Single Pilot Jets

The training, insurance and safety aspects of flying solo in a business jet.

Single pilot jets

From the beginning the FAA has treated jets differently. In almost every area of certification the standards for jets have been more stringent than for propeller-driven airplanes, and one of those jet standards had been a requirement for two pilots. That rule remained in force until 1977 when Cessna won approval for single-pilot operation of its new Citation I-SP, and now many models of business jets are approved for single-pilot operation.

Most business jets are certified in the transport category because they have maximum certified takeoff weights greater than 12,500 pounds, the demarcation between large and small aircraft. One of the many certification rule changes between small and large aircraft is a requirement for at least two pilots in the large transport category airplane.

It's easy to understand why two pilots would be required in a transport airplane, given the greater complexity and generally higher performance. By their very nature transport airplanes are designed to carry larger numbers of people, or a greater amount of cargo, so there is a greater risk to a larger group, and certification theory has always demanded a higher standard as risk increases. Society, through the FAA, grants us wide latitude to take chances with our own lives, or with those of a few friends or family members, but that all changes when passenger capacity increases. Nobody wants to operate really large airplanes - including larger business jets - with a single pilot, but light business jets are a different issue. For many people a single pilot in a light business jet is enough.

It is understandable why some owners would want to fly their business jets without a copilot. The convenience of taking off when you want, staying as long as you want, and all other aspects of operating your own airplane are at least a little more complicated when you need two pilots. Single-pilot operation is all about flexibility and convenience. There is some cost to be saved by not hiring a copilot, but that's not a big issue. Besides, you almost certainly will pay more in insurance premiums than a qualified copilot would cost to hire.

Many business jet owners will argue that single-pilot flying is safe, but no sane person would say it is 100 percent as safe as with a well-trained crew of two professional pilots. But in all forms of general aviation flying we trade a small amount of safety potential-a second pilot, or maybe second engine-for convenience and availability. If we didn't make some small compromises on potential safety, we would all be on the airlines because they adhere to the most rigid, and potentially safest, standards.

The first company that I know of that attempted to win single-pilot certification for a business jet was Lear Jet with its original Model 23. Bill Lear imagined his speedy little jet as very much a personal airplane, unlike the Gulfstream, JetStar, Hawker 125 and Sabreliner, all true corporate airplanes that the giant airplane companies were delivering in the early 1960s. Maximum certified takeoff weight in the Lear Jet 23 was set at 12,500 pounds so it could qualify under the small aircraft rules. The company did win certification in the small airplane category for the 23, but after FAA flight testing the agency ruled that a second pilot would be required. Following models of the Learjet were certified in the transport category and single-pilot approval has never been awarded, or even requested, as far as I know.

When Cessna developed the original Citation 500 in the early 1970s the airplane was approved at a maximum takeoff weight of 11,850 pounds, which qualified for small airplane certification, but it was certified in the transport category and required a crew of two. The improved version Citation I-SP that came along in 1977 was certified in the small airplane category, along with the larger Citation II-SP, and was thus eligible for single-pilot operation, which the FAA approved.

The maximum takeoff weight being below 12,500 helped to determine the rules of certification, but what Cessna really did with the I-SP was convince the FAA that the airplane had a low enough workload that a trained single pilot could handle it safely. To fly the I-SP with a single pilot you had to have a boom microphone for hands-free communications-somewhat uncommon 30 years ago-and a fully functioning autopilot. There was also the quaint requirement for a transponder ident button to be mounted on the control wheel. In those days we would ident on almost every controller handoff.

In the case of the Citation I-SP and II-SP it was the airplane that was approved for single-pilot flying, not the pilot. There was only one type rating-the CE500-that allowed a pilot to fly any of the Citation models at the time, including flying solo or as part of a crew. The entire focus was on the airplane, not the pilot.

The FAA's thinking changed in the 1980s with the creation of the new commuter category of certification. A number of turboprops used in commuter flying at the time were bumping up against the 12,500-pound certification limit for small airplanes. It was impractical to modify these airplanes to the more stringent transport category rules so that they could operate at higher takeoff weights, so the commuter category was created. To certify in commuter category an airplane has to meet many, but not nearly all, of the transport rules, but, in general, two pilots are required.

An early airplane approved in the commuter category was the Beech King Air 300, which very closely resembles the Super King Air 200, except the 300 has more powerful engines and a maximum takeoff weight above 12,500 pounds. Pilots flying the 300 need a type rating because it is in the commuter category, and they must observe balanced field takeoff requirements. But the cockpit and pilot workload of the 300 is virtually identical to the 200 that requires neither a type rating or second pilot. In an admirable flash of absolute logic the FAA recognized that it is the pilot, not the airplane, that makes the difference when deciding on how many pilots are needed. Clearly the King Air 200 had a long and successful record being flown by single pilots before the 300 was created, so the airplane and its workload was not the issue. It was obvious that the 300 could be flown safely by a single pilot, but the FAA didn't want to give up the safety standards it sets for large airplanes. The answer was the single-pilot type rating. The way it works is that the airplanes - the King Air 300, 350, CJs, Beech Premier, Mustang and many more - are approved for single-pilot operation, but the pilot must have a type rating that qualifies him to fly solo. To earn that rating the pilot must be trained and checked under an approved program. These airplanes are eligible to be flown by a single pilot, but not just any single pilot.

The FAA still begins with the assumption that a jet or airplane weighing more than 12,500 pounds will require a crew of two and it's up to the manufacturer to demonstrate otherwise. Approval for single-pilot operation is one of the final steps in certification of a new business jet, or an airplane in the commuter category.

Many of the requirements for single-pilot operation are obvious. For example, the landing gear handle needs to be easily reachable from the left seat, which is not always the case in jets. The design of the basic controls is also crucial. For example, it would be almost impossible to get single-pilot approval for a jet with tiller steering for the nosewheel because at crucial times during takeoff or landing the left seat pilot needs one hand for the tiller and the other for the throttles, with nothing left for the flight controls. All other controls, switches and essential items must also be located so a single pilot can easily see and reach them. And the autopilot must be fully and seamlessly integrated into the airplane and its navigation systems, and the complete autopilot system must be functional for every flight with only one pilot.

After the FAA determines that a pilot can physically manage the cockpit from the left seat, actual flight testing determines if the airplane will be approved for single-pilot flight. What typically happens is that FAA certification pilots fly the new type from the left seat through various maneuvers, but most importantly, the pilots fly typical flights to determine the workload. The FAA pilots fly the airplane into busy airspace on standard IFR clearances with no special ATC handling and with no help from a copilot. And the FAA pilots do not have a great deal of time in the airplane because it is, of course, new, so they are taking a fresh look at the tasks a pilot must perform.

Airspeeds are, of course, important because a jet that can fly slower in the terminal area gives the single pilot more time to manage the cockpit. But even more critical is the level of automation in the systems and avionics. The autopilot will be used for virtually all phases of flight except takeoff and landing, so it must be uncomplicated to operate and perform crucial functions such as automatic altitude capture. The flight management system (FMS) that handles the navigation chores must have comprehensive capability, but not demand too much head-down time to operate. These are all subjective decisions by the FAA pilots, but in nearly 30 years of single-pilot jet operation the base of experience is broad.

The FAA's single-pilot certification practices make sense to me because the agency's test pilots determine that they can handle the workload, and then examiners certify that each pilot applying for a single-pilot type rating can also handle the load. A competent pilot employed by the FAA could handle the airplane safely by himself, so pilots who want the rating must demonstrate the same level of competency.

To my knowledge no transport category jet is certified for single-pilot operation, and I don't think there is any demand for such approval. Several models of the Citation 500 family that are certified in the transport category can be flown single pilot under an STC waiver, but that is different from actual certification of the airplane.

But light jets, even those that weigh more than 12,500 pounds maximum at takeoff such as the Cessna CJ3, are much closer in their typical mission to a light airplane than they are to an airliner, so the logic of allowing single-pilot operation in light jets makes sense. Read on to learn the ramifications of single-pilot flying on insurance, safety and training.