Ground control to Captain Tom: ‘Your air disaster is important to us’

Feb. 18, 2015

Airliners used to have a flight crew of four—now it’s down to two, and, as I noted in a previous post, there is serious consideration being given to a jetliner being flown by a single pilot.

Writing in Slate, Steve Casner, a research psychologist at NASA, notes that with today’s two pilots and an auto-flight system, flying is safer than ever. But research suggests we should be nervous about moving to a single pilot, he adds.

Casner cites several problems with cockpit automation. First, automation doesn’t eliminate human error—it just relocates it to the designers of the automation system. And two pilots in the cockpit may be better than one in coping with “automation surprises.” And individuals don’t react well when a problem suddenly occurs after a long period of normal operation. Google, Casner writes, has given up on the idea of a semi-automated car in which humans would be asked to suddenly take over in the event of problems.

Further, moving to a single pilot would eliminate the training opportunity that acting as a first officer provides.

One NASA project, which I reported on earlier, envisions a “copilot” on the ground assisting as many as 12 solo pilots at a time. But load-sharing could be a problem. As Casner puts it, no pilot wants to make an emergency request for assistance and hear, “Your air disaster is important to us. Please continue to hold….”

About the Author

Rick Nelson | Contributing Editor

Rick is currently Contributing Technical Editor. He was Executive Editor for EE in 2011-2018. Previously he served on several publications, including EDN and Vision Systems Design, and has received awards for signed editorials from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He began as a design engineer at General Electric and Litton Industries and earned a BSEE degree from Penn State.

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