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Idea of airliners flown by solo pilots gains ground

rigger

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Column: Idea of airliners flown by solo pilots gains ground:

With on-board computers in control of many functions on commercial flights, the idea of airliners being flown solo, without the need for a captain and first officer, as is currently the standard, could soon become a reality. Embraer says it has set a goal of making planes capable of single-pilot flight within 10 to 15 years, and avionics group Thales is developing a next-generation cockpit to enable single-pilot operations without the need for a backup.


It once took a cockpit crew of three to fly an airliner: captain, first officer and flight engineer. Today, it's two, the captain and first officer. But on-board computers have made flying commercial jets relatively easy—so easy there's talk of a day when airliners could be flown solo.


Middle Seat columnist Scott McCartney looks at whether it would ever make sense to have fewer than two pilots in the cockpit of commercial airline flights given major advances in aviation technology.

Aircraft manufacturer Embraer, a major supplier of 40- and 100-seat jets to U.S. airlines, says it wants its planes capable of single-pilot flight within 10 to 15 years. And avionics group Thales says it is working on a next-generation cockpit that would enable single-pilot operations with a backup for incapacitation.

"It's something that would be potentially feasible," said Kevin Hiatt, a former international chief pilot for Delta Air Lines who is now executive vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation.

While it's been a topic of discussion in the airline industry, it's nonetheless hard to see the flying public, regulators, insurers and major airlines accepting a single-pilot system. The obvious stumbling block is what happens if the one and only pilot gets sick?

Serious episodes of pilot incapacitation—when one pilot becomes too sick to fly or even dies while in the air—happen a few times a year around the world, researchers say. An examination of those instances shows how a second set of hands in the cockpit ensures passenger safety.

In the past 16 months, there have been at least four episodes worldwide. In June, an American Airlines flight attendant who has a pilot's license but hadn't flown in 20 years sat in the cockpit of a Boeing 767 to assist a captain after the first officer became ill with the stomach flu. Patti DeLuna said she changed altimeter settings twice because it's on the first-officer's side of the cockpit, keep an eye out for traffic in the sky and listened to the radio for instructions from air-traffic controllers. When controllers called, the captain responded, though he also showed her how to use the radio just in case. Flight 1612 landed normally.

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Bloomberg News
A model of a Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner cockpit sits on display during a reception for company staff and members of the media on the eve of the first flight of the aircraft in Everett, Washington, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 14, 2009. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, which was originally meant to fly in August 2007 and reach customers in May 2008, is scheduled to take its first test flight on December 15 from Paine Field. Photographer: Kevin P. Casey/Bloomberg

Distress Call

In a 2004 study of U.S. airline pilots, there were 39 pilots who were incapacitated and 11 who were impaired aboard 47 aircraft over a six-year period. Here's a snapshot of those cases:

Average age for incapacitations was 47 years old (range 25 to 59 years).
Average age for impairments was 43 years old (range 27 to 57 years).
The most frequent categories of incapacitation were: loss of consciousness and cardiac, neurological and gastrointestinal issues.
Safety of flight was seriously impacted in seven of the 47 flights and resulted in two non-fatal accidents.
"I was only back-up," she said. Though there may have been private pilots on board with more experience, the crew didn't want to announce the first-officer's illness. "You don't want to make an announcement like the 'Airplane' movie, 'Can anyone fly this plane?' " she said.

A spokeswoman for American said the captain involved in Flight 1612 declined to comment. He handled the situation "just as he was trained to do," she said.

In March, a Jet Airways flight in India made an emergency landing after the captain fell ill. Last October, Qantas Airways Flight 593 from Adelaide landed in Perth with an incapacitated captain. The first officer issued an international distress call to request priority to land, a Qantas spokesman said, and an ambulance met the flight.

And earlier in 2009, Continental Airlines Capt. Craig Lenell died in-flight to Newark, N.J., from Brussels. Two first officers on board (flights longer than eight hours carry extra pilots for relief) landed the Boeing 777 in Newark without incident. Continental said he died of natural causes. Passengers weren't told in the air that the captain had died.

A 2004 study of U.S. airline pilots by the Federal Aviation Administration found 39 incapacitations and 11 impairments aboard 47 aircraft during the six-year period studied. The most frequent categories of incapacitation were loss of consciousness and cardiac, neurological and gastrointestinal issues. Safety of flight was seriously impacted in seven of the 47 flights and resulted in two non-fatal accidents, the FAA said.


Airlines say crews train regularly to handle incapacitation in the cockpit. In simulator training at Southwest Airlines that pilots undergo annually, for example, captains pick a point during approaches in low visibility to simply go silent and stop flying without any warning. First officers have to identify what happened and take control of the airplane.

Mr. Hiatt of the Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit international safety group, says when faced with incapacitated pilots, federal rules require that pilots land at the nearest "suitable" airport. That may mean continuing to a planned destination if closer airports aren't equipped to handle large planes.

When colleagues do become incapacitated, pilots need to plan ahead more than usual because the workload increases. They have to deal with new issues—arranging for medical help for the sick pilot, making decisions on whether to divert to an emergency landing and finding a potential helper, such as an off-duty airline pilot or a private pilot. And since they'll be likely flying approaches and landings as well as doing all the talking to air-traffic controllers, they must prepare to land sooner.

"When down to single-pilot operations, you know you have to get things set up further out [from landing] because you do everything yourself," he said.

He personally believes that with a backup pilot on the ground capable of taking control of a plane and data constantly streaming down from planes, many of which already transmit continuous data on engines and other systems, solo flight could be a reality. The U.S. military already flies pilotless planes, flown by operators on the ground. Unmanned spacecraft fly to distant planets. Technology could allow backup pilots to take control of a passenger jet from the ground. "But public opinion, insurance companies and airline management will take a long look at that," he added. "And if it adds more cost, what would be the actual value added?"

For airlines, there would be huge labor cost savings in flying solo instead of having two pilots in every cockpit. Ultra-cheap Irish airline Ryanair's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, has already called for single-pilot operation on short-haul flights, arguing computers do most of the flying, pilot incapacitation is rare and flight attendants could be trained to pinch hit in emergencies.

Airlines typically operate with one pilot as the "flying pilot" on a particular flight and the other as the "non-flying pilot," or "monitoring pilot," who handles radio transmissions, calls out checklists, readies cockpit instruments and double-checks the flying pilot. With more automation, perhaps digital communications to cut down on radio transmissions, electronic checklists and advanced navigation systems, the cockpit workload could be reduced for regular single-pilot operation.

It's the second pilot who becomes vital during emergencies—and gives passengers the assurance that if one person has a heart attack or the flu, a planeload of people wouldn't be endangered.

The FAA's study came to the same conclusion. "The most important factor that appears to be responsible for the exceptionally good U.S. airline safety record associated with in-flight medical incapacitations," the study said, "is the presence of a second pilot."
 

Mr Hat

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Really bad idea....every system in an airliner has redundant systems for a reason.
 

CA1900

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So the one-and-only pilot is just going to leave the cockpit unattended while he uses the lav?

Hopefully this idea will die a quick death...
 

nwaf16dude

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Maybe they'll just build a lav into the pilot's seat.

Seriously, this whole idea is ridiculous. It will never happen.
 

Tweaker

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[FONT=Trebuchet MS,Bookman Old Style,Arial]And of course the Titanic's Captain, Edward J. Smith, had said of the Adriatic several years earlier: "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that."

[/FONT][FONT=Trebuchet MS,Bookman Old Style,Arial]And even as reports of the Titanic disaster began to reach America early in the morning of 15 April 1912, the Vice-President of the White Star Line in New York stated, without qualification, "We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable."

At one time, it took 5 to man an aircraft: Captain, F/O, F/E, Radio operator, and Navigator.

I think there will be just a dog and a single pile it in the fuuuuuture. The pile it is there to watch the plane and teh dog is there to watch the pile it (and attack him if he touches anything).
[/FONT]
 

Tweaker

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B52GUNNER

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And you thought age 65 was a blow to the profession. I this ever happens...
 

AirMorgan

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Maybe they'll just build a lav into the pilot's seat.

Seriously, this whole idea is ridiculous. It will never happen.

It most certainly will happen. It's only a matter of time because money drives everything. As soon as the savings outweighs the potential costs of safety related lawsuits (single pilot)...it will happen.

I hope that I'm wrong...but I fear that I'm right.
 

Raoul Duke

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they will use the knowledge gained from UAVs to suppliment one live crewmember until they can figure out a way to have UAV passenger aircraft.
 

AirMorgan

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they will use the knowledge gained from UAVs to suppliment one live crewmember until they can figure out a way to have UAV passenger aircraft.

Ughh! I totally forgot about those UAV's. You're absolutely right. Why have only one pilot on board when you can have NONE?
 

Superunknown

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Maybe they'll just build a lav into the pilot's seat.

Seriously, this whole idea is ridiculous. It will never happen.

It most certainly will.

In fact the 'ultimate' goal is a pilot-less airliner with an "aircraft manager" (with the qualifications of what was formerly known as an airline pilot) on board who monitors the aircraft systems and in the event of irregularities works with a "control room" to be dealt-with...with ultimate aircraft control being automated and secondary control coming from a ground based control room.

There will be no conventional cockpit up front eliminating potential hijackings all together. The "aircraft managers" post will be capable of taxi only.

A system is under development that to boil it down to basics enables an aircraft to, via computers, use any and all controls in conjunction (variable thrust of engines, aerodynamic controls, and fuel shifting to allow an aircraft to fly essentially normally given any type of control/engine malfunction) all with computers in a system a human could not possibly be capable of.

We are at the beginning of an era where the hardware and software are so proven and fail-safe it is time to start addressing the weakest link in the system, namely the human element.

Sorry kiddo's, this ain't your Grand-dads airline industry anymore...
 

Dornier 335

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He personally believes that with a backup pilot on the ground capable of taking control of a plane and data constantly streaming down from planes, many of which already transmit continuous data on engines and other systems, solo flight could be a reality.
What missing in all this is the risk of a cyber attack like Stuxnet. Computer systems are and will always be vulnerable, whether it is a cr@ppy Windows based system or open-source based like LINUX. If the airplane can be controlled from the ground who knows if some 14 old hacker or a team of hackers can control the fate of the aircraft?

Additionally, the older electronic components become, the higher the risk of (internal) failure. Cutting-edge technology like single-pilot/pilotless airplanes cannot predict every possible failure scenario. Software-based technology also poses a risk due to errors within the software. I know software engineers use a unit that describes X amount of (programming) errors for every 1000 lines of software code written. Just look how many times Windows freezes or acts buggy. Macs (so far) are less prone to it, but not immune. I have seen FMS freeze and act up. Software is buggy.

One example I can think of that highlights a first-of-its-kind incident is the gear-up landing/ go-around that happened to an Eagle crew @ BOS (I think). Landing gear was shown as down and locked on the EICAS, but the wheels were still up & locked. If I recall this was due to an error within the LGEU. Embraer thought their system was (fail)-safe. Guess what?
 
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Draginass

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You'll never catch me on an airliner with a single pilot. You won't catch me on Ryanair, either, even with two pilots.
 

lionflyer

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It most certainly will.

In fact the 'ultimate' goal is a pilot-less airliner with an "aircraft manager" (with the qualifications of what was formerly known as an airline pilot) on board who monitors the aircraft systems and in the event of irregularities works with a "control room" to be dealt-with...with ultimate aircraft control being automated and secondary control coming from a ground based control room.

There will be no conventional cockpit up front eliminating potential hijackings all together. The "aircraft managers" post will be capable of taxi only.

A system is under development that to boil it down to basics enables an aircraft to, via computers, use any and all controls in conjunction (variable thrust of engines, aerodynamic controls, and fuel shifting to allow an aircraft to fly essentially normally given any type of control/engine malfunction) all with computers in a system a human could not possibly be capable of.

We are at the beginning of an era where the hardware and software are so proven and fail-safe it is time to start addressing the weakest link in the system, namely the human element.

Sorry kiddo's, this ain't your Grand-dads airline industry anymore...

And then Skynet will become self aware and launch a massive nuclear attack against mankind. I agree it's comming,(UAV's) but it's still a long ways away. Just think "Sully"! A fully automated A320 with CAT3, would NOT have been able to land in the Hudson by itself.
 

trip

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The UAV's are already pricing themselves out of work in the military, and they have pretty much been under wild wild west rules. Wait until the FAA gets a hold of them HA HA! nope I'm not worried.
That being said I could see the feds being paid off to certify a 1 man cockpit airliner.
 

Fly-By-Cable

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It most certainly will.

In fact the 'ultimate' goal is a pilot-less airliner with an "aircraft manager" (with the qualifications of what was formerly known as an airline pilot) on board who monitors the aircraft systems and in the event of irregularities works with a "control room" to be dealt-with...with ultimate aircraft control being automated and secondary control coming from a ground based control room.

There will be no conventional cockpit up front eliminating potential hijackings all together. The "aircraft managers" post will be capable of taxi only.

A system is under development that to boil it down to basics enables an aircraft to, via computers, use any and all controls in conjunction (variable thrust of engines, aerodynamic controls, and fuel shifting to allow an aircraft to fly essentially normally given any type of control/engine malfunction) all with computers in a system a human could not possibly be capable of.

We are at the beginning of an era where the hardware and software are so proven and fail-safe it is time to start addressing the weakest link in the system, namely the human element.

Sorry kiddo's, this ain't your Grand-dads airline industry anymore...
Respectfully, I must disagree with you. Although aviation technology has made great strides over the years, you don't hear about system errors often thanks to the human element. From personal experience; I can't count how many times I've had to disconnect the auto pilot because it did something uncommended, or failed to capture a loc on a parallel approach. Asides from system errors, I've also been in situations where I was damn glad there were two of us. Personally, I don't think this will ever be approved for use in the USA.
 
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glasspilot1

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[FONT=Trebuchet MS,Bookman Old Style,Arial][/FONT][FONT=Trebuchet MS,Bookman Old Style,Arial]I think there will be just a dog and a single pile it in the fuuuuuture. The pile it is there to watch the plane and teh dog is there to watch the pile it (and attack him if he touches anything).[/FONT]


Boy, you botched that joke! Here's how I heard it from years ago:

"In the future cockpit, there will be just one pilot and a dog. The pilot is there to feed the dog and the dog is there to bite the pilot if he touches anything"!
 
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