One-pilot cockpits? The ‘Swiss Cheese’ model says no

Aeroplane cockpits are full of alarms that sound when disaster is imminent. When I read yesterday of the push by some airlines for one-pilot cockpits despite safety fears, I was sure I could hear an alarm going off. Loud.

As a former Qantas captain, I’ve spent more than 40 years in the aviation business where safety is the number one focus. A major contributor to that safety record is a concept called redundancy, not the regrettable term that saw many pilots have their wings clipped because of COVID, but a technical term that continues to make commercial aviation the safest form of transport.

One-pilot cockpits are a very bad idea. Credit:Kate Geraghty

Redundancy is where there is a backup system to take over when a primary system fails. In all certified modern aircraft there are several levels of redundancies in every system.

The most recent exception was the Boeing 737 Max. In the interests of cost savings, the manufacturer failed to incorporate redundancy in their infamous Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system. For those interested, the details are out there in a great Netflix doco called Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, however the point is that 346 humans paid the ultimate price for a lack of redundancy. The B737 Max was grounded until redundancy was incorporated into the software, which is now a very safe airliner.

The Airbus A380 I used to fly has five levels of braking redundancy: Normal, Alternate, Emergency, Ultimate … and when all else fails, the good old Parking Brake. You’re having a very bad day if your A380 runs out of brakes.

The Bombardier Global Express I now fly is a very sophisticated corporate jet. It has no fewer than six electrical generators. Two on each engine and another two on the auxiliary power unit (APU). Each one is capable of supplying enough electricity to power the essential systems to keep the aircraft flying.

One-pilot cockpits: what could possibly go wrong?Credit:iStock

I might also add that it’s…


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