Bye Bye to Co-Pilots?
You are relaxed in your airliner seat, strapped and ready to take off towards a long transatlantic flight. The airplane is taking off ideally, and the pilot delivers the traditional greeting when you realize they are alone. There is no co-pilot on board.
You convince yourself that there is almost no need for the primary pilot with all the computing power on board. In that case, you might be right.
There are already discussions today among airliner companies, airplane manufacturers, and regulators regarding eliminating the need for co-pilots. if you think that is the first time a person with a critical role is removed, you could not be more wrong.
An early example is the Sikorsky Ilya Muromets from 1913. It was a Russian bomber that was later converted to an airliner. Its operational team consisted of the pilot, a co-pilot, a radio operator, a navigator, and a few mechanics who could climb along its lower wing to attend to the engines during flight. Back that it was considered a normal thing to do.
Another example is the huge Junkers G38 from 1929. Its wings were thick enough to host passengers with forward-looking panoramic windows. Its engines, which were mounted in its wings, were also accessible for the mechanics who did not have to dare walk outside in the freezing air while the airplane was in flight.
During the 30s, there was a boom in intercontinental flights. Airplanes became bigger, and engines became better. The flying boat became the thing offering flights to and from every corner on the planet. The job of the onboard mechanics was replaced by the flight engineer who controlled all the technical aspects of the flight from a dedicated station. As those airplanes were flying long routes, they also consisted of an elaborate navigation station.
World war two brought the rise of land-based airplanes, which turned the flying boats redundant. An unprecedented number of airports worldwide, plus an abundance of left-over military transportation aircrafts which turned into civilian transportation and passengers ones, made flying available also for the middle class. Furthermore, radar technology was already proven and in common use. This improved the ability to control flight paths and help with navigation. Therefore, the need for a dedicated navigator was no more, so from now on, the radio operator took over the less demanding navigation job.
15 years later. The jet engines revolutionized the airline industry once again. Bigger aircrafts, flying much faster and way higher, reduced air travel costs even more - opening the way to the current market as we know it. VOR - (VHF Omnidirectional Range) - a new form of radio navigation ad based on radio bemas, turned the job of the radio operator-navigator obsolete. It was now the job of the co-pilot.
The launch of Boeing's 757 twenty years later brought with it another revolution that turned the flight engineer's role obsolete. Big screens replaced the traditional gauges, which allowed the pilot and the co-pilot to monitor the flight status without an engineer. So here we are. Since then, for about 40 years now - only two persons have been responsible for flying every commercial flight.
So, Who's role is to become obsolete next? Probably the co-pilot. Unlike what you may think, flying a jetliner is more straightforward than driving a car. Each one has its own dedicated flight path. There are no obstacles to avoid and even the taking off and lanings are being done automatically for many years now. Of course, the critical issue is if emergencies where human ingenuity and the need to improvise are required, which is still almost impossible for a computer to perform.
Yet with the improvement of computing power, the speed and reliability of wireless networks, co-pilots may find themselves obsolete faster than we may think. A hybrid scenario may include a remote co-pilot that could help the pilot manage problems during emergencies. It might be challenging for a remote operator to get the real feeling of the emergency. But on the other hand, being remote and not suffering from stress - could help the remote co-pilot make calculated decisions that could be more beneficial for the situation.
As artificial intelligence becomes more competent, the remote co-pilot's role may also become obsolete. This may not happen very soon, but consider those two factors:
During the 90s, for the first time, jetliners with only two engines were allowed to make transatlantic flights, thanks to the engines' reliability and the onboard computers' ability to help the piloting crew fly even with one engine off.
An autopilot never gets stressed. An AI co-pilot will never get stressed no matter how bad the situation of the airplane. There have been too many cases where both pilot and co-pilot made wrong decisions just because of stress. Psychology has a critical role in emergency management.
And what about the co-pilots? Market researchers show that the airline industry will increase its size drastically, leading to the need for more pilots. As it seems now, nobody is going to lose their job.