Airbus A320 certified for single-pilot operation

According to the press coverage of the US Airways floating tour of the Hudson River, the Airbus A320 has been certified for single-pilot operation. In the old days this airplane would have flown by a crew of two pilots, one titled “Captain” and one with the job title of “First Officer”. One of the two pilots would have been handling the stick and rudder while the other pilot worked the radio, flaps, slats, landing gear, pressurization controls (very critical in this case, since a jetliner ditching usually involves dumping the cabin pressure and then sealing the cabin just before impact). Generally these roles are swapped after each leg of a trip. The “pilot monitoring” role can be tougher than the “pilot flying” role when things go wrong. The stick and rudder stuff is what pilots have been doing since their first flight in a Cessna. Furthermore, all airplanes respond in a similar way to stick and rudder commands. The systems and switches on a modern airliner, however, are extremely complex and unique to a particular airplane type. For knowing what switch to push and in what order, experience gained on a previous airplane is of no value.

From reading the New York Times, we learn that Chesley B. Sullenberger III was the pilot of US Airways 1549 and he was apparently working everything in the cockpit by himself, a truly remarkable achievement.

[A reader of the London Times, by contrast, would have learned that the A320 is flown by a two-pilot crew and that the first officer was Jeff Skiles (profile).]

[News accounts have not spent a lot of ink on the people who did the toughest job in this incident: Shelia Dail, Donna Dent, and Doreen Welsh, the flight attendants. Being a pilot is a fairly straightforward job in a tightly controlled environment (except when both engines quit!). The flight attendants, however, face unique situations depending on who shows up as a passenger. In their training and drills they have to evacuate a fully-loaded airplane within 90 seconds.]

10 thoughts on “Airbus A320 certified for single-pilot operation

  1. They also seem to imply that it was superlative flying and that other pilots would have been unlikely to even come close to such a beneficial outcome. I’m pretty sure that most pilots would have done the same thing with very similar results. He also had some good luck such as location of bridges and river traffic. And a competent cabin crew. Usually evacuations have some broken limbs.

    But in the bigger picture this is why aircraft have pilots and why pilots do lots of training, not just trivial stuff like where to point the plane, but emergency drills and psychological stuff like CRM.

  2. Roger: I didn’t want to take anything away from the achievement of either pilot in that A320, just was trying to point out the unfairness of being the first officer. The captain gets the key to the city and the first officer is never mentioned. Both of them were presumably working pretty hard in the last minute of that flight.

    John: That is an excellent question.. why not put a bird screen in front? I think one answer is that it would obstruct airflow and reduce efficiency considerably. So you’d need a retractable bird screen that would come back once you were up in cruise flight or in the event of an engine failure (so that you’d obtain max power on the remaining engine). The screen would also need to retract in icing conditions unless it were heated with bleed air. A deeper answer is that it might not work. The suction against any bird screen would be so intense that the bird would stick to the screen and then maybe be sucked through one little piece at a time, which might be just as damaging to the engine. is a patent from 1979. It seems to have written by a guy who doesn’t understand much about jet engines since he proposes to use exhaust gases (very hot, flying out the back) for de-icing rather than bleed air (compressed ambient air, prior to burning, as hot as you want depending on where in the compressor you tap).

  3. It’s not completely obvious yet that another crew would have made the same decisions. Now that the flight track has been published, I notice that while the plane was gliding southbound over the Bronx they were on what could have been a base leg to KLGA Rwy 13; given their eventual touchdown point in the Hudson, it seems they should have been able to make the runway. I am curious whether it was ever considered — apparently they did consider and reject Teterboro, which wasn’t much farther away.

    In small airplanes and gliders we are trained that a relatively safe off-airport landing is always preferable to an uncertain return to the airport. But I don’t know if that applies given the risks of ditching an A320.

  4. EDZ: I would guess that given his history of accident-analysis, the pilot chose water
    over the risk of fire.

    I used to fly from the Rockies to the California coast in a small single engine plane
    with a multi-talented pilot. Once before departure, a colleague said to me, “Yeah, Bruce is a pretty good guy to fly with. He’s set that thing down a couple of times and walked away.” I said, “That’s your idea of bon voyage?” And he replied, “Seriously, it is an important consideration.”

  5. A more recent NY Times article gets it largely right:

    The single-pilot operation fallacy makes every reporter look especially bad because it only takes a quick look when stepping on a commuter jet to see that there’s a crew a work. Whenever I read about the single-pilot operation of large a/c (as in the initial reports of the BA 777 landing short at Heathrow), or about things that I’m actually professionally intimate with, I wonder about what this lack of journalistic dedication does to articles that I can’t fact-check myself.

    XXX (ex journo)

  6. My dim memory of an equally sporting crash-landing 40 years ago – as co-pilot – appreciates your reminder: .

    Many dead pilots misunderestimated the perils of turning a gliding brick toward a nearby, seductive runway rather than committing to a reasonably forgiving rectangle straight ahead, regardless of its material. In June 1968, we made a similar choice, listed as the second of 5 things that went right, saving our sorry tails that day .

  7. If the engines on flight 1549 were both shut down, what would that do to the electrical system as far as power to the control surfaces? Was Sullenberger able to use flaps, or would he have done so in a dead stick situation?

  8. Ron: With no electrical power, an Airbus or any other transport jet would have a lot worse problems than flap control. The ailerons, elevator, and rudder are too heavy to be moved by a human. The yoke in a big old-design jet is connected via steel cables to hydraulic control valves that modulate hydraulic pressure on the primary control surfaces. In an Airbus I believe it is “Fly by wire” so the connection is just an electrical signal. The aileron is moved by 3000 psi of hydraulic pressure generated by an electric pump. Were the pump to stop pressurizing the hydraulics you’d have no control at all. (Remember that DC-10 that crashed in Iowa; they lost hydraulic fluid and couldn’t control the plane except by differential thrust.)

    A twin-engine jet that relies on hydraulic power typically has four sources of electric power: GEN1, GEN2, APU, and ADG. GEN1 and GEN2 are attached to the engines and would have been rendered useless by the bird strike. The APU is in the tail and is run on the ground for passenger comfort, engine starting, and redundancy during takeoff. It is typically switched off shortly after takeoff and might not have been still running during this incident. The ADG is an “air-driven generator” (i.e., a big fan) that pops out automatically when other sources of power have been lost. It is directly connected to a hydraulic pump that will ensure continued three-axis control of the airplane.

    On a cheaper, lighter, simpler airplane you can rely on a battery as a backup because you don’t need electric power to run anything critical (if you didn’t have enough juice to extend the flaps you’d land on a longer runway).

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