Single-Pilot Point of Failure

By Scott Spangler on May 1st, 2023

Given the capable reliability of aviation technology today, in the realm of a perfect world, single-pilots flying people-carrying commercial and military aircraft seems a logical hypothetical possibility.

To prove the reality of this possibility, the US Air Force flew two single-pilot test flights in its new KC-46 Pegasus tanker, which is based on the Boeing 767. After extensively practicing single-pilot procedures in simulators, a single-pilot, accompanied by a safety pilot in case something unexpected went awry, flew a refueling mission that made no connection with thirsty airplanes. With the success of this test, the Air Force flew a second full refueling mission profile with a single-pilot and single boom operator, again with additional hands-off safety personnel on board.

The success of these test flights last October generated several conversations about taking single-pilot airline operations a step or two beyond hypothetical. Flying in a perfect world, halving the typical cockpit crew would help alleviate the pilot shortage and improve the airline’s bottom lines. Oddly enough, it was this manner of thinking that led to the Air Force single-pilot Pegasus flights.

Given the goal of armed combat, to kill the enemy before they kill you, the Air Force may find itself in a situation where it has more tankers than it has pilots to fly them. This seems unlikely. While the Air Force is dealing with its own pilot shortage, certainly they have enough aviators to fully crew the 59 KC-46s it has so far taken delivery of. Still, in the realm of hypothetical scenarios, it is possible, and in combat, fulfilling the mission takes precedent.

What the stories telling about the tests did not address is the not inconsequential variable of the single-pilot point of failure. Yes, the boom operator would be filling the copilot’s seat when not topping off thirsty airplanes, but flying the refueling boom and the airplane it is attached to is not the same thing. If the single-pilot fails, for whatever reason, no matter how many souls are on board, their destiny is pretty much guaranteed.

Just ask the crews of the four-engine Lancaster bombers the Royal Air Force launched during World War II. You can meet and learn from them in a fabulous 2022 documentary, Lancaster: Above and Beyond, now on Amazon Prime. Most aviation history geeks know that the Lancaster was—and is—a single-pilot aircraft. In talking about their wartime training, the surviving gunners, bomb aimers, signals (radio) operators, navigators, and flight engineers said that choosing their pilot was not an inconsequential decision. And they did indeed choose, because after training everyone gathered in a room and figured out who would fly with whom.

Being a single-pilot point of failure is an equally important consideration in airline operations. Imagine the outcome had the incapacitated captain of that Southwest flight in March been a single pilot. Assuming one is onboard, having a passenger pilot would have offered no assistance unless he or she unlocked the cockpit door before losing consciousness. Their destiny would be the same as the boomer on a single-pilot Pegasus or the crew of a Lancaster. When considering a single-pilot point of failure, the only situation where it is justified is when there is only room for one in the cockpit. – Scott Spangler, Editor


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