In the history of the military aviation world, multi-role fighters, interceptors, fighter-bombers, as well as modern attack helicopters, all have a two-seat version.


Why is a second crew member required? This question certainly has gained a large number of answers. For a more comprehensive view of this issue, let’s go back to World War II, the era of the thriving military aircraft.

During the early years of the Great Patriotic War, Soviet single-seat Il-2 ground-attack aircraft were vulnerable to enemy aircraft. By the end of 1942, the two-seat Il-2 was redesigned to partially address the growing losses in the Soviet Air Force’s assault regiment.

The rear hemisphere is protected by a gunner armed with a UBT machine gun. The Nazi Luftwaffe began to find it more difficult to deal with Soviet ground attack aircraft.

two seat fighter

The need for the second pilot

Previously, on large airplanes such as bombers, reconnaissance, and transport planes, multiple crew members was used.

But, during World War II, most Soviet ground attack aircraft had single seat. The situation has changed since the era of jet planes, especially fighter-bombers.

Today, computer systems on modern airplanes are becoming more powerful and compact. But on the early jet fighters, the manufacturers separated the navigation-sight and the navigation-pilot system so that the two could fly them in flight.

A pilot will find it extremely difficult to keep track of everything while flying a modern fighter. Conversely, if there were two people in the cockpit, the combat machine’s capabilities would be able to be maximized. Thus, the fighter crew had a second member – the navigator or the system operator.

two seat fighter

Su-30SM and Su-35S

The two-seat fighters are used more than the single-seat in terms of combat and navigation duties. For example, the single-seat Su-35S fighter primarily performs the “air superiority” mission. With the same take-off weight as the two-seat Su-30SM version, the Su-35S is powered by heavier and more powerful AL-41F1S engines, with controlled thrust vectors.

Therefore, the Su-35S is more powerful than the Su-30SM in terms of traction and maneuverability. The lack of co-pilot equipment also positively affects the flight characteristics of the Su-35S.

For its part, the 2-seat Su-30SM has additional equipment controlled by the co-pilot, so it can coordinate action with the group of combat aircraft, perform reconnaissance missions, electronic warfare, point target, strike ground targets, etc.

two seat fighter

Co-pilots are specially trained to do special jobs

Fighters are primarily a platform to carry weapons. If you expand the list of weapons, especially high-precision weapons, you will improve the effectiveness of the combat mission. In the complicated conditions of air combat, it is impossible to use autopilot technology, especially when it is required to coordinate actions with other aircraft.

The “classic” fighter has one mission: intercept and attack aerial targets. A pilot can perform a combination of flying and firing.

The range of missions of multirole aircraft, such as fighter-bombers, is significantly broader. Pilots also have to search for and detect small targets on the ground or at sea, including targets camouflaged and protected by electronic warfare and air defense systems. It is necessary to rationally assign these targets between aircraft and use precision guided weapons to destroy them.

There are also missions such as electronic warfare, transmitting real-time data flow to missile systems on the ground. To perform these tasks requires a second member, the system operator cum navigator.

In this role, he will be the main character. During these missions, the pilot’s mastery skill was not the most important. A top priority is the ability to quickly assess the tactical situation based on a variety of data. He must reasonably allocate the aircraft’s combat resources, control and evaluate the results of the strike. It can be said that in the role of an analyst, the operator plays a key role.

two seat fighter

Good cooperation creates a perfect crew

The importance of the two-seat fighter is not the weapons it carries and the equipment in the cockpit, but the close coordination of the crew. The main pilot and the operator must be people who understand each other.

During training operations, an experienced commander shuffles the crew, sends officers who have not previously worked together on a plane and finds out which combination is most effective. And sure enough, he also cared about the opinions of the pilots themselves.

Today, most modern fighters have more “virtual pilots” – an electronic computer system to assist pilots and ensure flight safety. However, the Air Force still hasn’t cut the pilot, as the second crew member is someone with a good response and special training.

two seat fighter

Kinzhal supersonic missile on Mig-31

According to military experts, it is no coincidence that the Russian Defense Ministry chose the MiG-31 interceptor to carry the new Kinzhal supersonic missile.

First, the MiG-31 can fly for a long time in supersonic mode.

Second, the MiG-31 can launch missiles at long range.

And third, it’s a two-seat airplane. The pilots easily divide tasks when operating such sophisticated weapons. MiG-31s typically operate at a large range. The navigator can correct the pilot’s minor errors in navigating and even controlling the aircraft, giving him time to rest.


So, you have the answer to the question: “Why need a second pilot for a fighter?” Simply the workload of engaging aircraft, ground targets and managing all of the other systems is often too much for a single person in a fourth and earlier generation aircraft.

On the fifth generation fighters, the technology solutions have largely addressed the operator role. But for the foreseeable future, a second member on a fighter will still be needed in the air forces.

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