If thousands of experienced pilots told you that having just one, or even no flight crew member was crazy, why would anyone believe an aviation executive who said it wasn’t?

CaptainDavid Jacobson 1999_2015

If thousands of experienced pilots told you that having just one, or even no flight crew member was crazy, why would anyone believe an aviation executive who said it wasn’t?

If thousands of experienced pilots with millions of flying hours told you that having just one, or even no flight crew member was crazy, why would anyone believe an aviation executive who said it wasn’t?

Around the turn of the last century (known widely as ‘Y2K’), we used to joke of the flight crew of the future. The suggestion was that it consisted of one pilot and one dog: The ‘theory’ was that the Captain’s job was to feed the dog… And the dog’s job was to bite the Captain if he touched anything!

Many former and current professional pilots around the world are appalled at the recent discussion around someone’s pet idea to take this joke seriously and reduce the crew complement in airline flight decks to just one and inevitably, to zero human pilots.

Around Y2K, many computer-related disasters were anticipated, but they failed to materialise, for the most part.

However, if the aviation industry is stupid enough to consider a semi- or fully-autonomous flight deck, then, in my view, disasters will be commonplace. Why? Because the whole question of automation on the flight deck has been mishandled from the very beginning.

Computers make great monitors, but lousy pilots and humans make great pilots but less reliable monitors; and that is when we have a 2- or greater human crew complement. How will that turn out, with just one or less pilots on the flight deck?

Contributor David Hopkin, in ‘Human Factors in Aviation’, 1988, edited by Wiener and Nagle, wrote:

‘Human ineffectiveness in monitoring tasks must be reconciled with the requirements to keep and enhance high safety standards and to maintain the controller’s skills and active involvement.’

(dj NOTE: While this quote was directed towards automation in Air Traffic Control services, it is no less relevant for pilots.) 

Thomas B Sheridan wrote, in the same reference, above:

‘In assuming this new supervisory role, the pilot undertakes five functions:

  1. planning what to ask the computer to do;
  2. teaching (commanding, programming) the computer;
  3. monitoring its performance and detecting and diagnosing failures if they occur;
  4. intervening take over control directly if and when necessary and maintaining and repairing the semiautomatic systems; and
  5. learning from experience.’


David Nagel wrote, again in the same reference, above:

‘Finally, automation, which can have a very positive effect on both efficiency and safety, can also have a very depressing effect on safety. As pilots are removed from an active role in flying the aircraft, more and more that can only be termed “loss of situational awareness” are reported. These reports are particularly prominent when the automatic systems either fail to perform as expected or fail to perform at all.’

Well-known aviation veterans, including Captain Richard Champion De Crespigny and Captain Kevin Sullivan (both formerly with Qantas Airways Ltd) and Captain Chelsea ‘Sully’ Sullenberger have written extensively and authoritatively of their experiences with modern aviation technology in A380, A330 and A320 aircraft, respectively and have all sounded strong warnings following their personal leadership triumphs against very great odds. Their collective message is clear and I strongly endorse it.

Throughout an aviation career spanning 55 years and 24,500 hours (including nearly 5000 hrs as a flight instructor and embracing 40 years flying for Trans-Australia Airlines -TAA, Austalian Airlines Ltd and Qantas Airways Ltd, a pilot is bound to encounter some non-normal situations along the way. Licence renewal checks, conducted in modern and very sophisticated digital flight simulators offer fantastic, accelerated learning experiences for pilots at all levels, with zero safety risk to crews and airplanes.

However, unless a company flight training department – or an individual flight instructor/examiner – has some imagination, most exercises rely heavily on the manufacturer’s Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) and its unique and quite definitive Emergency and Non-Normal checklists for the airplane type.

Non-normal checklists don’t always cover the situation. The non-normal events that I experienced in F27, DC-9, B727 and B737 aircraft over that 40-year airline period, were more often than not either a combination of issues from more than one system, or an issue out of ‘left field’, that did not match, exactly, any non-normal checklist. The ability of pilots to think ‘outside the square’ is a definite advantage when, contrary to the nonsensical claims of the airplane manufacturers, partial, total and series of system failures do occur.

I can recall a pneumatic pressure regulator issue, double alternator failures (with resultant loss of engine and airframe de-icing systems in marginal, cold frontal icing conditions) and a nose-wheel tyre failure on landing, occurring successively in a single F27 night flight which we diverted into YMLT Launceston TAS rather than continue to YMHB Hobart. The second and third of these events were not covered by any published non-normal checklist.

I remember a trailing edge flap abnormality on a B737-400 where the flaps did extend to 5º as selected, BUT the flap gauge information was corrupted by a faulty sender. There was no published non-normal checklist for this event, either, so we had to consider and adopt the most suitable alternative, namely an assumed trailing-edge flaps up procedure with a consequential approach speed of 181 knots IAS into YPAD Adelaide SA.


The Automatics

On a B727 flight, the single autopilot ‘ALTITUDE HOLD’ function failed early into a 3-hour PER-MEL flight. Initially, my captain and I took 20-minute turns to hand-fly the heavy aircraft at 31,000ft, before experimenting, successfully, to engage MACH HOLD and then carefully monitoring and adjusting the thrust settings to maintain our assigned level (altitude) within limits!

The two autopilots on the B737-300/-400/ and -800 were, for the most part, quite accurate and reliable in general route flying and when executing precision instrument approaches. However, in 15,000 hrs on the B737, I never once experienced an automatic landing that was as good as the performance of a human pilot – especially if that pilot was applying the Jacobson Flare! These autolands were clumsy, to say the least, with the touchdown point quite haphazard in terms of their consistency of touchdown position and impact. Some even had to be aborted and a manual landing executed to prevent a mis-landing incident or accident.


The Human Element

During my 40 years of airline flying, there were many reported instances of flight crew incapacitation – we were trained for it. It happens. One B727 captain suffered a burst stomach ulcer and the first officer and flight engineer assumed command of the aircraft.

I experienced one such event when my first officer suffered a severe bout of food poisoning, half-way through a 4-hour MEL-PER flight. I completed the decent, approach and landing with a highly experienced cabin crew member as an assistant, to read checklists and monitor my responses against the many configuration changes. She also contributed greatly to our successful ground taxy in to the YPPH terminal.

The bottom line for me and for countless numbers of other professionals is that a fully trained, professional flight crew complement of 2- or more human pilots is indispensable.

So, to the decision makers:

If thousands of experienced pilots with millions of flying hours told you that having just ONE, or even NO crew member was crazy, why would anyone believe an aviation executive who said it wasn’t?

Ignoring pre-existing airline risk and threat assessment and management training for a minimal, perceived saving in flight crew costs just doesn’t bear comparison with the very probable loss of an airliner, its human loss and financial aftermath.

So why do it?



  • ‘Human Factors in Aviation’, 1988, Edited by Earl L.Wiener and David C. Nagle
  • www.jacobsonflare.com


Wishing you many safe landings


Captain David M Jacobson FRAeS MAP


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