Inside the cockpit of a 747.
A low-cost airline wants flight attendants to fly airplanes in case of emergency. The reason: Having two pilots in the cockpit is too expensive. That’s great, because I really can’t wait to see Steven Slater landing a 747 at JFK. (Videos)
The father of the idea is none other than Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, the most famous low-cost airline in Europe. O’Leary does a lot of seemingly stupid things, but he’s a very smart man too. In this case, he may be completely right too.
Authorities and aircraft manufacturers are actually looking into this. Embraer is planning to have a one-pilot-only commercial jetliner by 2020, and General Electric and Lockheed Martin are actively working in incorporating remote control capabilities—now used in military Unmanned Air Vehicles—into civilian aircraft.
This is not crazy. These companies argue that, nowadays, airplanes could be easily flown by only one pilot. The only reason for having a co-pilot, they say, is in case the pilot becomes incapacitated, which is a strange circumstance. Civil aviation authorities are already considering the idea. In the UK, officials say that, if a one pilot plus high technology solution can offer “equivalent safety” to a two-pilot solution, it could be admitted.
It seems crazy, but consider David Learmount’s—operations and safety editor at Flight International magazine—description of aviation 60 years ago:
Some 60 years ago, airliners with about 30 passenger seats on board needed a pair of pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and radio operator because the workload was so high in each of those roles. The reasons such a crew is no longer necessary are too obvious to need rehearsing here. An aeroplane today may be extremely complex, but automation and massive advances in system reliability has reduced the human operator’s workload dramatically.
Technology—with the incorporation of UAV systems—is almost at the point in which one-pilot operation could be considered safe. After all, it’s not a true one-pilot system, since another pilot can take control from the ground in case of emergency. And, indeed, flight attendants could be trained to activate or override systems in case of emergency.
Learmount even goes further and imagines no-pilot planes, fully automated and supervised from the ground by real pilots. But forget about that not-so-remote future. The question now is: Are you ready for one-pilot airplanes?
Before you answer, look at this plane landing in heavy crosswind:
Or this one landing in Honduras:
I know what my answer is.