Copilots are not potted plants

TV "experts" who suggest the second person in the cockpit is an easily eliminated helper are dangerously wrong

Topics: Air Travel, Ask the Pilot, Business,

Copilots are not potted plantsPilots in the cockpit during a commercial flight(Credit: Carlos E. Santa Maria)

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and his crackpot idea of eliminating one of the two pilots from his airline’s cockpits is still getting play.

CNBC had a guy on the other day — a pilot and head of an aviation franchise in California — to help explain why this is such a far-fetched, if not dangerous idea. I won’t say the guy’s name, because at least he was trying to set the record straight. In the end, though, he wasn’t strong enough, waffling when he should have gone for the jugular. The viewer came away wondering if perhaps O’Leary has a point, and maybe pilots are becoming redundant.

This fellow, mind you, was identified on-screen as being a licensed “Airline Transport Pilot.” To the layperson that sounds like serious cred. Indeed he may well be a highly talented aviator, but I should point out, for the record, that it is possible to possess an ATP certificate, as we call it, having never piloted anything more significant than a twin-engined four-seater.

That’s the FAA for you, with its strange and anachronistic licensing system. I should know, I was a licensed airline transport pilot myself at age 23, and the biggest thing I’d ever flown was a Piper Seminole. Having this certificate allows a pilot to check off certain regulatory boxes, but it does not, by itself, mean that you know the damnedest thing about actual airline flying.

Our CNBC man made some remark about first officers being on hand to “check up on what the captain was doing” (I’m paraphrasing, but it was something almost identical to that), at which point I felt a trigger of my gag reflex. Here he’s fighting one myth by inadvertently reinforcing another: the idea that the first officer, i.e. the copilot, is somehow not a fully qualified pilot — that he or she is on hand merely as a helpful apprentice, a junior pilot still learning the ropes. This is almost as annoying as some idiot telling us how jetliners can “practically fly themselves.”

Both captains and first officers are fully and equally qualified to operate the plane in all regimes of flight, and they do so in alternating turns. One pilot “flies,” be it manually or by making inputs to the autoflight system, while the other handles the various ancillary duties. Either or both can become very busy, depending on circumstances and the phase of flight.

Copilots perform just as many takeoffs as captains, and just as many landings. They are at the controls in good weather and bad. The captain has ultimate authority (and a fatter paycheck), but duties are shared more or less evenly. Due to quirks in seniority bidding, it’s not uncommon for a copilot to be more experienced than the captain sitting next to him. And if not for the number of epaulet stripes and seating protocols (captain on the left wearing four; first officer on the right wearing three), a lay observer in a cockpit jump seat would be hard pressed to figure out which of the pilots was in fact the boss.

As I was saying the other day, you’d be startled to discover how busy a two-pilot “automated” cockpit can become even on a routine flight. Pilots, when they get defensive, have a bad habit of highlighting their (obvious) value in emergencies and other abnormal situations. The splashdown of Captain Sully, for instance.

But this doesn’t always play well to the public, which is apt to point out how rare these occurrences are. I can’t downplay the value of a well-trained crew when it all hits the fan, but how about in normal circumstances? Never mind the emergencies. Crews are busy enough when things are going right.

I’ve written before about how one big problem with all of this is the media’s habit of turning to academics and researchers and the like for its expertise, rather than people who are actually intimate with the day-to-day operations of airline flying. The next time you hear NPR or CNN or whomever interviewing this or that aeronautics professor, have a grain of salt ready.

Among the more notorious of these quasi-experts, you might remember from earlier columns of mine, is Missy Cummings, a professor from MIT. Cargo airlines, Cummings told us a few months ago, are “chomping at the bit” to do away entirely with their pilots and replace them with remote-control freighter planes. I flew freighters for four years, and I assure you these companies are not remotely considering such an idea.

One important thing that makes Michael O’Leary’s single-pilot proposition — or the no-pilot proposition of dreamers like Cummings — so outlandish is that modern planes simply aren’t designed for it.

Virtually every commercial aircraft with more than about 10 seats is engineered to be flown by a crew of two. Training protocols and regulations all follow suit. This is not some minor thing that somebody like O’Leary can tweak to his preference.

Forty or so years ago manufacturers began designing planes to be flown by two pilots rather than three, doing away with the second officer, aka the flight engineer. This was a fairly radical undertaking, and the idea of downsizing further, from two pilots to one, is considerably more radical. Embraer, the Brazilian regional jet maker, is one company that is seriously looking into the idea. Still, it’d be a huge step, and not anything we’re likely to see in scheduled commercial service at least for many years. Getting to this point would entail not only a purpose-built aircraft, but large-scale regulatory changes as well.

And why would anyone, with the possible deranged exception of a Michael O’Leary, want such a thing? Should that lone pilot somehow become incapacitated, believe me that plane is not going to land on its own, and nobody from the passenger cabin is going to save the day.

From one pilot to none? Check back with me around the end of the century.

But forget, for a minute, replacing pilots with computers. Here’s a better idea, (as suggested by Ask the Pilot reader Patrick Wright): Let’s replace airline CEOs with computers. Judging from the financial performance of most carriers in recent years, something is wrong at the top, so why not go with an automated system instead?

No doubt Michael O’Leary would be quick to accuse me of not knowing the first thing about running an airline, and lay out the hundreds of reasons why computerized leadership would doom a carrier to failure.

And you know what? He’d be right. My idea is as bogus as his. So how about we call it even? I won’t pretend that I know how to run an airline if he stops pretending that he knows how to fly.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>