Why You Still Need a Copilot in the Age of Automation: An In-Depth Look

As a longtime tech geek and data analyst, I am fascinated by the ongoing debate around aviation automation and flight crew requirements. With planes flying seamlessly on autopilot these days, are human copilots even necessary anymore? After deep research into crash data, safety studies and pilot perspectives, I believe the copilot role remains absolutely essential now and for the foreseeable future. Let me walk through why I‘ve come to this conclusion. I hope this provides some insightful food for thought!

What Does a Copilot Do Anyway?

Before looking at why the role is still needed, let‘s quickly review what a copilot actually does up there in the cockpit.

The copilot, or first officer, has their own identical set of flight controls, monitors and instruments as the captain. Some of their key responsibilities include:

  • Handling radio communications with air traffic control
  • Monitoring fuel levels, weather radar and other aircraft systems
  • Running through pre-flight checklists ensuring the aircraft is fit to fly
  • Navigating the plane and entering the flight route into the flight management system
  • Tracking the progression of the flight and making sure the aircraft stays on course
  • Keeping an eye out for other air traffic
  • Assisting with cabin crew management and passenger issues
  • Stepping in to fly the plane if the captain becomes incapacitated

This reduces workload for the captain and provides a backup expert ready to take over if needed. Now let‘s look at some of the top reasons why aviation specialists believe this role is still essential today.

Copilots Provide Redundancy in Case of Emergencies

  • Between 1983 and 2009, incapacitation of the captain occurred in an estimated 1 out of every 10,000 commercial flights. (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine)

  • In a 2018 survey of over 1500 airline pilots, 67% reported personally experiencing an unexpected threat to flight safety that required quick action from the flight crew. (NASA)

  • In October 2013, a copilot safely landed a United Airlines flight with over 160 people aboard after the captain suffered a fatal heart attack mid-flight. (CNN)

  • In June 2009, an off-duty Northwest Airlines copilot took over when both the captain and first officer became unresponsive. The copilot diverted the plane and safely landed with over 140 passengers. (Seattle Times)

Having two qualified pilots with access to controls provides redundancy in the event of unexpected medical or other incapacitation of the captain. While such events are rare, history shows the copilot directly stepping in has prevented potential catastrophes.

Workload Sharing Improves Safety on Long Flights

Ultra long haul flights and overnight cargo operations pose some unique safety challenges:

  • Scientific research shows fatigue degrades alertness and performance as quickly as alcohol impairment. (International Civil Aviation Organization)

  • A 2010-2012 NASA study found pilots experience significant fatigue starting at about 13 hours into flight duty periods.

  • Over 20% of fatal commercial aviation accidents over the past two decades involved fatigue as a contributing factor according to a National Academies of Sciences analysis.

  • Cargo pilots may be especially susceptible with night shift work and irregular schedules. A recent study found over half of cargo pilots reported falling asleep while actively working a flight. (Southern Illinois University)

Having at least two pilots allows for planned rest periods and ensures smoother shift rotations on journeys over 12+ hours. With cargo planes staying aloft for 18 hours straight on some routes, single pilot operations could present unacceptable risks.

Crew Resource Management Principles Mandate Cooperation

Beginning in the late 1970s, crew resource management training was introduced stressing communication and cooperation between captains and copilots. This training is now deeply embedded into the culture at major airlines.

  • A 2012 study sponsored by the FAA found crew resource management training reduced commercial aviation fatalities by over 50% since implementation.

  • 78% of pilots surveyed said CRM practices enhanced flight safety outcomes on their last flight. (FAA)

  • A 2019 study found captains and copilots trained in CRM principles together had significantly higher trust scores compared to those trained separately. (International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics)

While automation has reduced workload, human interaction in the cockpit is still vital. Shared information processing between two pilots with effective CRM leads to better problem-solving – especially in non-routine situations autopilot systems may not handle smoothly.

Airline Copilots Gain Valuable Experience Before Advancing

All airline captains begin as copilots obtaining the necessary hours of flight time and operational knowledge required for promotion.

  • An Airline Transport Pilot License requires a minimum of 1,500 flight hours before one can work as an airline first officer.

  • Major airlines typically want first officer applicants to have at least 2,500 hours total time for their most desirable aircraft.

  • Regional airlines are an important stepping stone. Pilots may spend 5+ years here working up to jet aircraft before applying to the majors.

  • Captain positions at major airlines can require 4,000+ hours depending on the airline and aircraft type.

No automation substitute yet exists for this hands-on experience gained from flying with veteran captains and learning the ropes of commercial flight operations.

What Do Real Airline Pilots Think About Copilots?

In anonymous surveys of over 1500 airline pilots at major US carriers:

  • 92% said their airline should keep two pilots in the cockpit even if advanced automation becomes available.

  • 81% viewed their copilots as important safety assets rather than primarily trainees.

  • 89% said having a copilot relieved stress and improved their work performance.

When asked about their best copilots, common themes were excellent communication skills, willingness to speak up about safety, and competency managing high workload scenarios.

Are There Any Situations Where a Single Pilot Could Work?

There has been some debate around single pilot cargo freight operations given the high degree of automation and lack of passengers onboard. Currently, all cargo aircraft require two pilots by regulation.

Proponents argue:

  • Newer cargo planes are highly automated with advanced autoland capabilities and enhanced pilot alerting systems.

  • Eliminating the second pilot could save costs and help with pilot staffing shortages facing the industry.

However, opponents counter that:

  • Automation unpredictability, complacency, and loss of manual flying skills could still compromise safety without a second set of eyes.

  • Solo cargo pilots would face significant fatigue getting no relief on long overnight flights.

  • The data we have on crash rates and outcomes do not support elimination of the copilot at this point.

More research directly comparing pilot workload, fatigue, and performance on cargo versus passenger flights could help settle this debate. But for now, data supports two pilots in the cockpit.

Recommended Minimum Copilot Requirements Based on Available Data

Based on my review of the latest crash data analysis, pilot surveys, scientific studies on fatigue and workload, and aviation training best practices, I would make the following recommendations on minimum copilot requirements:

Flight Type Minimum Crew
All passenger airline flights Two pilots
All-cargo flights under 8 hours Two pilots
All-cargo flights over 8 hours Two pilots
International flights over 6 hours Two pilots
Flights with new pilots < 500 hours Two pilots

The Verdict: Why Copilots Remain Essential

While aviation technology continues advancing rapidly, it seems clear humans will remain involved in aircraft flight operations far into the future. Eliminating the copilot role would be an unnecessary risk given:

  • The unpredictable nature of emergencies and automation failures requiring human backup.

  • The safety benefits of cooperation, information sharing, and workload balancing between two pilots.

  • The training new copilots receive from captain mentors before moving up.

  • The rarity of total incapacitation events balanced against the potentially catastrophic consequences.

  • Ongoing threats of fatigue requiring relief on longer flights.

So in my view as an analytical technology enthusiast, it seems short-sighted to remove the copilot position purely based on advancements in automation and algorithms. However, I do look forward to ongoing data research that may help reshape optimal flight crew requirements over time.

What insights or questions do you have on the debate over single pilot operations? Let me know in the comments! I‘m always happy to discuss and analyze aviation tech trends with fellow geeks and pilots.

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