Look Ma, Only Two Hands!

In April this year, the US House of Representatives proposed and passed the FAA Re-authorization Bill, with a few surprises attached to the end. On top of allowing the country’s airspace to function for another year, the bill approved several research projects; the most prominent being the call for a study into the viability of single-pilot cargo operations assisted with remote piloting. While the bill must still pass the Senate, the current text of this direction is below and linked here.


(a) Program.—The FAA, in consultation with NASA and other relevant agencies, shall establish a research and development program in support of single-piloted cargo aircraft assisted with remote piloting and computer piloting.

“So, what is the big deal?” you may ask, “research is good!”

I completely agree with you in that regard, I believe research into areas that could improve human life, costs of living, or our impact on the world is absolutely necessary and of great good for all. However, the fact that this research project was dropped into the bill at the last moment shows that some big-named company wants to cut costs by cutting a pilot out of the equation.

Airplane! (1980)

The two-pilot cockpit is a staple in the airline industry. Throughout training, we are taught as pilots to work together in order to yield the safest result of the flight. My partner catches the mistakes that I make, and I catch his. With safety nets in each other, the flight ends well. The idea of eliminating one of the most important resources for a pilot, the other pilot, goes directly against what the FAA has been teaching for the last dozen years.

In fact, the airline community has been evolving more and more towards two-pilot cockpits. Just years ago, there was a pilot designated Pilot Flying who was the one at the controls, calling the shots for that flight. The second pilot was called Pilot Not Flying. This caused the second pilot to be relaxed, not questioning the pilot flying or keeping up with the status of the flight. Within the last few years, the pilot not flying became the Pilot Monitoring and is now taught to have an even busier job than the Pilot Flying. The second pilot who is not actively at the controls has a wider scope of attention and is able to capture mistakes and risk before they occur.

Finally, airlines have slowly been rolling back their “two people in the cockpit at all times,” rules (although these are still prevalent in the United States). If one pilot leaves the cockpit for personal relief, the remaining pilot must be accompanied by a flight attendant. This rule was designed to avoid situations such as the GermanWings accident where a suicidal pilot rammed the aircraft into the ground. Eliminating the need for two pilots in the cockpit allows fringe-cases such as this story to become more common.

“Well, the bill says the pilots will be assisted by remote technologies, so the airplane can just be controlled from the ground in case something happens.” 

Let’s look fifteen years down the line from here. If the study somehow shows that removing the safety net of a second pilot actually makes flying safer, the practice will soon devolve from just cargo pilots. Passenger airlines would see a cost-break and employ only one pilot per flight, or even none with a remote pilot on the ground. With that pilot becoming incapacitated, you now have a hundred people in a metal tube, flying 500 miles per hour through the air, with someone on the ground controlling it. At the end of the day, that remote pilot is not in the aircraft, he will not know all of the information on the ground that he would know sitting in the right seat. It’s dangerous.

The bottom line is: This research, as written in the bill, is “in support of single-piloted cargo aircraft.” It’s not examining the safety hazards of single pilots as we pilots have studied for the last dozen years, it’s searching for a cheap solution, regardless of risk. Non-pilots may not give this bill much thought, but speaking to everyone who rides on an airplane: this won’t stop at cargo. It’s a cause for concern.


Want to have an impact? Contact your congressmen through ALPA’s Call to Action.

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