Aircraft Accidents and Batteries Not Included

Robert the Robot from Fireball XL-5

I recently went Christmas Shopping for toys … no, not toys for adults; we call those power tools. Most everything that glittered and awed came marked with what battery type was required. These toys came preassembled, pre-decaled and, for the most part, pre-thought out – no room for imagination. Toys and games that required inventiveness were ignored, thickly coated in dust, like: Stratego and Risk, that taught organization and planning; Puzzles, that honed problem solving; Dolls and Tonka trucks, that allowed children to have fun … for the fun of it. Batteries not included. Heck, batteries? Who needs ’em? You can imitate any truck sound without them.

I pity the child who plays with nothing but the latest super-zoomie gadgets; whose entertainment relies on a full charge or a closet full of triple-As. They will never understand why teamwork is essential in little league baseball or the ingenuity of turning an old appliance box into Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter, hand drawn gauges and all. They will not exercise the most important muscles available: their minds. Will they comprehend bicycle repair shop aircraft design; learn how to explore the Cosmos from a wheelchair? Will they learn not to serve the computer or will the computer forever think for them, after they long ago parted out their self-reliance?

ALPA – the Airline Pilots Association – the union representing most airline pilots, sent out an article two weeks ago called Why Two Pilots are Better. The theme is self-explanatory, ALPA is obviously worried about the growing push for single-pilot airliners, so they are pushing for memberships now to counter the effects of the decreasing pilot population, right? Hmmmm! I don’t think so. With all that is going on with Boeing’s B737-MAX or Airbus’s financial A380 overreach (Airbus will have to recoup that loss), do we rea-ea-eally trust manufacturers to build an aircraft with one or less pilot?

The case is made early in ALPA’s article with the observation: “Those who think the industry can save money by having only one pilot on a flight – while not jeopardizing safety are just plain wrong.” There is no need to go further, the point is clearly made: Safety is Paramount. To reduce the pilot numbers to save money is a recipe for disaster. ALPA knows what they are speaking to – no one knows better.

At one time there were four cockpit flight crew members: the Captain, First Officer (Co-pilot), the Second Officer and the Navigator. As technology evolved, the flight navigator was phased out. This was more of a technology driven change since the computer proved to be quicker and more accurate.

The next cockpit position to be eliminated was the second officer – flight engineer – position. It was debatable if this was strictly a pilot position; a mechanic or engineer could perform the second officer’s duties without a pilot’s certificate. This flight crew member would attend to aircraft systems monitoring and control. Duties included assuring fuel distribution and burn were within limits; paralleling generators and performing the preflight walk around inspection. This second officer was not meant to handle flight controls as part of their regular duties, but instead to learn the airplane. It was a critical step. I cannot tell how many second officers asked me, the mechanic, to point out components or systems on the airplane.

In 1963, Boeing built what would be the last three-man narrow body cockpit, the B727. Also, in 1963, British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) introduced an early two-pilot cockpit jet airliner, the BAC1-11; Douglas in 1965 began manufacturing the DC-9 and Boeing, in 1967, the B737, very similar to the B727. These models proved that in the narrow-body, limited range airliner, the third pilot could be phased out.

Wide-body airliners like the B747, DC-10 and L-1011 (1969 and 1970 respectively) kept the third pilot in place until later versions of the B747 (-400 and -8) and DC-10 (MD-10 and MD-11). The Airbus A300B4 was originally designed with three-pilot cockpit; some were built, but the A300 was later converted to two-pilot. The B757 and B767 were originally conceived as three-pilot – especially the B767 as a wide-body – but were instead delivered with a two-pilot cockpit. This was the end of the three-pilot cockpit.

The two-pilot cockpit, however, was not originally a move specifically to reduce pilots, it was a natural evolution; technology had made a third pilot unnecessary. Since the second officer was never a proper piloting position, no piloting duties – hands on flying of the airplane – were eliminated. This was where the necessary streamlining of airline pilot duties should have ended.

Those who wish to change the dynamic that has existed in airliners since the DC-7, fail to understand why the cockpit is more efficient with two at the controls and not one or, God forbid, less. Aircraft accidents that resulted from poor communication amongst its pilots and the result of these accidents had forced vital lessons that led to the most important flight crew evolution: Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). What is being forgotten in this drive for ‘less-than-two-pilots’ is Why CRM was so vital.

CRM cemented the reliance between Captain and First Officer. The two pilots are symbiotic; they depend on the other. Also the First Officer adapts to, becomes comfortable with the aircraft, increasing hours, and benefiting from the Captain’s experience. It is a professional relationship; every First Officer is in training to move to the left seat through a necessary progression. In a single pilot cockpit, who and how does one learn to command?

Interestingly, one thing lost with the second officer’s removal was airplane familiarization. Although the position no longer existed, the systems and aircraft functions that a second officer monitored did not disappear. Just as many, if not more, attention-seeking systems could still fail, some terrifically. Though the technology has improved greatly, the need for pilot airplane knowledge has never vanished. Thus, a single knowledgeable pilot is weaker alone than two knowledgeable pilots together.

Though there were those without foresight who thought technology solved everything, emergencies continued. Dangers increased because pilots were losing real-event experiences faced by their pilot ancestors, events not covered in the simulators. This was evident with accidents where not knowing the aircraft resulted in tragedy, where each accidents’ probable cause concealed root cause, e.g., Air Midwest 5481, National Air Cargo 102, Colgan Air 3407. They each demonstrated that even with two qualified pilots at the controls making joint decisions, much would have been gained by learning what a second officer’s duties were, by knowing the airplane, that could have prevented the preventable.

To replace the pilot with technology that, whether the cockpit is occupied by one or no pilots, the thought is that efficiency will increase and, as a result, safety; plus, costs will go down. However, we ignore, at our peril, the lessons of relying too much on technology. Were the B737-MAX accident lessons ones of too much technology or were they lessons of too much reliance on technology? Have we trained pilots to become so dependent on the computer that we forgot that Humans Designed the Computer? Were the fatal mistakes that led to both accidents – and possibly others – have been because pilots no longer actually fly the aircraft, so they failed to recognize the signs?

Or is it more likely that the accident reports were not in proper context? For instance, what were the report writers’ qualifications? What were the airline cultures like? What was pilot training like? Did these events occur with United States pilots? Why, when the systems were worked on, no one called Boeing?

How can we trust our industry to computers when we do not understand their limitations? We want to completely phase out all fallible human presence in the cockpit and replace it, completely, with an infallible device programmed by a fallible human, saving money at the cost of safety. No, we risk so much on the quality of the computer, that we do not even recognize our own complacency.  If we kick pilots and their experience to the side, when the first inevitable accident happens, who then would be responsible for what occurred in the cockpit? There should be no one left – but ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and Batteries Not Included”

  1. Steve,
    Nice article, however it was a limited view. Both pilots today lack basic systems knowledge, yes they are not trained as well as in the Old Days. The in accidents sighted CRM was lacking.

    Bottom line single pilots are coming, starting with cargo and then passenger flights. The good news, we will not get to see it.


    1. Hey Doc, Merry Christmas! I agree, they both lack systems knowledge. It’s why the second officer is a lost opportunity. My alma mater, FedEx, had the DC-10 and B727, both employed the second officer and those men and women had a pretty good systems knowledge of the airplanes before they moved up to the right seat, better than the Captain in many cases and more recent.

      I agree, the single pilot is coming; it’s only a matter of time. I just don’t think it will be pretty when it arrives. All the best and thanks for reading.


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