Is the single pilot flight deck coming to commercial aviation?

Just make sure it isn't this guy involved!
Just make sure it isn’t this guy involved!

How do you solve the problem of not enough pilots? Forget paying higher wages so that more people will want the job. Coming up with a way to operate with just one pilot on board is going to be part of the discussion. NASA is working with avionics behemoth Rockwell Collins to study whether it is even feasible or viable to operate in a single pilot flight deck scenario. There would still be a second pilot involved, but they would be on the ground, operating remotely, rather than in the sky with the pilot. And there’s no indication that it is coming any time soon, either. It would potentially be decades before it would even be close to a real idea. From the WSJ:

Whether the concept will eventually come to fruition depends on political viability and social acceptability as well as technical feasibility. The researchers aren’t endorsing the idea or devising specific plans for single-pilot operation of large commercial jets. Rather, they seek to analyze changes in technology and operations that could make the concept feasible in the future—even if that means as far off as 2030.

The study will last four years and cover things like the technology required and what the social impact would be between the two pilots operating in different locations.

Given that the industry cannot even get the bandwidth and systems in place today to fully monitor all commercial planes while they’re flying it is rather far-fetched to believe that this will happen anytime soon. But in the long term the technology will catch up. And similar efforts are already working with military drones. Though it is a bit different when you’ve got a couple hundred passengers on board as well.

So, are you ready for your flight to operate by remote control??

Read more from the WSJ.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Sounds very much along the lines of the previous story about having the pilots in some control room within the bowels of the plane working “virtually” without actual windows and sightlines. I can’t ever see there being just one pilot on a plane. They lose the redundancy you think would be required in the event of an emergency, whether it be a physical issue with the pilot, loss of communications with the remote pilot, BOTH, etc.

  2. I don’t think it will happen. There are too many cases where the second pilot is critical. I’m not just talking about being “head down” programming the FMS while the other guy flies, but also about medical incapacitation, attempted hijacking, fighting a fire, or the captain going berserk (remember that one? JetBlue, I think it was). In addition, there are countless times each day that having a second guy there to double check a route or readback saves the flight from an operational deviation.

  3. All you need to do is scan the pages of Aviation Herald or similar publications for incidents of “FO takes ill.” to know that this is a bad idea.

    Aviation is built around redundancy, in most cases, multiple redundancy. Having just one of anything in aviation is a bad idea.

  4. What is the largest cause of fatal accidents each year? Yes there are remarkable/heroic instances where the flight crew performed the impossible. There are also instances where they made simple fatal mistakes.

    In a future where there are an order of magnitude more planes in the air, computer automation is the only solution. It will probably happen on the highways in the same time frame.

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