In the wake of the recent incident in which an air traffic controller fell asleep during his shift at the Reno airport, I have serious concerns of similar happenings occurring among single pilots flying corporate airplanes for hire. I know that pilots have been flying single pilot for years, and I am also aware that most corporate pilots can fly single pilot operations competently. But my major concern is this: with the fatigue and stress of increased work loads in today’s economy, are the risks of flying with only a single pilot worth the very small savings that are realized by not having a co-pilot on board?
Just recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun to realize that it is unsafe to have only one air traffic controller on the job in the control tower. This realization comes on the heels of several incidents concerning air traffic controllers, who when operating at night by themselves, fell asleep on the job and forced planes to land without tower assistance into a controlled airport. The corporate aviation industry is in need of a similar epiphany regarding the dangers of single pilot flight.
Fatigue is not the only danger lurking in the control tower. An air traffic controller’s job is considered extremely stressful. Can one imagine the catastrophic outcome if an air traffic controller gives a command for an airliner to turn to a specific heading, then has a stress related heart attack and dies before any more commands can be given? I would like to think that a competent pilot could maintain awareness of the aircraft position and realize that something has gone wrong, and determine an alternate course of action. Similar health factors could play a role in the safety of corporate piloting as well. What would happen if it was the single pilot who had the heart attack? What would happen to the passengers in the cabin who have no idea their pilot had suffered an incapacitating health issue? Some companies suggest that the chance of something like this happening is slim to none. In my 15 years of flying experience, however, I have had several incidences that resulted in the need of the co-pilot’s intervention. I will briefly describe two of them.
I was asked to fly as co-pilot for a company that had hired a low-time pilot to fly their aircraft to Nassau, Bahamas. The captain was a young man, in his early to mid twenties, who did not have a lot of time flying the aircraft but met the time requirements for insurance companies. Our flight was smooth and uneventful, and we soon received our clearance to land. The captain made his approach to land and, just before the wheels were supposed to touch, he over-controlled the aircraft and put the plane into a pilot induced oscillation (PIO). The nose wheel hit first and the plane launched into the air. The captain tried to regain control of the plane, but only succeeded in allowing the plane to hit nose wheel first again, launching the plane into the air once more. At this point, I recognized that the next “nose first” bounce was going to be catastrophic for the plane, and announced to him that I was taking control. I rectified the problem, and landed the plane safely.
Did this action save our passengers’ lives? Perhaps. But I definitely saved the $1M plane from having very expensive damage. The point of this example is that having another set of eyes and capable hands in the cockpit possibly saved the lives of the passengers and certainly saved the airplane from destruction.
Some may think that the aforementioned incident could have been easily avoided by hiring an experienced captain in the first place, still negating the need for a co-pilot. With that belief in mind, let me describe another occurrence.
I was employed to fly as a co-pilot in a King Air 200. The captain and I had been flying together for most of the year. The captain was extremely experienced and had thousands of hours flying the plane. Our flight was to be a routine flight, one that we had made many times before. We had a full plane, consisting of the company’s president, his wife and children, and other acquaintances. Our flight was uneventful to our destination, but then at about 100 feet or less above the ground before landing, the captain suddenly suffered the passing of a kidney stone. He screamed and rolled off to the side over the center console in pain, pulling on the yoke as he rolled. At an approach speed of 120 knots, I had very little time to pull his hands off the yoke, regain control of the plane, and land safely.