An instant reaction to Single Pilot Operations (SPO) is like the instant reaction to completely autonomous flight. “I’m not getting on an aircraft without a pilot!” Then to justify that reaction fatal accidents of the past are cited. Typically, this is to remind everyone of the tragic Germanwings accident. It was 24 March 2015, that an Airbus A320 was crashed deliberately killing all onboard.
However, it’s wise to remember that the likelihood of incapacitation is much greater than that of the malicious behaviour of the pilot in command. Cases of malicious behaviour leading to a catastrophic outcome are truly shocking but extremely rare.
One fatal accident, that is still disputed is EgyptAir Flight 990 that killed 217 people in 1999. The possibility of inflight pilot suicide is unnerving, since on the face of it there is little any of the aircraft’s cabin crew or passengers can do to stop it.
This could be a future opportunity to use automation to prevent these scenarios occurring. Afterall the aircraft knows where it is and that a sustained high-speed dive towards the ground is not normally intended. A safety system exists to do this, but its outputs are not connected to the aircraft’s flight controls.
Humans being adaptable, extremely creative and capable of highly irrational actions, it’s unlikely that malicious behaviour resulting in aviation accidents will ever be reduced to zero. This is said regardless of the procedures or technology involved. The fate of flight MH 370 remains a mystery.
Thus, the prominent safety issue in respect of SPO is pilot incapacitation. Where the pilot in command is no longer able to perform as expected. That is, if the aircraft flown is not capable of safely landing itself. The objective always being safe continued flight and landing.
I’ve had the “1% Rule” rule explained to me by a notable aviation doctor, but I must admit I didn’t fully take it in. So far, the rule has stood the test of time. When the pilot in command of a Czech Airlines aircraft collapsed and died on route from Warsaw to Prague in 2012, the co-pilot took over and everyone got home safely.
Any automated co-pilot must be at least as capable as a human co-pilot in all aspects of operation of an aircraft. The key word here being “all”. It’s not enough to have the functions necessary to undertake safe continued flight and landing. Task such as communicating with the cabin crew and passengers must also be considered. Including preparation for an emergency landing.