Pilots May Have to Fly Jetliners All Alone
NASA funds study to consider historic change
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 15, 2014 3:46 PM CST
In this April 2, 2014 file picture a pilot holds his cap in Frankfurt, Germany.   (AP Photo/Michael Probst,file)

(Newser) – Imagine peeking into a jetliner cockpit and seeing a single pilot in there, responsible for flying all of those people. Well, NASA wants to seriously consider that option with a new $4 million study, the Wall Street Journal reports. Contract winner Rockwell Collins Inc. will look at whether a second pilot on the ground can help fly the plane, even during bad weather or pilot incapacitation. "It’s a reasonably new area" to apply the single-pilot idea to big jets, says the program's manager. Ground-based pilots will also "need to baby-sit the vehicle" when pilots take a break or go to the can, he says. But hurdles loom, such as overcoming public fears, persuading politicians, and rebuilding jetliners from the ground up to accommodate new technology.

So why do it? Because the world's pool of pilots will likely shrink while the number of miles flown doubles over the next 20 years; analysts say pilots these days just don't get paid enough. So pilots would have to be entirely retrained, according to a US professor: "This is not an incremental change," he says. The idea of reducing the cabin crew harks back to the 1970s, when third crew members (remember Airplane?) were eliminated, and recalls a $40 million European study launched last year to look at single-pilot flights, Flying Mag reports. But primal fears are involved, as Gawker notes in a snarky piece: A single pilot "could suffer a sudden heart attack or stroke while 35,000 feet in the air, and who is going to save your life now?" the site asks. "Oh sure, some computer. Okay."