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Why Do Some Aircraft Fly With Two Pilots, Not One?


If you have traveled a lot you will have been on aircraft piloted by two pilots and some that only have one pilot, so why can some be flown by just one pilot? Some of the reasons like safety may be obvious but there is a little more to it.

In the US, aircraft over 12,500 lbs require two pilots to fly them when being operated for Air Transport or when certified for only Two-Pilot Operation. Two pilots increase cost & weight but can also increase safety when demanding flying or passenger carrying operations are required.

Having flown both single-pilot and dual-pilot operations I can say that each has its pro’s and con’s, and depending on the type of flying being conducted both options can work well or be overkill. Lets look at why there has only been one driver upfront instead of two while on your travels…

When Do Aircraft Need Two Pilots?

Every country can have its own rules and regulations governing the use of single or dual pilot operations but to keep this article simple I will focus on what the FAA mandates.

Aircraft Size

Aircraft are categorized by their maximum gross take-off weight (MGTW), ie: what is the most they can weigh when they lift off the ground with the crew, passengers, cargo, and fuel on board.

According to the FAA, once the aircraft reaches 12,500 lbs it requires a two-pilot operation to prevent, among other things, scrupulous business owners from trying to save money and cut corners when running an air transport business. But now there has been the development of the Single-Pilot Type Rating that allows pilots to fly some aircraft that weigh more than 12,500 lbs!

Embraer Phenom 300 – Source: Paullymac

The general reason for the two pilots/12,500 lb ruling was to spread the workload of these large, complex aircraft over multiple pilots to help reduce stress, fatigue, and mental saturation. With today’s advances in avionics, cockpit ergonomics, and simulator training, the cockpit workload of today’s modern aircraft is vastly reduced compared to their earlier models.

Because of this increased technology, aircraft like the Cessna Citation CJ3+ (MGTW 13,870 lbs) and Embraer Phenom 300 (MGTW 17,968 lbs) have been able to get certified by the FAA for Single-Pilot Operations. This now makes them extremely appealing to private owners and small companies that can now take advantage of only needing one well-trained pilot.

Customer Requirements

Large, complex aircraft carrying many passengers is when we always see two pilots, but only a single pilot is more noticeable in the smaller end of the aircraft spectrum and I see it quite regularly when flying employees of large corporations out in the field with my helicopter.

Even though many operations are conducted single-pilot all over the world every day, some companies still prefer to have two pilots when they employ the services of an aircraft.

Shell, for instance, is a company that requires two pilots for a lot of its operations, even if operating a small 6 seat helicopter or fixed-wing to fly their employees, and sometimes even their sub-contractors. Every client/customer has their reasons for how many pilots each flight employs and as pilots and operators we must abide by their requirements if we wish to receive their business.

Many of these large corporations have an entire aviation department and they mandate two pilots for their larger aircraft which then filters down to be applicable to the smaller aircraft. Sometimes it can very very overkill, but that is their choice and they are the ones paying the flight tickets!

Length of Flight

This one may seem obvious and it is quite frankly, but when the flight is conducted over a large distance multiple pilots will be used to ensure fatigue does not become a factor.

Depending on the airline and their flight duty requirements for its flight crew flights over 8-10 hours will usually require a 3rd pilot to be on board to share the flying duties. With flights over 12-15 hours, 4 pilots are required to be on board.

Only two pilots are ever at the controls but this allows each pilot to get rest and time away from the flying duties either in an extra ‘Jump Seat’ located in the cockpit, back in the passenger seating area or in crew bunks hidden away at the front of the aircraft (If available).

An Airbus A330 Crew Bunk
Source: Curimedia

Pro’s & Cons For Using Two Pilots

Two Pilot Op’s Can Be Fun Or Stressful!

As with everything in aviation safety should be at the top of the list but there are always compromises to each factor that is involved. Managing those factors is ultimately what dictates how each flight takes place.
Below is some of the Pro’s & Con’s to having two pilots in a cockpit:

Pro’s:

Safety

Safety should always be at the forefront of every flight and the addition of a second pilot dramatically increases the safety factor on a flight. If one pilot were to have a catastrophic medical issue at any point during the flight, the second pilot is there to take control and continue safely.

When two pilots are used on a flight each pilot is required to be trained certified, rated, and capable to fly that aircraft by themselves. In the event of pilot incapacitation, having the second pilot prevents the situation from becoming a tragic accident.

There was an incident a few years ago when an airline Captain became ill and passed away during the flight. Had this been a single pilot flight the death-toll would have totaled many more than just him!

Crew Resource Management – CRM

When done correctly the two well-trained pilots are able to work in unison to ensure smooth, accurate, and efficient management of the aircraft and its systems. Following checklists and well-organized procedures allow each pilot to complete their part of the job with ease and harmony to ensure the stress, fatigue, and pressure of the flight are kept to minimal levels.

This can soon turn into a CON though if the crew are not properly trained, cut corners, or do not follow procedures when flying. There have been many an accident caused by poor CRM, however, with the importance of good CRM in the mind of the aviation companies most flights are now conducted under efficient CRM, especially in the US.

Workload Reduction

We have all heard the saying “Many hands make light work” and in the cockpit, it is no different. On every two-pilot flight, you will have one pilot flying the aircraft and the second pilot monitoring the aircraft, communicating with air traffic control, and ensuring the aircraft and navigation are configured correctly.

By splitting the duties it allows each crew member to focus on the task at hand. This becomes especially important during an emergency.

For Example:

In cloud, at night and the pilots have an engine fire. The flying pilot concentrates on flying the aircraft and keeping it in a safe flight configuration and maybe issue the Mayday call while the non-flying pilot runs the checklist to deal with the fire, secure the engine, and prepare the navigation system for the landing at the nearest airport able to fit the size of aircraft they are flying.

Doing all this as a single pilot will dramatically increase the stress, and possibly force a missed crucial step in the emergency procedure which may have to be completed from memory.

Con’s:

Cost

Doubling the pilot requirements always adds an increase in costs. There are now two salaries to pay, two benefit plans, two pilots to train each year, two pilots to place in hotels. These costs can soon add up over the cost of the year and the hours required to be flown by the aircraft now need to increase to justify the added costs.

To a major airline, this cost is negligible, but to a small charter operation trying to make their way into the charter or tourism business, this cost could mean the difference of success or failure. The choice of running smaller aircraft that do not need the additional pilot may have to be forced onto the management business model.

Authoritative Aggression

Generally, the aggressive, macho Captain is slowly being retired out of the airline industry, although there are still cases where dominance in a cockpit can become an issue between two different personalities that can lead to policies and procedures not being following correctly.

There are many cultures around the world where challenging the decision of a more qualified or older pilot can be frowned upon and thought of as disrespectful. This can lead to dangerous consequences when the junior pilot recognizes a potential problem but is too afraid to speak up or their voiced concern is ignored. This is the poor CRM mentioned earlier.

Airlines are spending great resources to ensure that no matter the personalities, ages, or experience levels of each pilot the aircraft can be flown correctly and safely at all times.

Pro’s & Con’s For Using One Pilot

Single Pilot Ops You Have To Be On Your Game!

For many operations, the use of a single pilot makes complete sense and is sometimes necessary to allow the job to be completed.
Below is some of the Pro’s & Con’s to having just one pilot in a cockpit:

Pro’s:

Weight

In smaller aircraft weight plays a major factor and an additional 180-280 lbs of ‘Seat Meat’ sitting upfront can really decrease the fuel or cargo that can be carried. Take the Astar helicopter that I fly, for example, It has a maximum gross take-off weight of 4961 lbs.

The extra 200lb pilot would mean I would miss out on an extra 40 mins of fuel. This could mean the difference of being able to make it to the destination or not, or the extra weight could mean the aircraft could not land as high in the mountains, so the surprise location the customer wishes to land at and propose to his girlfriend may not be accessible!

CRM

Even flying as a single pilot good Crew Resource Management is required but of a different type. Having only a single pilot in the cockpit forces the pilot to really know their machine inside and out, have the emergency procedures memorized to heart, be extra cautious on the decisions, take their time to ensure flight safety is at its maximum.

By flying alone I find it makes a pilot less complacent as the safety net of someone to catch your mistake is no longer there. You rely on training, self-discipline, and routine to keep everything the same for each flight and follow the company procedures put in place to help provide that safety net.

Lazy pilots however that become complacent are the ones who eventually get caught out and become a statistic. These pilots are the ones that their colleagues need to watch to ensure they are kept in line or removed from their flying duties.

Cost

When a company is operating smaller aircraft, the cost is usually a major part of whether they get the customers or not. Trying to save costs without compromising safety is tough and using a single pilot is a major cost-saving.

Not only have you halved your salary, training, and logistics costs by removing a pilot that company can now take an additional fare-paying customer.
A sightseeing tour company for example can now take an extra fare-paying passenger on every flight.

$50 per seat x 8 flights per day x 300 days each year = $120,000 per aircraft!

This can be the difference in financial success or failure!

Con’s:

Safety

There have been many studies conducted into how much a second pilot increases the safety margin by and looking at the data it has not been that much. There have still been many aircraft accidents where two pilots were on board but mainly because of a lack of good CRM.

However, as a pilot now flying in single-pilot operations I can personally tell you that I had much more relaxed flights knowing I had a fellow pilot sitting next to me then when I don’t. Even a simple issue like getting dust blown into my eyes when opening an air vent could create a chain of events leading to a crash.

I have some passengers always ask me “Rick why do you blow into your helmet before you put it on?” – The answer is simple…

If I’ve just lifted into the hover in a tight confined area then a bug or wasp starts attacking my head inside the helmet, the flight could not end well. If I had a second pilot with me, it would be pretty much a non-event – well for everyone else! For me, I would be trying to rip that thing off my head as fast as I could in a scit from a Benny Hill Episode – I can hear the theme tune now!

Ready To Bring Back Some Memories!!?

So simple things like this could mean the difference of a successful flight and although rare, it only takes one time for a second pilot to save the day and I know my family would be very appreciative of that!!

Workload Increase

Flying any aircraft by yourself requires time and resource management to always stay ahead of the flight and prepare for what is coming up next. When entering a busy airport the radio calls and clearances can soon become overwhelming for the untrained pilot, now add in bad weather and a single pilot can soon start to reach a dangerous point of mental saturation.

One type of flight regime that requires extensive training is that of Single-Pilot IFR operations. When flying in the cloud with reference only to instruments pilots need all the help they can get. Autopilots, glass cockpits with screens full of information, ipads, and electronic flight bags with digital charts, procedures, and checklists all increase the spare mental capacity of the pilot allowing them to be able to handle whatever hold or clearance ATC throws at them.

Just like any flight conducted under single-pilot ops, the more prepared, trained, and equipped the pilot is, the better the flight will be, and the chances of a mismanaged incident dramatically decrease.

No Oversight

As mentioned earlier, having a second pilot to help monitor the pilot and vice-versa creates a very effective safety net. Without the second pilot, one needs to ensure all risks are managed as best as possible before the flight commences, and continue to monitor and act during the flight.

As humans we make mistakes and building experience is the best way to foresee possible problems before they get to a point of concern. Having to learn that experience without an experienced pilot next to them can mean that some flights get canceled due to the lack of skills or training needed to safely complete the flight. Having an experienced pilot with the junior pilot would allow that flight to go ahead and turn it into a training flight of sorts.

Flying single-pilot operations requires a lot of mental discipline to know when to say “No” to ensure the flight remains in comfortable limits or gets postponed until a later time.

Which Is Better? Two Pilots or One Pilot

This all comes down to which makes the most sense when it comes to the operation of the aircraft on the job.

Cessna 208 Caravan – Charter & Utility Workhorse!

Flying a complex B777 from LA to Hong Kong, you bet I want two pilots upfront. Flying groceries in a Cessna 208 Caravan to a remote Alaskan fishing lodge – a single pilot will suffice.

Every type of flight needs careful risk assessment to be completed to weigh up the pro’s and con’s to determine which is the right answer. Pilot experience, cargo weight, journey distance, flying at night, these are all regular decisions on flights that need the right aircraft and pilot/s for each.

Most of my time is now spent flying around the remote parts with technicians and professionals on board. I would like to have a second pilot and a second engine, but commercially this would never work for my company.

The possibility of me having a medical issue or a ‘Brain Fart’ causing an incident is low, but they do happen. The reward outweighs the risk for my company management so, therefore, I’m sent off into the blue by myself with the expectation of getting the job done, pleasing the customer, and returning to base just as I had left it.

So which is best? – It all comes down to who is paying the bills. If they want ultimate safety, it is going to cost them. Two pilots, two or more engines, and advanced aircraft will all increase safety but at a high price.
If the job can be done safely by a single pilot with a single-engine and the customer is happy, then that’s what will happen.

Further Reading

If you found this article interesting and would like to keep reading, I highly recommend the following articles from my blog:

Rick James

I am an aviation nut! I'm an ATP-rated helicopter pilot & former flight instructor with over 3500 hours spanning 3 countries and many different flying jobs. I love aviation and everything about it. I use these articles to pass on cool facts and information to you whether you are a pilot or just love aviation too! If you want to know more about me, just click on my picture!

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