The cockpit is the part of the aircraft that offers visibility to the front and sides, and houses the pilot(s) and other crew members, for example in older passenger airliners with a flight crew of three, or in military aircraft performing missions that require different tasks to be carried out in the cockpit. Within easy reach of the seated crew, the cockpit contains all the display, control and communications equipment that crew members need to operate and navigate the aircraft on the ground and in the air, talk to ground installations or other aircraft, and monitor or control onboard systems and equipment (engines, fuel tanks, air conditioning, etc.).

Early aircraft instrument panels

An instrument panel located in front of or between the pilots to display the information required for navigation and flight control has always been a feature of aircraft of all types. Without going back as far as the Wright brothers, whose Flyer had no seat and no cockpit (the pilot simply perched in the open air among the slats and supports that made up the aircraft’s fuselage), it is fair to say that instrument panels remained fairly basic during the first thirty years of aviation history.
During the earliest days of powered flight, pilots obtained the main information they needed from their external environment. Provided visibility was good, open-air cockpits allowed them to gain a good appreciation of the aircraft’s movements (turn, climb and descent) and attitude, while an uninterrupted view of the ground provided an aid to navigation (pilots were even able to fly low enough to read the names of railway stations!).
In the 1930s, however, instrument panels equipped with a wider array of more complex instruments began to allow pilots to fly at night and in poor visibility. Further progress was made in the 1950s, when instruments were introduced to enable aircraft to land in poor weather conditions. This trend has continued, with vast improvements in avionics providing increased functionality and autonomy with respect to the external environment.

Ergonomics: a key factor in cockpit evolution

As the vital interface between an aircraft and its crew, the cockpit of a modern aircraft must provide – instantaneously and in a convenient manner – all the information the crew needs to assess the aircraft’s status and take appropriate action, regardless of the circumstances. As a result, the cockpit is a key arena for improvements in human-machine interface (HMI) technology. It is the HMI that enables the pilot to use his senses, brain and movements to control an extraordinarily complex machine in an environment to which human beings are not naturally accustomed.
Cockpit ergonomics naturally make a key contribution to crew comfort and performance. The Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) issues Aerospace Recommended Practices (ARPs) for cockpit design, layout, installation and operation, which contain minimum requirements for the pilot’s position in relation to the following aspects:
  • the ability to reach the controls without effort from a reference position (seatbelt attached, shoulder harness unlocked, pilot’s eyes in reference position);
  • visibility of flight instruments without undue effort;
  • minimum visibility outside the cockpit;
  • easy oral communication inside the cockpit.

The accessibility of the primary flight controls is, naturally, very important.

Cockpit layout and elements

Although there are significant variations in cockpit layout from one aircraft to another, the most common components of an aircraft cockpit are as follows:
  •  instrument panel (the legacy of the original cockpits, with the main instruments outlined above arranged in front of the pilot and below the front windscreen);
  • side panels, at the sides of the pilots’ seats and below the side windscreen, used – like all additional surfaces – for displaying in- formation and accommodating the increasing numbers of controls for various aircraft subsystems;
  • fascia panel, above the front windscreen; - console panel (the topmost and furthest forward part of the control and display equipment located between the two pilots in commercial airliners);
  • centre instrument panel, located just below the console panel;
  • centre pedestal, positioned between the pilots’ seats (to the rear of the centre instrument panel);
  • overhead panel;
  • pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats;
  • control column and control wheel (historically known as the joystick), replaced by the sidestick in recent aircraft. Together with the rudder pedals, these are an aircraft’s basic controls;
  • two rudder pedals, located at the pilots’ feet; - head-up display (HUD), a recent, and increasingly important, innovation;
  • head-mounted display, used in certain cockpits.

The switch from analogue to digital

Until the 1970s, the walls of civil airliner cockpits – in fact every surface that was within the pilots’ reach – were studded with indicators, instruments and electromechanical controls. The controls, with their arrays of complicated dials, were generally designed for a three-man crew: two pilots and an engineer. A typical trans-port aircraft from this period had more than 100 instruments and controls, the most important of which were packed with bars, needles and symbols. All of these displays jostled for space on the various instrument panels, and competed for the pilot’s attention. Research aimed at finding a solution to this problem, conducted in particular by NASA in the United States, led to the development of display devices capable of processing flight data, and the raw information provided by aircraft systems, and integrating it into an easily understandable synthetic image.
This development was only possible be-cause of a fundamental change in the type of information processed by onboard systems. Earlier instruments, based on analogue information, provided indications that were directly linked to the associated physical phenomena (for example air pressure, airspeed, or the position of a gyroscope). Digital information, on the other hand, results from the conversion of a physical measurement into binary code by means of an analogue-digital converter.
The digitisation of the physical data required for flight control and navigation, as well as for more general operational and informational purposes, led to a profound change in aircraft cockpits from the 1970s onwards. Thanks to improvements in electronics and computer technology, data could now be converted from analogue to digital format, processed by computers, and displayed on computer-type screens in the cockpit.

The revolution of the “glass cockpit

In fact, this profound change in the appearance and layout of cockpits was driven by two key technical improvements: the availability of sufficiently capable and reliable electronic systems for digitising and processing information; and the development of cathode-ray tubes (CRTs), like those used in computer monitors, but capable of adapting to the extremely variable ambient light conditions in aircraft cockpits.
These two innovations led to the replacement of the main electromechanical flight instruments with computer-type displays, and consequently to a change in the way information on the status of onboard systems and alarm signals was presented. The combination of these technological developments led to the emergence of the first generation of what are now dubbed “glass cockpits” In the early 1980s, this new cockpit concept was adopted for the Airbus A310 and the Boeing 757 and 767. Combined with other innovations such as the flight management system (FMS), the introduction of the glass cockpit made it possible for these large aircraft to be flown by a flight crew of two. The A310 was equipped with an electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) comprising six shadow mask1 colour CRT screens, three computers, and associated control stations providing the pilot and co-pilot with essential flight control and navigation information, as well as synthetic data on the status of aircraft systems and alarms. The human-machine interface was thus significantly improved, with new functionalities becoming available, such as display of simple graphic charts and simplified diagrams of onboard systems. Each screen had a useful area of 5 x 5 inches (12.5 x 12.5 cm), which seems small today, but was nothing short of a revolution at the time. With this new technology, the instrument panel of the A310 could be significantly simpler than the analogue cockpits of previous generations of aircraft (although the engine data indicators in the central area continued to use electromechanical technology).

Towards the future of aviation and flight

The 21st century takes hold of the cockpit. LCD technology becomes the norm, generating weight savings and multiplying display capacity. Touchscreen technologies also enter the cockpit, providing the pilot with new ways of interacting with the aircraft system. These new capabilities have huge potential for the future. We are now able to integrate the means of interaction which, through smartphones, have become part of our everyday lives, thus increasing the capacity and user-friendliness of future cockpits!