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Why having two pilots on commercial flights is vital for passenger safety

These days, we don’t normally see much of the person flying the plane we are travelling on. On most flights, all we know of the pilots who fly us from A to B is what we learn from a voice intermittently coming over the speaker.

We defer our safety in the sky to commercial pilots who work in pairs, both having trained for years to be able to fly in any condition. Technically a pilot could fly a plane by themselves, but having two pilots is absolutely vital. In recent years proposals have been put forward to have a single pilot on the flight deck – to save money or potentially cover staff shortages – but this is simply not realistic in an industry where safety is paramount.

Though having two crew members in the cockpit at all times is an imposed requirement by the Federal Aviation Authority among US airlines, it is still not standard practice across the world. Following the Germanwings crash of March 2015, airlines in Europe and Canada implemented a “rule of two”, though as of this year several lifted the requirement after governing bodies relaxed the rule – with German airlines citing other potential security issues for no longer requiring it.

Should the worst happen, however, having a second pilot on board can be the difference between disaster and smooth sailing.

An Etihad Airways captain was recently taken unwell while flying, for example, and became progressively worse until he was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby airport. This may conjure up images from the movies, where an inexperienced staff member is forced to take over the controls, possibly guided by an eager air traffic controller on how to fly and land the plane. But in reality you really wouldn’t want this to happen. In the case of Ethiad, the fully trained second pilot, known onboard as the first officer, was able to take over full control of the aeroplane and land at the nearest airport. The passengers and crew were safe on the Ethiad flight throughout, and no harm occurred other than the unfortunate death of the captain.

It would be unpleasant to speculate on what may have happened should there have been a single pilot on board.

Safety and health

Pilots and flights attendants are trained to handle numerous safety situations, regardless of if they ever happen to experience them. On a normal day, one of the pilots – regardless of who is the captain or first officer – acts as “pilot flying” and they’re in charge of flying the plane. They handle the controls, programme the autopilot, and steer the aeroplane along its route. The other pilot acts as “pilot monitoring”, they support the pilot flying with communicating with air traffic control, monitor the engines and other parameters, and crosscheck all the actions of the pilot flying.

The workload is shared between the two pilots, and each one’s duties are well defined. While the captain is more senior and is ultimately responsible for the safety of the flight, both pilots are trained to handle all emergency situations equally professionally.

If either pilot is unable to continue their duties for whatever reason, the other pilot is fully trained to continue the flight safely, even in challenging and busy situations such as takeoff and landing.

Even though commercial planes have autopilot systems which are used quite heavily during flight, landing and takeoff are still manual tasks that need a pilot at the helm. Automatic landing does exist – and it is in fact a very impressive technology – but it is usually used only in very low visibility conditions.

A rare occurrence

Pilots’ health is closely monitored. Each commercial pilot must be certified as healthy at an aeromedical centre. Doctors at these centres test blood, heart function and lung capacity, as well as psychological well-being, eyesight and hearing. These tests have to be repeated every year, or every six months for pilots over 60-years-old. But despite these thorough checks, sometimes illnesses can be sudden and unpredictable.

If a pilot does become unable to continue flying while on route, flight attendants can help remove him or her from the controls, and they are trained to administer oxygen and first aid. Air traffic control is informed too so that medical assistance can meet the aeroplane as it lands.

However, the incapacitation of a pilot, where a pilot becomes too unwell to continue his duties, is infrequent. A study by the Australian Transport Safety Board found that on average there were only 23 such occurrences reported a year (about one in every 34,000 flights) between 2010 and 2014. Of these, half were related to gastrointestinal illness, followed by laser pointer incidents (13%) – where a pilot’s vision is impaired by a laser pointed at the cockpit from a person on the ground. Between January and September 2017, The Aviation Herald reported 16 pilot incapacitations for various reasons on worldwide commercial air transport.

Pilot deaths happen more frequently than one would wish, although they seem to be much less frequent than deaths due to illness while driving a car. In March 2017, for example, a first officer died despite medical assistance after the captain landed the plane at the nearest airport. In 2016, a Saudi Arabian Airlines pilot suffered a heart attack while flying. The first officer took control of the aircraft and landed safely, but doctors on the ground could not resuscitate the captain.

There are no records of both commercial pilots becoming ill and being unable to continue, except from tragic cases such as the Helios Airways Flight 522 – which was due to pressurisation failure, rather than illness.

Having two trained pilots on the cockpit is not a waste of money, nor an outdated practice. Even with the sophisticated technology that commercial aeroplanes are fitted with, still nothing can currently compare to having a trained human who can react to and manage a potentially dangerous situation on board.

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