Take a tour of the future's cockpit.
Scandinavian Airlines flight 751 took off from Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport into wintery skies on December 27, 1991. During the climb, clear ice on the airplane’s wings broke up and was sucked into the rear-mounted engines. The ice blocked the incoming air, making the air pressure inside the engines’ combustion chamber higher than the air pressure outside.
The highly pressurized air needed a way out, and found one by exploding out both the front and back ends of the engines. This is commonly called a surge, and there’s a simple fix: throttle back the engines to give them a chance to settle down and recover. This is just what Scandinavian Airlines captain Stefan Rasmussen did, but it didn’t work. The engines surged themselves to pieces and the powerless airplane crashed in a field near Gottröra. Miraculously, all 129 passengers and crew survived.
What Rasmussen didn’t know was that his plane had an automatic thrust restoration feature. The onboard computer was programmed to maintain engine power throughout the climb under all circumstances. So when he throttled the engines’ power down, the autopilot reversed his command. Had pilot and airplane communicated a little better, the surging would likely have been a momentary and isolated incident on a normal flight.
It’s sort of terrifying, but these types of man-machine communications breakdowns are common. Pilot error, a broad term that includes pilots’ well-intentioned actions reacting to faulty instrumentation, was the underlying cause of about 60 percent of all fatal plane crashes in the last decade.
Ironically, autopilot systems were introduced to make flying safer, but when they act without talking to the pilot they lead to disaster. And it’s a known problem that avionics companies—the ones that build cockpit instruments—are starting to address. And the inspiration for for the cockpit of the future is the smartphone.
Boeing's B-29, the most sophisticated propeller plane of World War II, had a pretty scant cockpit. Via the National Air and Space Museum
Cockpit displays typically feed off instruments and systems inside the airplane. It’s a closed system with little information coming from the outside. The enduring problem of instrumentation is helping engineers who design the systems understand how pilots use them in flight. But that’s slowly starting to change. Avionics companies are starting to redesign cockpits around the way pilots interact with their machines.
What avionics companies like Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, Thales, and Garmin will likely do is trade out the complicated cockpits (take a peek next time you board a plane) for a larger display of touchscreens, voice-recognitions software, and visual systems that will show the pilots his surrounding terrain from any altitude and through any kind of weather. It’s possible cockpits down the line will include displays of pilots’ brain activity and heart rate. This will all help a crew know instantly what action to take, or tell them to do nothing at all.
The supersonic Concorde's cockpit is frighteningly complicated. Via Wiki Commons
The goal is for these all-inclusive simplistic displays to limit the situations where a pilot could be confused or misled by the autopilot. It’s not about putting neat pieces of technology into the cockpit anymore; it’s about designing systems that take into consideration the environment crews face in flight.
New cockpits will also take into account cultural and regional differences that affect the way crews interact. Pilots’ background will also influence how these new cockpits are structured. They could be customized and reconfigured for different crews, anticipating how crews from different parts of the world are trained to deal with disasters.
Overall, the smart-phone inspired cockpits will try to eliminate a lot of human factors variables that have affected airplanes in the past. And if the early concept art of some of these new cockpits is anything to go by, they’re going to look awesome.