Sullenberger: One-pilot commercial flights "ludicrous" idea


(CBS News) What if your next flight had only one pilot on the plane?

On Friday, a respected aviation blog called "Operationally Speaking" said research is underway. Boeing and a number of big European manufacturers are reportedly interested.

It would work like this: a co-pilot would be stationed on the ground. That co-pilot would essentially act like the pilot of an unmanned drone. They would be able to take "remote control" of the flight if needed.

CBS News aviation and safety expert Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger called the idea "ludicrous."

On "CBS This Morning," he said, "It's hard to believe that people can keep a straight face and propose this at this time. There's no substitute for having a well trained crew of at least two pilots and anybody who has flown for a living like I have knows how easy it is for a single pilot to suddenly be overloaded by a sudden emergency.

"What we've learned in aviation is how to take individuals and help them create a very effective team so that they can handle the unexpected and solve whatever problem that may come and that just can't be done remotely," he said. "That has to be done in the cockpit with both people experiencing the same situation, feeling the same vibrations, smelling the same electrical odors or whatever is going on, sometimes wordlessly, because the workload can be so high, you sometimes can't have a conversation with someone on the ground."

Sullenberger, famous for his "Miracle on the Hudson" landing, said he wouldn't have had a successful landing if his co-pilot Jeff Skiles had not been at his side while he was trying to land US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Sullenberger said, "If Jeff Skiles had been on the ground ... there's absolutely no way. It could not have been."

The airlines, according to Sullenberger, may be pushing this scheme due to money concerns or an alleged pilot shortage.

"I don't see a clear upside to this," he said. "I don't know if it's some other idea that they from time to time trot out about a potential pilot shortage or something else, but there isn't a pilot shortage in this country right now and there won't be if the airlines can have entry-level jobs that pay more than starvation wages."

Sullenberger said he's not anti-technology, but acknowledged its limitations. "Technology can only do what has been foreseen and for which it has been programmed and it's the human element working in this human and technology system that we have in our cockpit that can innovate, can take what we do know and apply it in a new way to solve in 208 seconds, in our case, a problem that we had never seen before."