Wednesday, 25 November 2065. The day before Thanksgiving:
Good evening. Welcome aboard American Airlines flight 2501, nonstop service from Chicago O’Hare to Dallas Fort Worth. I am a Boeing, Seven-Twelve-Seven, Transonic Truss-Braced Wing, Streamliner. Assisting me this evening is Captain Buck Futz, whose presence signifies American’s commitment to customer service. As all of my ground and flight functions are automated and triple-redundant, Captain Futz stands ready to offer assistance to passengers unfamiliar with my digital entertainment suite and midships vending machine array. Our flight time this evening will be two hours and twenty-six minutes. Transdermal Xanax patches can be found in your seat-back compartments. Passengers over the age of 21 may purchase aerosolized valium (delivered via your overhead oxygen mask) from Captain Futz. Exact change is appreciated.
10-12 April 2012, NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California:
“Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”
—Gilbert K. Chesterton
Representatives of government, academia, and the aviation industry gathered at NASA’s Ames Research Center to devise a means by which to contemporaneously maximize airline profits, collapse aviation safety, and deny pilots humane working conditions and job satisfaction—or, as the event’s formal summary (NASA/CP—2013–216513) put it:
… jointly investigate issues associated with potential concepts, or configurations, in which a single pilot might operate under conditions that are currently reserved for a minimum of two pilots.
Those of you who’ve operated turbine aircraft in the National Airspace System (or its foreign equivalents) likely passed the interval between paragraphs swearing vehemently at the unmitigated, criminal idiocy of single-pilot operations (SPO) of commuter and transport category aircraft engaged in commercial/common carriage. Pedants will point out that King Airs, Caravans, and a host of minuscule jets have moved plenty of paying passengers under the auspices of single pilots. I’ll point out that there’s a lot of territory between a Pilatus PC-12 headed for Poughkeepsie and a Boeing 777-300ER on its way to Singapore.
It took five, highly-trained, reasonably well paid crew-members to operate the airliners of the 1950s. The flight-decks of Boeing Stratocruisers and Lockheed Constellations bustled with the combined efforts and expertise of two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator, and a radio operator—each working diligently to keep the stately machines aloft, running smoothly, on course, and in touch with a largely non-radar ATC system. Improvements in navigation and communication technology occasioned the extinction of navigators and radiomen in the 1960s. Newer aircraft like Boeing’s 727 and Douglas’s DC-8 got on with three-man crews comprising a pair of pilots and a flight engineer. The advents of digital technology and computer automation heralded the departure of the flight engineer, and by the 1980s, aircraft like Boeing’s 757 and 767 had been certified for two-pilot operation. This reduction in flightcrew members was a boon to the airlines insomuch as flight crew compensation can account for up to twenty-five-percent of an air-carrier’s direct operating expenses. Why pay five crewmen to move 100 passengers aboard a Constellation when you can pay three aviators to move 150 passengers aboard a 727? And why pay a trio of 727 drivers at all when you can pay two pilots to move 467 passengers aboard a 747-8?
Seventy-years of precedent point unerringly to the airline’s hankering for SPO—if not its imminence. The fact that NASA saw fit to summon seventy credentialed stooges to a three-day palaver in the backwaters of the San Francisco Bay suggests the space agency puts at least some stock in the notion. And why not? Fighter and reconnaissance aircraft have traditionally been manned by single pilots. The frequency with which Falcons and Raptors take to the air, and the grueling duration of U2 and SR-71 missions suggest single pilots can stand a great deal more terror and tedium than they’re likely to ever see in Part 121 or 135 operations. Nevertheless, what a man can hack in a fight and what he chooses to endure in a profession are two very different things.
Proponents of SPO vociferously maintain that commercial aviation, most often, is a non-emergent business. They’ll argue that 999 out of every one-thousand flights comprise convention and boredom exclusively, and that under such circumstances modern automation affords a competent PIC all the assistance required to safely operate even a transport category aircraft. Except it doesn’t.
The human being is a complex construct. To function optimally, man requires a delicate, infinitely variable balance of concentration and companionship. He must perceive his environment, identify and prioritize the challenges therein, devise resolutions to subject challenges, then act decisively. A single pilot proceeding from perception to action ultimately acts on an opinion. Two pilots proceeding together from perception to action ultimately act on a consensus. Notwithstanding sophistication and redundancy, automation makes for cold company. When things go weird, a human being cannot look across a cockpit—at a pile of servos slaved to a computer—and ask, “What do you make of that?”
Psychologists and fools, most of whom have never logged a single flight-hour—drone on about the sticky aspects of human interpersonal relationships. They cite man’s mercurial nature and warn of the adverse effects emotion has on his performance. Man, they contend, is fallible, and must be watched over in perpetuity by infallible machines. There’s no denying man’s inconstancy. Mutability is the price of sentience. Machines, conversely, are invariable—provided they operate within parameters predetermined by their fallible, human makers. Confronted with the unexpected or unfamiliar, machines fail utterly. As of yet, machines cannot learn—not correlatively anyway, and certainly not on the fly. Abstractions such as inference, interpolation, reasoning, and reckoning remain the sole province of human beings.
“Stupidity is a talent for misconception.”
—Edgar Allan Poe
The minds of idiots are fascinating. For pure entertainment, seventy cretins trying to come up with procedures by which to implement SPO is up there with a band of gorillas orchestrating a Formula One pit-stop. If you think my perspective lacks generosity, consider the following, actual suggestions put forth by attendees of the April 2012 NASA, Technical Interchange Meeting:
The SIC is located remotely—at a ground station—and provides assistance at the onboard captain’s request. This is accomplished via Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) style, remote piloting. This concept was tested by having two-pilot crews fly low-fi, desktop simulators of two-crew, transport category aircraft cockpits. The displays and controls were positioned such that a crew could operate them as a single flight deck or as two separated flight decks. When the pilots flew the simulators side by side, all was well. When the pilots and their respective displays/controls were moved to separate rooms, the lack of access to nonverbal cues and actions negatively impacted communications between pilots and their awareness of what their crew-mate was doing. Pilots lost track of who was flying the airplane, and what checklist items had been completed. NASA concluded:
“These findings suggest that nonverbal communications are an important aspect of crew coordination and must be maintained or replaced to promote good awareness and crew resource management (CRM) when pilots are separated.”
This astonishing insight failed to dissuade airline representatives who posited:
“Locating a first officer on the ground makes sense economically only if the ground pilot is performing other tasks when workload is low, perhaps taking on dispatcher roles and providing first-officer services only when requested.”
If this is starting to sound grotesque and demeaning, it’s only because you’re not an idiot.
“It is only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are.”
The SPO ideology is born of greed—ravenous, sucking greed that prioritizes profit over human life. Were that hospitals proposed automating blood-draws and sedation to circumvent paying phlebotomists and anesthesiologists, the regulatory and public outcry would shake the medical establishment to rubble. Certainly, machines could be built to perform those functions, but creating a thing just because the technology to do so exists is often a fast-track to big trouble—e.g., social media, COVID-19, the Prius. No autopilot, annunciator system, or fly-by-wire foolery can share the burden of responsibility for the five, fifty, or five-hundred lives aft of the cockpit bulkhead. Machines, though precise and efficient, are not accountable. Accountability is a function of conscience. Conscience is a function of empathy. Empathy is a prerogative of humanity.