Future Tense

Flying Solo

Having one pilot in the cockpit might be scarier than having none.

No lone hero: Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, left, and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles speak in the cockpit of a US Airways flight moments before takeoff from LaGuardia Airport on Oct. 1, 2009, in New York City.

Photo by Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images

If you strolled through a 1950s airport, you would have seen a flight crew of four stride by in step, sporting aviator sunglasses and dressed to the nines. They’d be headed into the office. Up top, where the sky’s blue, the coffee’s hot, and the view can’t be beat. The cockpit they knew had more gauges and switches than the top floor of Frankenstein’s castle, and each crew member was master of his own part of it. They had wild layovers in faraway places that most people only dreamed of ever going.  At work and at play, they were a team.

Airline pilots today will tell you that much of the romance has been deleted from that scene—not to mention half the flight crew. The first to get pink-slipped was the navigator, who used to climb up to the sextant port on top of the airplane to consult the stars and figure out the airplane’s position, give or take 5 miles. Next to go was the flight engineer, affectionately known as “the plumber”: the one who looked after the airplane’s systems during flight. When GPS, sensors, and fast processors arrived, these two crew members were told that the functions they once performed could now be handled at lower cost and with greater precision by automation.

What remain today are two pilots and an auto-flight system that is now used during much of the flight. And, yes, flying is cheaper and safer than ever.

Now that we’ve gone from four pilots to two, and with more automation on the way, you don’t need to be a mind reader to know what the industry is thinking next. The aircraft manufacturer Embraer has already revealed plans for a single-pilot regional jet, and Cessna has produced several small single-pilot jets. (I’m rated to fly this one.) And as my colleagues at NASA are busy studying the feasibility of large single-pilot airliners, a Delta Air Lines pilot made it look easy a few weeks ago when the other pilot was accidentally locked out of the cockpit. But should we be a little nervous about the idea of having just one pilot up there in the front office? The research says maybe so.

Studies show that pilots make plenty of errors. That’s why we have two pilots in the airline cockpit—to construct a sort of human safety net. While one pilot operates the aircraft’s controls, the other pilot keeps watch for occasional errors and tries to point them out before they cause any harm. NASA engineer Everett Palmer likes to sum up the idea with a quip: “To err is human, to be error-tolerant is divine.” Keeping the error-maker and getting rid of the error-catcher may not prove to be very error-tolerant.

Besides, automation doesn’t eliminate human error—it just relocates it. The engineers and programmers who design automation are humans, too. They write complex software that contains bugs and nuances. Pilots often speak of automation surprises in which the computers do something unexpected, occasionally resulting in accidents. Having only one pilot in the cockpit might compromise our ability to make sense of these technological noodle-scratchers when they pop up.

As automation assumes more and more control of flights, pilots must remain ready to intervene when something goes wrong. But when they’re not busy saving the day, what do pilots do while monitoring the automation? Studies show that pilots spend impressive amounts of this time talking to each other, mind-wandering, and drifting out of the loop. If you’ve ever wondered how well pilots perform when asked to suddenly take over after long periods of automated control, the available research does not inspire confidence. “When a problem arises after a long period of nothingness, the response of people is well-documented,” says design thinker Don Norman. “It goes something like this: ‘Huh? What’s happening? Oh shit.’ ”

After initial training in a simulator, a new airline pilot gets an on-the-job education during her initial operating experience, and then over the next few years as a first officer while “flying the line” with more experienced captains. Before we drop down to only one pilot, we will need a substitute for the apprenticeship learning that is so central to airline pilot training today.

Although rare, pilot incapacitation is another problem that would be amplified in a one-pilot cockpit. Aside from having an airplane that would need to fly itself or be controlled from the ground, recognizing incapacitation is not easy. Sometimes pilots are just quiet; sometimes there is something more serious going on.

It’s difficult to imagine a lonesome pilot in a highly automated cockpit, enduring long hours of boredom, watching her skills and ability to pay attention slip away, yet somehow remaining ready to intervene on a moment’s notice. Google has already given up on the idea of asking drivers to assume this role in a semi-automated car, because it understands that people simply aren’t any good at it. In Google’s vision, the safer bet is to keep working and build a “zero-pilot” car: one that steers clear of the problems that will surely pop up as we gradually substitute computers for humans behind the wheel. But high in the sky and with so many souls on board, there are a great many unsolved challenges that stand in the way of a safe autonomous airliner.

One way to mitigate the problems that arise from a single pilot watching over automation might be to design a cockpit in which pilot and automation cooperatively fly the airplane. In his book The Design of Future Things, Norman presents us with the example of a horse and rider.  Norman points out that the rider doesn’t program and monitor the horse, nor does the horse wander around at will. “They do it together,” says Norman. In a collaborative system, Norman says, the human is “continually involved in giving high-level guidance, thereby always staying active, always being in the loop.” To date, no airplane manufacturers seem interested in redesigning airplanes to work more like horses, although a few of my colleagues at NASA have taken a crack at it.

NASA is also considering alternatives to letting one pilot go it alone. “Two heads are better than one,” insists Walter Johnson, who leads a NASA project that explores the idea of having pilots’ helpers on the ground who remain in constant communication with as many as 12 aircraft at a time. But even this idea presents problems when we look at it more closely. Johnson was quick to point out, “The safety of the flight cannot depend on the availability of the ground pilot. The air-ground communication link could go down.” No pilot wants to hear: Your air disaster is important to us. Please continue to hold ...

And having a helper on the other end of a communications link may not be the same thing as having a crew mate sitting beside you. Cognitive anthropologist Ed Hutchins has shown that pilots communicate with each other using facial expressions, posture, head pose, eye gaze, and even respiratory rate. “When we work together in a shared space,” Hutchins told me, “a lot need not be said.” Hutchins added: “A link to a ground pilot might become a nuisance to a pilot dealing with a real problem.” Johnson’s team at NASA is looking at ways of using technology to recapture some of the nonverbal cues between the two pilots who would be physically separated. “We’re making good progress,” says Johnson.

Automation in the cockpit is forcing us to address the hard questions about how to use technology as it increases in capability. Do humans, by their very nature, need to work in teams? Can humans and computers work effectively as a team? Will we always need humans in the loop, or will all four of those original pilots eventually be out of a job? And if there are any jobs left, will they be any fun? Or will they be lonely affairs in which people sit like potted plants in front of complex computing systems, watching out for blinking lights? Aviation is pounding its fist on the desk and demanding answers.

Johnson acknowledges that: “When you work on technology like this, fear is everywhere.” But dear frequent-flying reader: Relax. When the first two-crew airliners rolled out, there were three-pilot airplanes flying around for 30 more years. So fliers had a choice. And so will you. How do you like your cockpit? With no pilots, one, or two? You’ll probably have plenty of time to think it over.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.