Everyday small aircraft and business jets fly safely and effectively with a single pilot behind the control stick in the flight deck. But, currently large aircraft (e.g., those with a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) greater than 12,500 lbs), must have at least two pilots in the flight deck to fly the plane. So, what would it take to be able to certify large Transport Category Aircraft for Single Pilot Operations (SPO)?
Well, we’ve just begun a research project for NASA to begin to contribute to answering this question. In our project, we will explore the processes used to evaluate and certify an airplane design and operations for a particular minimum flight crew (single pilot or crew of two or more). We will use this information to build an understanding of certification issues and regulatory challenges that would be related to gaining FAA approval for Single Pilot Operations in categories of operations that are now only approved for two-pilot crews.
Why is this a good time to answer this question?
One pretty good reason is related to the fact that the current pilot population like the rest of the population, in general, is growing older; a majority of our pilots will retire in 10 to 20 years. That means the industry is going to need to recruit and train A LOT of new pilots, and, even with a massive effort, it looks like there simply won’t be enough qualified pilots available for all the jobs. But, if it were possible to safely approve some Single Pilot Operations, we could spread out the pilots we will have across more aircraft.
The problem is, we know that single pilot safety records aren’t great when compared to the safety records of two-pilot crews. So, now is the time to do the research and find the answers before the situation becomes a problem.
Some people believe that SPO is inevitable for large transport aircraft, which means it’s a good idea to figure out whether it is a viable solution and what challenges will arise while we still have the breathing room we need to do the careful thinking and research it will take to find solutions to the issues that SPO could bring.
How will we answer the question?
In our project, we will attack the question of what will it take to extend SPO to categories of operations that are now only approved for two-pilot crews on several fronts. One way we will attack the question is by looking at what the airworthiness and operations requirements have to say that allow the smaller guys to fly SPO. So, this means that we will look at the 14 CFR Part 23 and 135 certification requirements. Then, we will identify the relevant differences between what we learned in the regulations for the smaller guys with the regulations for the bigger guys (i.e., 14 CFR Part 25, 121 and 125).
Another way we will attack the question is by talking to people who know. Interviewing folks who do this sort of stuff on a daily basis is one of the best ways to learn how things really work, what the real issues are, and how best we may find solutions to them.
And a third way will attack it is by looking at relevant resources to help us better understand the potential issues and possible solutions. So, among other things, this will likely include looking at how the industry was able to reduce the minimum flight crew from 3 to 2 back in the day.
I’m excited to be working on such a forward thinking project and eager to see what we will learn. We are set to wrap this project in the end of July 2013 so, in the coming months, we plan to post more information related to what we have learned. Be sure and come back to check it out.