Aviation's Safeguard: Two Pilots Always on the Flight Deck

Part 4: The Regulatory Safety Net

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

Editor’s note: Exposing the dangers of reduced-crew operations has been and will continue to be an ALPA priority. In this nine-part series, Air Line Pilot will educate, inform, and advocate support for maintaining the most vital aircraft safety feature: two experienced, well-trained, and well-rested professional pilots on the flight deck. Catch up with Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

“While automation continues to greatly aid pilots in terms of aviating and navigating, it should never be seen as a replacement. Pilots are required to control and manage an aircraft and flight in a dynamic and continuously changing environment. They interact with air traffic control; communicate with dispatch; check weather reports and forecasts; visually scan for other aircraft; and monitor multiple aircraft systems, including the aircraft’s engines. Currently, technology can’t adequately replicate or report the sensory information—the sounds, smells, and vibrations—a flight crew depends on to safely operate an airplane in real-world conditions. And this isn’t going to change anytime soon.”—Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA President

Despite the desire of some to develop and deploy reduced-crew or single-pilot systems in airliners, the current U.S. federal aviation regulations (FARs) governing airline operations are clear: At least two pilots must be present on the flight deck of passenger or cargo transport aircraft. As the conscience of the airline industry, ALPA works to ensure that this formula for air safety success continues through advocacy and the sharing of firsthand perspectives from the flight deck.

The FAA and FARs exist to oversee and govern the safety regulations, standards, and guidance that exist to promote safety—the top priority for aviation and the foundation of the agency’s mission statement. 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.

FARs stipulate the need for a minimum of two pilots on the flight deck. This is expressed throughout the regulations, including those pertaining to the division of responsibilities, aircraft and system design standards, duty limitations, and computer and flight operation monitoring.

In addition, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the organization that governs and fosters the planning and development of international air transport to ensure safe and orderly growth, considers safety to be “at the core of [its] fundamental objectives.” The ICAO Safety Management Manual defines aviation safety as “the state in which the possibility of harm to persons or of property damage is reduced to, and maintained at or below, an acceptable level through a continuing process of hazard identification and safety risk management.” Safety and risk management must be present at every step in the aviation process, from aircraft design to operations to personnel licensing.

FAA regulations show that aircraft design standards currently require the presence of two pilots aboard an airliner, with 14 CFR Part 25 containing aircraft design and airworthiness standards for transport-category aircraft. Part 25 references the need for multiple crewmembers, particularly in Sections 777 and 1357. The language in Part 25.777 denotes the presence of multiple crewmembers, stating, “the controls must be located and arranged, with respect to the pilot seats, so that there is full and unrestricted movement of each control without interference from the flight deck structure….”

In addition, 14 CFR Part 117 prescribes flight and duty limitations and rest requirements for all flightcrew members, assuming multiple pilots are on board to operate the flight, and certificate holders conducting passenger operations. Part 117.17 specifies flight-duty periods for an augmented flight crew, which consists of more crewmembers than the minimum number normally required, allowing crewmembers to rotate. This gives crews the ability to take necessary rest periods during long-haul flights. Single-pilot operations would eliminate the augmented crew and a pilot’s ability to rest during flights—which could potentially lead to incapacitation and flight risks. Reduced-crew operations would similarly compromise the minimum flight crew identified for safe long-haul operations.

Moreover, FAA guidance material highlights the agency’s wariness to support single-pilot operations for Part 121 operations. FAA Advisory Circular 25.1523 offers guidance for complying with the requirements of 14 CFR 25.1523, which pertains to airworthiness certification requirements for a minimum flight crew on transport-category airplanes.

The FAA has instituted a vast regulatory net designed to protect the flying public, pilots, aircraft, and cargo—ranging from ensuring the presence of additional flightcrew members on board airliners to achieving the necessary functionality and safety required of aircraft designs to requiring certification for airline operations. In addition, FAA regulations also reinforce public safety by prohibiting the use of unmanned aircraft systems to transport passengers or cargo for compensation.

The question that must be asked is why would airlines choose to implement reduced-crew operations that would diminish aviation safety?

Unfortunately, unlike most of the flying public, airline managements don’t measure their air carrier’s success by the metrics of safety, speed, and comfort. Airline managements measure it by just one metric: profit. They see single-pilot and remotely piloted operations as a surefire method to reduce their expenses and inflate their bottom line. But ALPA knows, from more than 90 years of experience, that no airline should compromise safety in the quest for greater profits.

Superior Airmanship

Day and night, pilots safely transport passengers and cargo to their destinations, routinely performing the expected. They also safely manage the unexpected when situations arise. To honor those flight crews that have experienced unexpected and extraordinary events while piloting their aircraft, ALPA bestows upon them its Superior Airmanship Award.

In each article of this nine-part series, Air Line Pilot is highlighting an incident from the past in which flight crews—working as a team—used their knowledge, skills, and abilities to make the difference between a safe landing and the unthinkable alternative. These incidents truly highlight why two pilots are required on the flight deck.

Capt. Ronald E. Weldon, F/O Andrew E. Faust, and S/O William A. Jensen were the flight crew of Northwest Airlines Flight 969 on the morning of Dec. 24, 1994. They took off from Boston’s Logan International Airport in heavy rain and strong, gusty winds bound for Fort Myers, Fla.

During climbout, the crew encountered a serious problem controlling the pitch of the B-727 and determined it involved the stabilizer trim. Following company procedures, the crew tried unsuccessfully to remove all electrical power to the trim motor.

Controlling the aircraft required great physical strength, and the pilots found level flight impossible to maintain. They declared an emergency and cautiously dumped fuel to return to the airport.

Despite an unusual landing configuration, with both pilots flying they successfully landed the airplane without injury or damage.

This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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