Let’s take a Soviet Tu-104 airliner from 1955. The crew consisted of 5 people: commander, copilot, navigator, flight engineer, flight engineer. Or you can look at some British DH.106 Comet from 1949. Its crew was originally of 4 people: commander, copilot, flight engineer and navigator. And in the Boeing 747 of 1969, the crew originally consisted of only three professionals, and today consists of only two – the commander and copilot.
Where and why did the mechanics, radio operators and navigators disappear from the airplanes?
Since the mid-1960s, civil aviation aircrews have really been steadily decreasing. For example, in the already mentioned DH.106 Comet, the crew has been reduced over time from 4 to 3 people. In some Soviet IL-86s from 1976, the crew was originally also 4 specialists, but was subsequently reduced to 3. In many modern aircraft the crews consist of only two pilots. In many, but still not in all, even civil aircraft. Moreover, “old-fashioned” specialists are still in demand for a number of reasons in military and cargo aviation. Therefore, we cannot say that the era of flight engineers and navigators has passed.
If with the first and second pilots even to an ordinary person everything is more or less clear, the purpose of other specialists on board is not always obvious to the average person. Let’s briefly go over each of the specialists. So, the navigator is a specialist, responsible for setting the course, working with digital and topographic maps, observing the efficiency of aircraft navigation equipment. The flight engineer, flight engineer or flight mechanic (various levels of technical education) is a specialist who is responsible for the serviceability of aircraft components. He also prepares the aircraft for flight. They can also repair minor malfunctions right in the sky. Finally, the flight engineer is the person who operates the onboard radio station and is responsible for receiving and transmitting messages.
Back in the first half of XX century, all this set of specialists was vital for any large aircraft because of the underdevelopment and imperfection of automatic communication systems and controls. However, the more communication and avionics (automatic aircraft equipment) developed, the less the need for live specialists became. Every year, automation took more and more work off the shoulders of humans. However, all this concerns for the most part only the machines of civil aviation, which flies in rather “greenhouse” conditions according to predetermined courses and schedules. In military aviation, despite the development of automatics, human specialists are still needed, because in combat conditions many things still have to be done manually.