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

Part 7: Current and Future Regulations

By Corey Kuhn, Contributing 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 2Part 3, Part 4Part 5, and Part 6.

“Maintaining today’s level of safety, security, and efficiency is much more important than any dubious benefits of moving a pilot from the flight deck to a remote location. Further, the aviation industry’s collective efforts to focus on higher priorities for the benefit of passengers and shippers shouldn’t be distracted by the establishment of a federal program to evaluate reduced-crew operations at any agency or with any federal dollars.”

—Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA President

Improving aviation safety has always been at ALPA’s core. When ALPA’s founders established “Schedule with Safety” as the Association’s motto, they set in motion a forward-thinking approach to aviation safety that continues to be as vital today as it was in 1931. While continued improvements to safety remain at the very top of ALPA’s regulatory and legislative agenda, the Association also keeps a watchful eye on emerging threats that could have significant impact across all aspects of aviation.

Although current regulations don’t support the development and implementation of single-pilot operations and clearly state that at least two pilots must be present on the flight deck of passenger and cargo transport aircraft, well-funded manufacturers and special-interest groups that stand to profit greatly continue to introduce attempts that, if successful, would enable today’s current regulations to be modified.

One example of such an attempt occurred in 2018 when a “study” was inserted into draft legislation for the reauthorization of the FAA. This was a blatant attempt to modify existing regulations, and ALPA immediately launched a full-scale campaign opposing the legislation. The study had no clear safety mission, no end date, and was a misguided attempt to create a government-funded laboratory for single-pilot operations that ignored the safety of the traveling public.

Through collective efforts by ALPA and other industry stakeholders, Section 744 was ultimately omitted from the bill’s final passage. While these efforts resulted in protecting aviation safety for the time being, ALPA continues to remain vigilant regarding any attempt to undermine the robust regulations in place today.

To support current crew-complement regulations from being adversely modified, ALPA’s Executive Council authorized the creation of the President’s Committee on Reduced Crew Operations (PCRCO) earlier this year. Capt. Russ Sklenka, ALPA’s executive administrator, leads the PCRCO’s efforts.

“For many years, aviation has been the safest form of transportation in the United States. This is by no means an accident,” said Sklenka. “It’s the result of a strong regulatory framework built over time, paired with an ongoing airline safety culture that’s one of the most ambitious in our nation’s history. The continued desire by some in the industry to pursue single-piloted or autonomously piloted cargo aircraft seriously places the public and flight crews of these aircraft in a tenuous position. Thanks to ALPA’s leadership, we’re well positioned and will continue to use every resource we have to ensure that these antisafety provisions aren’t enacted and that our regulations remain strong.”

Through the PCRCO, ALPA tracks industry efforts to modify aircraft and seek approvals for reductions in crew requirements. The committee’s work includes opposing petitions for exemption, global engagement with manufacturers, information sharing, surveying, continuing research, and educating the public on the dangers of reduced-crew operations.

The PCRCO also actively monitors new and emerging technologies, such as unmanned aircraft systems and air mobility aircraft, as they continue to evolve and gain a foothold within the shared airspace. ALPA understands that without the presence of a strong safety advocate, the industry may not heed the numerous lessons learned from the past. Unfortunately, safety isn’t always the primary factor in designing and engineering these new aircraft. Many manufacturers today are technology-based companies with subject-matter experts from the technology industry, not the aerospace industry. As a result, many manufacturers lack meaningful and effective safety management systems.

Keeping a keen eye on the future has been a foundational component to ALPA’s efforts and advocacy for more than 90 years. Though these efforts, coupled with safeguarding today’s regulations, ALPA remains committed to having two well-trained pilots on the flight deck as they’re the critical focal point of aircraft systems safety and integral to the entire commercial aviation system.

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.

Each article in this nine-part series highlights 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.

On the night of Dec. 11, 2000, Capt. John Vreeken and F/O Elizabeth Hallworth were the flight crew of American Eagle Flight 3215, Saab 340 service from Los Angeles to Monterey, Calif. Only about 30 minutes into the flight, they heard a loud popping noise followed by a sharp thud that resonated through the airframe. The pilots then realized that the No. 1 engine was running, but not producing thrust.

After quickly assessing the situation, Vreeken shut down the engine by turning off the fuel flow and tried to feather the propeller. Unfortunately, the prop wouldn’t feather, and after going through the appropriate checklists, the prop remained in fine pitch, creating a very high asymmetric drag load on the airplane.

Vreeken declared an emergency and asked air traffic control for the distance to the nearest airport. He was advised that they were 15 minutes north of Paso Robles Municipal Airport. The pilots prepared to divert there; they checked the weather and looked at the airport instrument approach plates, as neither pilot was familiar with this off-line airport.

The two pilots also knew that they were flying over hazardous terrain and that maintaining altitude with the No. 1 prop stuck in fine pitch would be extremely difficult. Flying a missed approach at Paso Robles would be virtually impossible. Adding to their problem, the sky over Paso Robles was overcast, requiring that they fly an instrument approach.

Unfortunately, the air traffic controller’s first attempt to vector the pilots to the VOR DME approach to Paso Robles’s Runway 19 put the airline too high to permit them to continue the approach to landing. The pilots decided to switch to the VOR approach from the southeast that would require them to circle to land. Using superior crew resource management, Vreeken and Hallworth worked together to ensure that the runway lights were turned on, to double-check the surface wind, and to keep the flight attendant and passengers apprised of the situation. As a team, they landed the aircraft safely despite the catastrophic powerplant failure they were forced to contend with.

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

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)