Flying Solo Copilots Could Soon Be Grounded
Too expensive, too heavy and unnecessary: Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer hold copilots in low regard. So, now the company plans to replace them with a computer.
When it comes to the systems found on passenger jets, there's hardly ever just one of them. For example, there are three airspeed indicators and up to five flight computers. It's all about redundancy: If one device fails, another one kicks in.
The same holds true for pilots. And lest bad food put both the pilot and the copilot out of commission at the same time, there's an ironclad rule in the cockpit: Never pick the same meal option.
But if the maverick ideas of a handful of engineers become reality, cockpit redundancy could soon become a thing of the past -- and copilots could be gone in as few as 10 to 15 years.
The Last Taboo at 38,000 Feet
Luiz Sergio Chiessi, vice president for aircraft market intelligence at the Brazilian company Embraer, the world's third-largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft, says: "We believe it is technically possible."
And Flight International, the respected British aerospace weekly, has concluded that Embraer is "the first manufacturer to break cover on the issue of single-pilot crews."
In doing so, Embraer is challenging the cockpit's last remaining taboo. Now that radio operators, navigators and flight engineers have fallen victim to cost-cutting measures, the pilot's right-hand person could also fall by the wayside. Until now, airlines have made only very discreet inquiries about the possibility of having one-pilot cockpits. Even Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturer, has reportedly fielded questions on this issue.
With so many pressures to cut costs, airlines are attracted by the idea of cutting the numbers of such highly paid employees. What's more, the industry's rapid expansion is also threatening to bring about a shortage of pilots. For example, over the next 20 years, the US aircraft manufacturer Boeing predicts that 448,000 new pilots will be needed.
Shortly after Embraer made its bombshell announcement, the Thales Group, one of the world's key manufacturers of aircraft instruments, announced that it was also studying the idea of a one-pilot cockpit. "Of course, the convenient answer is to say 'Forget it; it will never happen,'" Joseph Huysseune, Thales' director of innovation for commercial aircraft, told Flight International. "But, looking far to the horizon," he adds, "we have clever ideas to go in that direction." The French company is conducting a project called "Cockpit 3.0," which involves automating a plane's instruments enough to permit a single pilot to fly it.
To many critics, that sounds like hubris. As they see it, for the foreseeable future, the state of technology won't be able to guarantee the necessary degree of reliability. "The aircraft would have to be able to land on its own should the only pilot in the cockpit be incapacitated," says Dieter Reisinger, director of the Vienna-based Austrian Flight Test Association. Either the aircraft would have to find its way to the next airport on its own, Reisinger adds, or the instruments would have to be operated remotely from the ground "like a model airplane."
Too Much to Master
Given such demands, Embraer and Thales are focusing on a completely novel air-traffic-control architecture currently under development in the United States and Europe. It includes high-performance satellite connections between the aircraft and ground controllers in addition to extremely precise position determination.
Today, airplanes can already automatically touch down on runways with the help of guide beams. But pilots still monitor the entire process. In an emergency situation -- such as when there are strong crosswinds or another aircraft is blocking the runway -- they can step in and take control of the aircraft at any time.
"There are thousands of situations that a human being can creatively master," says Holger Duda of the Braunschweig-based Institute of Flight Systems, part of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). But to get the approval of aviation authorities, he adds, a manufacturer would have to prove that the computers would make the right decisions in all of these situations. And this, Duda believes, is "virtually impossible."
Still, the temptation to halve the size of cockpit crews is great. Officials at Thales speculate that the process could begin with cargo aircraft instead of large airliners. And Embraer, for its part, has its sights set on business jets. The smallest of these -- including its own Phenom 100 and 300 models -- are already approved for only a single pilot. The company has already been able to reduce a pilot's workload on these aircraft, for example, with the checklist. "If you take the checklist of a conventional aircraft," says Embraer's Chiessi, "for every 10 items you have, there are only one or two on the Phenom."
Technical guidance for these changes could also be found in the booming sector of manufacturing unmanned drones, such as those being used by the United States military in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The View from the Cockpit
Pilots' unions are bracing themselves against this potentially major change. Still, according to Jörg Handwerg, the spokesman for the German pilots' union Cockpit, pilots only account for 4 percent to 5 percent of all aviation costs. "I doubt that it's really worthwhile for the airlines to implement such a complex new system," he says.
In online forums, some of Handwerg's fellow pilots express a more flippant take on Embraer's ambitious plans. For example, one captain writes that the extra pilot could lie on his or her stomach in the cockpit and steer the plane from there so as to "create enough space for another seat in first class."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan