is flying single-pilot ever a good idea?

May 29, 2018

It is a fact that having a pilot to load-share with you in command of an airplane is invaluable. But is flying single pilot always a bad idea? Capt. LeRoy Cook offers insight into flying solo and factors to be considered

For many years, nearly all jet aircraft, particularly those certified at more than 12,500 pounds takeoff weight, had to be flown by two pilots. The fact that equivalent piston and turboprops, which required much more work to fly, could legally be operated by a single pilot was ignored by hide-bound rule makers. The bottom line was that flying at jet speed was an arduous endeavor, and one that required the assistance of a second pilot.

This thinking meant that when the first Cessna Citation business jets came online in 1971, they were certified as two-pilot aircraft. This was despite the fact that they had a cruise speed of 348 knots, only slightly faster than some turboprops, and a relatively light 10,850-lb takeoff weight. By design, the Citation’s cockpit was well-suited to single-pilot operation and its twin fanjet engines required little management. Thus, by 1977, Cessna had convinced the regulators that its jet was suitable for single pilot operations, and an SP version of the Citation soon followed.

The dam had been broken, and all future light jet developments incorporated single-pilot certification as a matter of course.

Which brings us to the premise of this article: Is flying single-pilot a good idea?

A proper answer requires one to consider all the factors involved. Is the pilot suited (i.e., trained, experienced, healthy and rested)? Is the aircraft manageable? And is the flight environment anticipated to be stable and benign? Should there be any chance of one or more of these factors being compromised, then a copilot should be used. Not just carried, USED.

Risk management works by first considering the likelihood of an untoward outcome and then countering such likelihoods with operating standards that reduce the risk to an acceptable level. In aviation, risk management means ensuring the flight’s safe conclusion. After all, value cannot be assigned to the loss of key company personnel, and certainly the carriage of clients and prospects requires the utmost pursuit of safety. Operating single-pilot might not be wise when such high-value individuals are being transported, and the flight department’s operations manual should be written to reflect extra care for such missions.

In reality, all such SOPs I’ve encountered specify the requirement for a second pilot whenever there are company passengers aboard, pure and simple. After all, safety starts with redundancy, and having a spare pilot in the cockpit is the best back-up system an aircraft can possess. I saw this first hand when I recently flew along on a trip in a firm’s Citation CJ4, carrying a client and the pilot-rated company president in the back. The firm’s full-time pilot, type-rated for single-pilot operation in the CJ, had me fill the copilot seat per company policy. Once we were on the ground, I was released from duty and able to go back to the cabin, leaving the pilot alone in the cockpit.

With policies like this in mind, we must consider whether a single pilot is EVER a good idea for ANY high-performance flying. Again, we return to the previously cited risk factors. The pilot obviously must possess the single-pilot type rating for the airplane but, more than that, his or her state of currency ought to be considered as part of the flight preparation process. If the pilot is still fighting his way through the after effects of an attack of influenza, it would make good sense to bring a second pilot along. A proper amount of rest, prior to and during the course of a multi-leg flight, needs to be thought of as a medical requirement. And the normal consequences of aging cannot be denied. Now in my eighth decade, I am the first to admit that I need more naps to supplement my superior flying skills!

A Nest for One

If an aircraft is to be certified for flight with a crew contingent of one, the cockpit must be set up so that all routinely-needed controls are reachable from the left seat. Originally, the FAA required “hands-free” communication, meaning a headset with push-to-talk capability had to be worn. Further friendly touches might include a remote transponder “ident” button on the control yoke and conveniently-mounted autopilot controls to avoid having to divert attention to the aft center pedestal. As much automation as possible should be used to shed workload, such as integrating pressurization management with the FMS, automatically turning anti-ice equipment on and normal “lights out” systems annunciation.

High altitude flying, necessary to attain the jet aircraft’s performance objectives, carries with it exposure to a hostile environment not conducive to human life. Should there be a need to reach a breathable atmosphere, the single pilot must be able to execute a rapid descent and see to his own life support while simultaneously interfacing with air traffic control, locating a viable alternate airport and dealing with an unanticipated set of weather considerations. Needless to say, dealing with such an emergency would be much easier with an extra set of hands as a resource.

As everyone knows, some flights are just easier than others. Operating single-pilot on the first trip into an unfamiliar ATC environment, for example, probably isn’t a good idea. There are also some regions, even if regularly visited, that demand the use of a second pilot due to the traffic, routing and complexity that will be encountered. If you aren’t comfortable charging into an unknown or high-pressure environment, setting up the flight as a two-pilot operation is always the better choice.

Weather flying also increases the workload, not just from having to wrestle the airplane around in bumpy clouds, but also because serious weather will bring more complex ATC interaction. Clearances get revised, runways will be changed, and more traffic must be squeezed into less usable airspace. These are the times when a second pilot will be welcome. Yes, when the weather is benign and the trip is easy, it’s quite possible to operate the jet or turboprop with a single-pilot crew, relying on the automation to do most of the flying while operational decisions are left to the sole human in the cockpit. But what happens if the autopilot fails? Will you be comfortable hand-flying to a weather-challenged destination, perhaps with passengers tapping you on the shoulder?

It Usually Takes Two

Sure, if all goes well, a single-pilot operation is easy and simple. It’s when things don’t go well that the extra crew member is vital. To mitigate against this risk, most of the time two pilots are considered the norm in corporate flying. The single-pilot option is exercised only when an airplane needs to be repositioned over a relatively short route, with no passengers in the back, or when being test flown for maintenance reasons. In some training situations, only one pilot may be legally qualified to operate the aircraft, requiring single-pilot privileges as a temporary measure.

Operating standards are set by the regulatory agency of the country in which certification for the aircraft is sought, as well as the regulations governing the type of operation. On top of this there are the company policies that tend to demand a second pilot. So as a rule of thumb, we can say that commercial for-hire jet operation usually requires that there be two pilots in the cockpit.