27
$\begingroup$

Why do some fighter jets have two pilots, while some have only one?

For example the newer fighter jets such as Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter typhoon etc. are mostly with single-seat, but two-seat models of these jets are also available.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Two-seat variant is needed at least for training. There don't seem to be two-seat variants of Typhoon or Rafale beyond that. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jun 1 '15 at 12:11
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ A lot of the time, like in the US Navy, if the airframe is a two seater one person is a designated Naval Aviator, and the other is an NFO (Naval Flight Officer). The have completely different training pipelines and job specifications. The NFO isn't a 'pilot' per-se, but has just as important of a job, if not more. But, there usually aren't two pilots unless it's a training situation. $\endgroup$ – ebrohman Jun 1 '15 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ Consider some fighters has an attack variant (e.g. mirage 2000 D) which externally looks like the training variant but whose missions are quite different and require 1 pilot and 1 specialized crew member. $\endgroup$ – Manu H Jul 13 '15 at 19:03
21
$\begingroup$

Speaking of fighters in their basic role, there are 2.

Interception and escort.

A single seat fighter would be superior in both scenarios because the space occupied by the second seater, plus the life support systems double the weight which can be put to fuel, countermeasures or weapons, and the extra weight and space will affect handling in air to air combat.

When the role is ground attack, 2 seat versions can be an advantage, such as SAM suppression mission, bombing and other types of strikes.

All of the above applies to modern aircraft.

Previously, say the 1970s and before, 2 seat fighters were sometimes necessary due to the technology available at that time. The F-4 and F-14 for example, the 2nd seater operated the radar because the pilot really couldn't keep his head in the cockpit when engaging multiple enemy contacts or when the fight was close in. Head up displays weren't available so the aircraft systems available to the pilot by necessity was kept limited in order to limit pilot overload.

$\endgroup$
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ Worth noting that HMCS wasn't available either, and it wasn't really until the addition of Multi-Function displays (IE: Glass Cockpit) that the workload could be balanced for a single person to manage in a cockpit. I wouldn't limit the answer to just 'because it's better for bombing to have two people', having two pairs of eyes on a hostile enemy aircraft is equally beneficial. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 1 '15 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark - True, but AWACS makes a lot of the RIO's traditional duties redundant in a CAP mission. Most two-seaters used in combat today are tasked with ground attack or electronic warfare; the pilot flies the plane, the GIB finds or blinds the targets. That doesn't mean they can't fight in the air as well (the F-15E has been used for Strike/CAP and HAVCAP sorties as its fuel load gives it extraordinary range and station time, while its missile ordnance doesn't compromise its ground stores capacity), but the systems and crews are more suited to attack missions. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 8 '15 at 21:29
29
$\begingroup$

All fighter aircraft have one pilot, though some have two crew members.

The backseat crew member is not a pilot, but often either a Radar Intercept Officer (US Navy), Navigator/Weapon Systems Officer (USAF, IDF), or Flight instructor.

Though not fighter aircraft, I believe that the SR-71 backseat crewmember operated the reconnaissance equipment as the single crewmember on the U2 was often overloaded with keeping the thing in the coffin corner and operating the reconnaissance equipment. Jan and Habu mention in the comments that the SR-71 backseat crew member was also the navigator and operated the ECM equipment. Additional comments mention that the B-1B consists of four crew members: two pilots, an OSO (offensive systems operator), and a DSO (defensive systems operator). The B2 has two crew members, both pilots, and while one is flying the other can rest, navigate, or operate the weapons system. Thanks to Jan, Habu, and Joel for comments and clarifications!

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The second crewmember of SR-71 was also navigator. The navigation computer could have only be programmed from the rear seat. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jun 1 '15 at 12:14
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ In B-2, the crew members take turns at the controls so they can get some rest (36-40 hour missions are rather common; they have some place to lay down behind the seats), so both have to be pilots. The pilot not flying does the other tasks like navigation and weapon system operation. B-1B has 4 crew members, so 2 of them are pilots. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jun 1 '15 at 12:29
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ The second Blackbird crew member also operated the ECM suite. The guy who wrote Sled Driver joked that if they ever got shot down and captured, he was gonna point to his RSO and tell their captors that the RSO was the spy and he was just the driver. $\endgroup$ – habu Jun 1 '15 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ @dotancohen: I mentioned B-2. They are both pilots. Only one is needed to fly the plane, but they take turns on long missions. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jun 1 '15 at 13:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Joel M - that's 99% accurate, but in non-combat military planes (USAF) (e.g. other than fighters and bombers), the "backseater" will be called a Nav or a Combat Systems Officer, not a Weapons System Officer $\endgroup$ – SSumner Jun 1 '15 at 20:28
13
$\begingroup$

It's primarily a question of pilot workload and military policy at design time.

You'll notice that the primary two-seat fighters and attack planes in the U.S. armed forces (designation F or A) were designed in the late Korean through Vietnam eras, representing the third and early fourth generation of fighter design. This was a critical period of transition from the fighter philosophy of the World Wars and Korea, primarily day fighters engaging in visual-range combat with guns, to modern air combat involving all-weather precision engagements beginning BVR through use of radar, missiles and targeting computers.

As these systems were added to fighter cockpits in the early "century series", developing what would eventually be known as the "multirole fighter", pilot workload grew dramatically compared to the relatively simple layouts and weapons systems of propeller and early jet dogfighters. As a result, these systems, intended to increase pilot situational awareness, ended up doing the exact opposite, forcing the pilot to keep his head "in the cockpit" reading gauges and displays, with his situational awareness of what was going on outside the plane somewhere around his ankles.

With the problem identified but insufficient technology to take critical "heads-down" tasks like navigation away from the pilot, designers initially addressed it by adding a second crewman, whose job it would be to handle tasks not directly associated with the primary operation of the plane, such as navigation, managing the radar, keeping an extra pair of eyes on the sky around them, handling radio communications, etc. This guy is officially known in most situations as the Radar Intercept Officer or RIO, or informally as the GIB (Guy In Back).

It would take a few more technological developments, like the inertial navigation system, heads-up display, HOTAS control layouts, the integrated fire control computer, and advanced C4I capability like AWACS/JSTARS, before the workload inherent in the average fighter sortie could reasonably be handled by one crewman. AWACS can guide and advise pilots much like civilian ATC, the inertial navigation system allows pilots to simply point their plane in the indicated direction as opposed to monitoring nav beacons to figure out exactly where they were, and the HUD and HOTAS got the pilot's head out of the cockpit by placing the information and controls he needs to fly the jet effectively in combat where they're supposed to be; right in front of him and/or at his fingertips.

The primary fighter and attack jets of the third and fourth generation to utilize a 2-man crew include the F-4 Phantom, F-111 Aardvark, A-6 Intruder, the F-14 Tomcat, and the B and D variants of the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon and F-18 Hornet. Notice by the development of the F-15 through F-18 that designers and US top brass were already considering single-seaters to be sufficient; the development and integration of the aforementioned systems into U.S. fourth-generation fighters had successfully made the workload presented by the plane more manageable by one person, thus the backseater (who required expensive flight training just like the pilot) could be moved to a second plane as pilot instead of riding along in the first, and the B/D variants of the Eagle, Falcon and Hornet were primarily used as trainers. However, all these designs were laid out in both one and two-seat variants just in case; the next fighters developed domestically for the USAF, the F-22 and F-23, were single-seat only (at least one two-seat F-22B was built, whether as a trainer or preproduction evaluation model, but the USAF never seriously considered a two-seater). The F-35 was never even proposed as a two-seater, primarily because every cubic inch of the design is spoken for especially in the STOVL-capable B variant.

The remaining two-seat fighters in the U.S. arsenal are the F-15E strike fighter (the backseater having the unique title of "Weapons Systems Officer" or "Wizzo" and being responsible for the fairly complex radar and targeting systems aboard) and variants of the F/A-18 including the F-variant "Super Hornet" and G-variant "Growler" EW fighter. In all these cases the GIB usually manages the advanced radar, targeting and jamming systems of these craft, as well as assisting in dogfighting by providing a second set of eyes especially behind the aircraft. The EA-6B Prowler, an older EW aircraft replaced just this year with the EA-18G Growler, had a crew of four; one pilot and three countermeasures officers.

$\endgroup$
6
$\begingroup$

In addition to Vivian jeet Singh Sudan's answer, most tactical aircraft also have training versions, which are indeed two-seaters with dual flight controls with the instructor sitting in the back.

The two-seat Eurofighters, Rafales, versions B & D of the Eagle and Fighting Falcon, anything from MiG or Sukhoi with a -UB suffix, etc. are all examples of this. That's not to say that they can't be operated in a pilot + weapons officer configuration (or single-pilot for that matter) and they normally retain full combat capability, but they're primarily intended for initial training, checkrides, and the like.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ The F/A-18F Super Hornet is a two-seat variant intended for use as a strike fighter; it's basically the Navy's answer to the F-15E. These aren't just trainers (though the F is also used by TFA-109 in that capacity). $\endgroup$ – KeithS Oct 7 '15 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ The Rafale-B is not a training version. $\endgroup$ – Relaxed Oct 8 '15 at 8:17
3
$\begingroup$

The primary reason any fighter aircraft would be designed for two crew members is work load. As avionics, sensors and weapon systems advance they become easier for a single pilot to operate, which is why far fewer fighter aircraft have two crew members now than in the past.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Two-pilot versions of almost all military planes exist (including the SR-71 until its retirement). They are for training pilots to fly them.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There's a couple that don't, like the A-10, F-22, and F-35. On those, your first flight in the aircraft is solo $\endgroup$ – SSumner Jun 1 '15 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ There actually was one A-10B two-seat variant built as a possible trainer, but the USAF never bought any. Likewise, one F-22B two-seater was built for evaluation but that variant was scrapped as cost-cutting forced the USAF to prioritize the A variant. No two-seater of the F-35 was ever built. As far as their use, it's not just for training; All variants of the F-14 (A-D), the F-15B/D/E, F-16B/D, and F-18B/D/F/G were procured by the U.S. with the intention of combat use; the backseater typically manages the radar and provides a second set of eyes. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jun 25 '15 at 20:13
1
$\begingroup$

Others have already provided many details on the uses for two-seat fighters, US names and practices, etc. but note that for the Rafale specifically, the two-seat variant is not merely a training version. In fact, some users, including the French Air Force, have more two-seat than single-seat planes.

The person seating in the second seat is often a “navigator” who assists the pilot and operates the weapon systems but I think that their controls are exactly the same so that the plane could be piloted from the back seat. Note that the Rafale was not designed as a fighter but as “multirole” aircraft, doing everything including reconnaissance, ground attack, close-air support, and nuclear strike.

Some missions benefit from a two-man crew while others do not, hence the two variants. On the other hand, the reason why some planes only have one seat is that the single-seat variant has a lower cost, lower weight and extra fuel tanks.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Unless there has been a major change in AF doctrine, a two-seat fighter will ALWAYS be necessary, simply ask this question "When was the last time any ONE person could even be ALONE in a room (remember "NO-LONE ZONES" ) with a nuclear device, let alone having full control of one?" The Air Force I served for 24 years would answer "NEVER!" Even if a "mad" pilot could somehow steal a fighter with a "silver bullet" hanging on it, nothing would ever happen because with no warm body in the back seat to activate the "Nuclear Stores Consent" switch, the nuclear store goes nowhere. The pilot could try and pickle off the bomb, but without toggling that switch in the back, the payload stays onboard. The only AF fighters (that I knew about anyway) having this switch were the F-111, F-4, F-16 (two seat), and F-15E Strike Eagle.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This article indicates that the single-seat F-35 will carry nuclear weapons, so I guess AF doctrine doesn't work the way you remember it. (Or perhaps you mis-remember only B and D model Vipers being nuclear capable.) In any event, the F-35's capability shoots down your theory. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Nov 17 '18 at 5:14
  • $\begingroup$ See "Stranger to the Ground" for a counterexample. $\endgroup$ – Joshua Aug 6 at 21:15
0
$\begingroup$

With the technology available today, the ideal number is zero. But traditionally many tactical fighters had a crew of two because it made for more efficient operation in missions with a high workload. The "backseater" would perform tasks like interpretation of radar imagery, navigation and the operation of ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) while the pilot concentrated on flying.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.