Only one pilot? No problem.
Recently, the Captain of a JetBlue flight from New York to Las Vegas, exhibited strange and erratic behavior, which after being convinced to leave the cockpit, ultimately resulted in him being subdued by passengers and crewmembers. It is understandable why some might think this unusual event might be cause for alarm. A pilot of a commercial airliner suffering what appeared to be a mental breakdown of sorts!? While everyone involved concedes that such an event is incredibly unlikely, it does raise some legitimate questions: Who will fly the plane when something like this happens? How prepared are airline crews to deal with similar situations? Does this endanger the safety of the flight?
Fortunately, most of these concerns are over-exaggerated. Much like airplanes themselves, the airline crews and the procedures they use are based on safety and redundancy. Every commercial airliner has a wealth of back-up systems: two engines, two tires on each landing gear, two or more radios, etc. Likewise, there are two pilots and two sets of controls in the cockpit. The pilots also have detailed contingency procedures for pretty much any situation. It’s fairly safe to say that everything on an airliner has a back-up or replacement should the primary system, person, or procedure stop functioning normally.
So, while the Captain is the main person in charge and the ultimate decision maker, he/she is not the only person capable of flying the plane; nor will they typically do anything without consulting the other pilot. All airline pilots are thoroughly trained to operate their respective planes. This means that the Captains and the First Officers (co-pilots) have the same knowledge with respect to systems, procedures, and emergencies. They even alternate taking turns flying the plane, communicating on the radios, and operating various systems on every other flight. Either pilot is therefore more than capable of flying the plane safely by themselves, should the need ever arise. Of course, why in the world would you want to have only one pilot on a plane? By having two, you double the level of experience, increase their ability to deal with any situation, and have a back-up pilot if one of them were to become incapacitated.
As was the case on the JetBlue flight, if for some reason a pilot becomes unable to carry out their duties, the other pilot has specific procedures that they must follow to determine if the other pilot must be relieved. In that case, they will then assume control of the plane and, as a precaution, safely land the plane at the nearest suitable airport. However, this is an extremely rare and unlikely occurrence given the incredibly thorough screening that pilots must go through in order to be cleared to work in the airline industry.
Prior to being hired at an airline, all pilots are given extensive background checks. Criminal histories, employment histories, and medical conditions must be checked and/or submitted. Once employed at an airline, pilots are then given a mandatory physical examination, at least once each year, by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) government-licensed medical examiner. Any significant health or medical changes are then required by law to be reported to the government and the airline. Likewise, if any significant criminal charges are ever filed against the person, then they must also be submitted. Certain medical conditions or a failure to report such conditions will result in the revocation of a pilots FAA medical clearance and their ability to fly. All of this information is tracked and shared by the airlines and FAA. As for the JetBlue Captain, it is unclear at this point in time, just what might have caused him to behave the way he did. The only thing that we know with any certainty is that the system developed to deal with such a situation worked exactly as it should. JetBlue’s procedures (like those at all commercial airlines) correctly identified the abnormal situation, and provided guidance for relieving the Captain of his duties. The First Officer did an excellent job of carefully coordinating the response as well as continuing to fly the plane and landing it safely, just as he was trained to do.
Unlike what is sometimes portrayed in movies, airline pilots are not fearless risk-takers. On the contrary, they are highly trained, cautious, and meticulous in their duties. In fact, everything in the airline industry is an all or nothing approach when it comes to safety. Either it’s a 100% safe or it simply isn’t done. Along those lines, back-ups are a required part of every part of commercial air travel. Planes, pilots, and procedures always have a back-up or “plan B.” There is hardly another industry anywhere in the world that does more to inspect, educate, test, and monitor its people and equipment so as to ensure that each and every flight is conducted as safely as possible. It is that underlying theme and emphasis on safety, combined with the tireless efforts of highly trained professional pilots that will guarantee a safe flight every single time, no matter what unusual circumstances may arise.
-JetBlue pilot has midair meltdown-