting a command structure similar to that seen on ocean ships.

At the beginning of the air travel era, a typical Flight Crew would include a Captain, who remains the highest-ranking member of a Flight Crew, followed by a First Officer, a Flight Engineer, and a Third Officer that would serve as a relief Pilot. In some Soviet-built planes, the Flight Crew would include a Navigator, and even a Radio Operator.

As times evolved, so did aviation. The technological legacy from World War II permeated into civilian aircraft, making them faster, safer and more reliable. From the primitive Gyroscopic Autopilots from the 1930s to the state-of-the-art AFCS (Avionic Flight Control System) in the Lockheed L1011 Tristar, the workload in the cockpit began to lighten, and the number of Flight Crew began also to dwindle.

With the introduction of the Boeing 737 in 1969, the position of the Flight Engineer became obsolete, with most finding their way on widebody jetliners only. By the 1980s, with the introduction of the Boeing 767 and the Airbus A300 that brought digital technology to the cockpit, the role of the Flight Engineer disappeared.

So did the roles of the navigator and radio operator with the incorporation of reliable navigational systems such as the Delco Carousel, first introduced with the Boeing 747 and the Vickers VC-10.

A Pan Am Flight Crew, comprised by two Captains and Two Flight Officers. – Credits: Pan Am Museum Foundation.

Final Thoughts

Commercial aviation is the safest means of transportation in the world, with a track record that has improved even as the industry expands. Many variables contribute to this, but the highly qualified pilots who fly their aircraft into increasingly busy skies, 24 hours a day, in all forms of weather, are at the top of the list.

Today, some argue for lowering the size of large aircraft’s flight crews, possibly to only one pilot while SPO proponents say that decreasing crew size will result in cost savings.

Is this, however, a matter of profits and savings over safety, and are we entering a new era of SPO and autonomous flight but with the risk of over-relying on automation?

What are your thoughts? Be sure to leave your comments below or on our social media channels.

Featured image: flight crew. Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

Digital Editor
Digital Editor at Airways, AVSEC interpreter, and visual artist. I am a grammar and sci-fi literature geek who loves editing text and film.

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