• Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Why pilots are always two in the cockpit

Why pilots are always two in the cockpit

In manning an aircraft, having two pilots in the cockpit has been a standard practice for airlines globally. This protocol is crucial for several reasons, primarily revolving around safety, operational efficiency, and regulatory requirements.

According to GrandView Aviation, “Having two pilots is a sure way to make a flight immediately safer. Whether it be a technological malfunction, a health issue or a communication problem, having two experts in the cockpit vastly improves the efficiency and safety of a flight. Even smaller private jets require two pilots.”

Read also: Plane veered off flight path after both pilots fell asleep, Indonesian authorities say

Here is why:

Operational redundancy and safety measures

One of the primary reasons for having two pilots is to ensure operational redundancy. In case one pilot becomes incapacitated due to illness, injury, or any other reason, the other pilot can take over control of the aircraft and safely navigate it to its destination. This redundancy minimises the risk of a single point of failure in critical flight operations.

In commercial aviation, especially for long-haul flights or aircraft with extended durations in the air, having two trained pilots allows for continuous monitoring of critical flight systems and decision-making processes.

According to Pilot Network, a website that provides independent advice from a network of pilots, one of the main ways the safety of the crew, passengers and aircraft is achieved is “via redundancy and backup of systems, whether they may be primary or secondary systems, or even equipment and flight planning.”

Pilot Network expands that “This is a consideration of the SHELL and the ‘Swiss Cheese’ model, which stands for; Software, Hardware, Environment, Liveware, Liveware. The model combines the Flying subsystem with the Human subsystem, showing all of the components that are conducive to flight operations. The human subsystem is the Liveware + Liveware and comprises the pilots and crew, as well as those on the ground such as ATC. The ‘Swiss Cheese’ model is an analogy for stopping errors from developing over various stages, with the aim of preventing an error early on so that it doesn’t develop into something more sinister down the line and possibly leading to catastrophe. So the question is, if the flying subsystem is built to include redundancy, then definitely the human subsystem should include that too, because after all humans aren’t invincible or flawless and should be treated as such.”

“Pilot incapacitation is a rare but real threat. Most commercial airliners are designed to be multi-pilot aircraft and so the optimal operative environment is just that, with multiple crew members at the helm, actively monitoring and managing the aircraft at all times. If a sole pilot, on break cover, in the cockpit falls unconscious, there is still the autopilot engaged and so won’t be an immediate threat, however, if the pilot falls onto the controls thus disengaging the autopilot, then the situation takes a nefarious turn,” the Network stated.

Enhanced situational awareness and decision-making

Another critical aspect of having two pilots is the improvement of situational awareness and decision-making abilities. Operating an aircraft entails handling various factors such as weather conditions, air traffic, system malfunctions, and navigation challenges. Numerous duties, from navigating and communicating with air traffic control to monitoring systems and managing emergencies demands steadfast commitment.

Having two pilots allows for the workload to be distributed, reducing the burden on any single individual. This division of labour ensures that each pilot can focus on specific tasks, thereby enhancing situational awareness and overall efficiency.

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Emergency Response

In the event of an emergency, having two trained pilots in the cockpit significantly enhances the aircraft’s ability to respond effectively. Whether it is a mechanical failure, adverse weather conditions, or a medical emergency among passengers, having two pilots ensures that there are always two sets of trained eyes and hands available to manage the situation and safely navigate the aircraft to a suitable outcome.

Pilot Network shared that “A critical event could happen at any time of the flight and the Startle Response during this event can temporarily incapacitate a pilot, thus losing precious time depending on the severity of the situation. Studies show the startle factor can last up to around 60 seconds from the onset of the stimuli, during which the pilot in focus’s senses are “frozen”, thus not being able to act in full compos mentis. This is especially the case during periods of low stimulation, such as the non-critical cruise phase. Conversely, there could also be a tendency to act in haste and rush into a reaction which could later prove to be a poor decision.”

The platform further revealed that there have been many cases of the startle factor being the catalyst in a serious aviation incident; “When there is more than one pilot in the cockpit, if a situation arises where one pilot becomes startled, the other pilot can regain the pilot’s attention and bring their focus back to the situation, regaining all senses. One notorious incident was a Challenger business jet being caught in the wake of an A380 at 34,000ft over the Middle East, causing it to flip upside down between 3-5 times. Had it not been for the pilot’s quick reaction, there would no doubt have been fatalities.”

Consider a time-sensitive situation where a passenger airliner encounters such while only one pilot is in the cockpit, as the other is conducting a walk-around. In such a scenario, if an unexpected event occurs, causing the pilot to startle, there would be no one available to help regain focus.

Fatigue management and in-flight rest

Flying long-haul or extended duration flights can be physically and mentally demanding for pilots. Having two pilots allows for effective fatigue management by enabling them to take turns resting or performing less demanding tasks during flight. This rotation system helps to maintain alertness and decision-making abilities, mitigating the risks associated with pilot fatigue.

According to the Legal Information Institute platform, “If a certificate holder conducting flag operations schedules a pilot to fly more than eight hours during any 24 consecutive hours, it shall give him an intervening rest period, at or before the end of eight scheduled hours of flight duty. This rest period must be at least twice the number of hours flown since the preceding rest period, but not less than eight hours. The certificate holder shall relieve that pilot of all duty with it during that rest period.”

The institute shared that each pilot who has flown more than eight hours during 24 consecutive hours must be given at least 18 hours of rest before being assigned to any duty with the certificate holder.

Simple Flying, a global aviation platform also reported that “The requirement for having more than two pilots depends on the length of the flight. Generally, a third pilot (second officer) is required onboard if the flight is longer than eight hours. That requirement may vary slightly between operators. While some airlines require a third pilot for flights longer than seven hours, others may extend it to 10 hours.”

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If the flight exceeds 12 hours, a fourth pilot (second officer) is necessary. Likewise, the specific 12-hour requirement for the fourth pilot may vary slightly between airlines. During long-haul transatlantic flights, the two extra pilots, known as relief pilots, alternate duties with the captain and co-pilot in-flight. It is important to note that special flights, like inaugural or training flights, may include extra pilots and flight engineers, regardless of the flight duration.

Regulatory requirements and industry standards

The practice of having two pilots in the cockpit is not only driven by operational considerations but also mandated by regulatory requirements and industry standards. Aviation authorities worldwide, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Europe, stipulate crew composition standards for commercial flights.

Air line Pilots Association, a pilot union platform stated that “Although single-pilot operations may offer potential economic benefits, they present safety risks that don’t align with the priorities of the FAA or federal regulations.”

While technological advancements and automation systems have significantly improved flight safety and efficiency, the role of two pilots remains indispensable. True, modern aircrafts are equipped with advanced avionics, autopilot features, and comprehensive monitoring systems, yet human oversight and intervention are paramount.

The practice of having two pilots in the cockpit is a cornerstone of aviation safety protocols. It ensures operational redundancy, enhances situational awareness, facilitates effective decision-making, manages pilot fatigue, complies with regulatory standards, and upholds passenger safety and confidence in air travel.

As aviation technology continues to evolve, the role of pilots remains pivotal in maintaining the highest standards of safety, professionalism, and expertise in the skies. The collaboration and synergy between two pilots exemplify the dedication of the aviation industry to safeguarding lives and ensuring secure and efficient air transportation worldwide.