There is a related question about when regulations require a co-pilot. This question is about which airplanes cannot be physically flown without at least two people operating it.

Are there any airplanes currently in existence with such a requirement?

This can be because there are controls or systems that must (as in fall-from-the-sky-must, not FAA-must) be controlled or monitored by people in different stations. And by "flight," I mean taking off, controlled flight, and landing (in one piece) - and not any mission specific, tactical or navigational requirement.

Related: When does a flight require a copilot?

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    $\begingroup$ @Ethan, physically (which this question asks) they don't. In fact, they have a requirement that single pilot can, physically, fly them, so he can get to the ground safely when the other pilot becomes incapacitated (which is the main reason why legally there have to be two pilots)! $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Ethan Not all airliners even have the legal requirement. Single-crew airliners do exist, though they're relatively rare. The Cessna 208 Caravan is a semi-common example in the U.S. Within the U.S., civil operators mostly used it for EAS routes. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab You never see a major airliner fly a Cessna 208 Caravan usually. $\endgroup$
    – Ethan
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Ethan No, the majors don't, but they do contract with regional EAS airlines (e.g. SeaPort Airlines) that do operate them to feed traffic from small airports into larger hubs. They're used some for inter-island hops in HI, too. It looks funny to taxi past a little single-engine turboprop that's tied down to the ramp at a gate sitting next to a bunch of 737s and such. You know your airliner is small when it uses a tie-down while parked at a gate. - haha $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 22:09

1 Answer 1


The question boils down to,

"Are there any critical flight controls that are out of reach of the Pilot In Command?"

Some older aircraft that required a Flight Engineer in the third seat (not the copilot) and controls at that station that were not available to the pilot or copilot. Some older variants of the 747 (pre 400 series, not sure if any are still in service in their original config) had a required 3 man crew. The Concorde (when it flew) had its fuel system controls at the FE station and those had to manned in flight as the fuel had to be moved around during different stages. You may be more likely to find these older airframes/configurations in cargo service these days. For these planes the legal requirement is often 3 people (not 2) but from a pure "get it off the ground, fly it, land it" case you need at least 2 people to operate it.

The FE station looks something like this in most planes (747 in this pic) enter image description here (source)

The Concorde had a pretty daunting panel as well enter image description here

All that being said you would need at least a Pilot and FE to physically fly the plane since the pilot cant reach all the controls.

Modern avionics controls (glass cockpits mainly) have allowed more information to be presented directly to the pilot in a more condensed manner and allows displays to have multiple functions unlike gauges which tend to display only a single datum.

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    $\begingroup$ Great pictures! They make you appreciate the flight engineers. He's not just the GIB - Guy In Back. :-) $\endgroup$
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ It is not really about showing more information to the pilot but rather about having the computer act upon that information and not having to show it at all. Where the FE used to have to watch fuel pressure, oil pressure, engine vibrations, generator power output, generator frequency, fuel flow and many other parameters now these are not displayed at all and the computer will adjust things to keep them in appropriate range and sound a warning with appropriate message if it can't (there is not much options except to turn the failed component off anyway). $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ Even if a Flight Engineer is "required", couldn't the pilot just get up and flip a few controls at the right time when needed? Does the FE absolutely have to do anything critical for take off or landing? $\endgroup$
    – JPhi1618
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @JPhi1618 You generally don't want your pilot "getting up to flip a few controls" (their job is flying, not fiddling). A good classic example of an aircraft which required a flight engineer is the B-29: It had 3 sets of engine controls (Aircraft Commander, Pilot, and Flight Engineer). In normal operations the pilots would call and set power, and the flight engineer would fine-tune the settings. You could fly without the FE but you might cook an engine - hardly an optimal operation. (As Jan noted this is the same job FADEC does today, which is why we don't need flight engineers anymore.) $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 Thanks for the follow-up - I was just taking "physically impossible for one person to fly" to the extreme! $\endgroup$
    – JPhi1618
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 19:27

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