Our undercover pilot explains why a minimum of two pilots are still needed to fly a plane, and why there may be four.

Let’s start with one of the most iconic planes in commercial air travel – the classic Boeing 747. When it first launched in February 1969, this aeroplane required two pilots at the controls plus a flight engineer on the flight deck to monitor the equipment.

With the development of more modern computer systems, the role of the flight engineer was gradually replaced by technology. With computers even more advanced today, why do we still need two pilots? This is the trajectory of modern aviation – and a question airlines and aircraft manufacturers are actively discussing. But for now, a minimum of two pilots is required on commercial aircraft.

Flying and monitoring

On a typical short-haul flight, from say London to Paris, you will be escorted to your destination by a captain and a first officer. One is designated Pilot Flying (PF) and one designated Pilot Monitoring (PM). These designations will change depending on the airline, but the roles are the same.

The PF pilot will make the decisions, direct the manipulation of the automatics and computers and, when required, manually handle the aeroplane (such as for landing and take-off). They also monitor the weather ahead and assess things like where to land in an emergency.

The other pilot, PM, will handle communicating with air traffic control (ATC) over the radio and support the PF by monitoring the situation from a ‘big picture’ point of view, updating paperwork and performing fuel checks. In the event that there is an emergency, the roles become much more separated, with the PF focusing on aircraft operation and the PM dedicated to the management of the emergency.

Unforeseen incidents

In addition to the basic operation of the aeroplane, we also need to think about back up. If anything should happen to one pilot, who would land the aeroplane? Pilots are not permitted to eat the same inflight meal as each other in case of food poisoning incapacitating both at the same time. And when one pilot needs to take a bathroom break, a cabin crew member usually swaps places and remains on the flight deck. This is to help open the door or call for help if the other pilot has any unforeseen incidents, such as loss of consciousness.

Since an aeroplane can be flown with two pilots, why do we sometimes see three, or even four pilots in the cockpit? One possibility is that training is taking place (don’t worry, all commercial pilots are qualified and have a licence!) but every year, all pilots undergo mandatory performance testing. They might also be undergoing training for a promotion.

Alternatively, it could be a long-haul service, for instance from London to New York with a flight time of eight hours. This is a long time for anyone to be concentrating, so a third pilot helps to monitor the flight deck while the other pilot rests.

Many of you reading this will no doubt be used to working long hours – perhaps you’re even scoffing at the idea of eight hours being a long day. But let’s remember, flight times are not very often during normal office hours. Instead, your shift starts at 8pm and ends in the early hours of the morning.

Not to mention, when most people get to the end of a long day, they’re ready to clock off. For a pilot, the most intense period (during normal operations) is right at the end: the approach and landing. The aeroplane is now descending into a busy airport, with lots of other aircraft getting ready for their morning departures. Pilots must be on high alert for the operation to be conducted in a safe, efficient manner.

Imagine tackling the most strenuous part of your day and having to make clear-minded decisions after you’ve been awake all night. A third pilot offers relief to the operating pilots so they can be fully alert for the approach and landing.

Staying alert

So, that explains three pilots. But why four? Ultra-long haul. Flights from Asia to North America, specifically the East coast, (JFK, YYZ, EWR) can be over 16 hours. For those of you that fly routes like this, ask yourself: could you stay alert for the full 16 hours and feel confident about closing an important business deal on arrival? Having relief support is crucial to safe operations.

Technology is constantly evolving and there are roles on the flight deck that can be monitored or even performed by computers. Could we reduce the number of pilots required while still allowing adequate rest? Perhaps a better question is, how happy would you be knowing your pilot was concentrating alone, in the dark, on the wrong time zone, for 12 hours – with just a computer for back up?