Cockpit designs need some serious piloting

With the furore over aircraft safety, pilots should have their fingers on the latest technological pulse. Michael Evamy finds that, until recently, this has not been so

Recent months have seen a crop of fatal airline accidents: the American Airlines 757 flight into a Colombian mountain last December; the crash into the ocean off the Dominican Republic by a Birgenair Boeing 757 in February; and the ValuJet plunge into the Florida swamp in May. Out of a total of around 600 passengers, just four survived. The cause of the Florida disaster is still uncertain. But reports on the first two incidents suggested, respectively, that pilot inattention and a failed speedometer were to blame.

These disasters are a grim reminder that the safety of modern aircraft and their passengers still requires both pilot and machine to perform flawlessly. Even with the advantage of automated flying systems, a human error or faulty piece of equipment can spell disaster. That’s why the design and position of displays and the layout of the cockpit is still crucial to aircraft safety. It is the interface between human and machine. Yet, even in the newest computerised cockpits, it seems the communication between pilot and plane is very far from perfect.

Traditionally, designers have been confined to redecorating the passenger cabin. The closest most will have got to a flight deck – if they are lucky – is a childhood trip up the aisle to see the captain. However, given the chance to rethink the cockpit, as students at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena were, designers may have a lot to offer.

Until recently, the flight deck had hardly changed in 30 years. The daunting array of gauges, buttons and joysticks was similar across fleets. The rarity with which manufacturers developed new aircraft was partly behind the inertia preventing an overhaul. And as time has gone on, pilots have become more accustomed to the devil they know. “No one complains about the standard flight deck anymore,” says David Learmount, Flight International’s operations and safety editor and a former Hercules pilot. “It’s so familiar, they’ve forgotten about its faults and the potential for mistakes. They actually call it the ‘classic’ flight deck, but that implies it should be looked back on fondly. I call it traditional.”

But the latest generation of flight decks means pilots now have something new and unfamiliar to compare with the cockpits they were trained on. All airliners being produced now have replaced electro-mechanical gauges with TV screens showing representations of gauges. That may not seem like a great step forward, and it isn’t; it’s just cheaper. But there had previously been what many consider to be a step back. In some aircraft, speed and altitude – the pilot’s informational oxygen – are displayed on vertical tapes moving against a fixed pointer. To read these requires more processing from the brain, rather as digital watches demand more from someone used to an analogue face. Hence the return to the traditional gauge design.

What demands more adjustment from pilots of brand new aircraft is their use of head-up displays, which project flight information on to the windscreen. These allow take-off and landing in worse weather and lower visibility because pilots no longer need to keep switching their gaze between the instrument panel and the scene outside. “They take a bit of getting used to,” says Learmount, “but they are a good thing.”

However, the most fundamental difference with the new generation flight deck is the development of the flight management system (FMS). This compiles and presents data about systems, flight plans and terrains. It is much more than an autopilot. While a pilot could ask the auto pilot to take the plane up to 30 000 feet, he or she can tell the FMS computer to take off, fly to Miami and land… providing air traffic control at both ends has the appropriate technology in place.

Ironically, it is this increased automation that pilots are having to adjust to. The last thing they can do is put their feet up and let the computer do the work. Learmount explains: “You can lose track of where you are if you trust computers too much. You can have a lack of ‘situational awareness’, and not know the speed or location. And it’s not like driving a car; you can’t pull over and look at a map. If something goes wrong, and the pilot is ten miles behind the plane, it can be terminal.” And he isn’t talking about the airport building.

Equally dangerous is if the pilot forgets which flight mode the FMS is operating in. If he or she enters a command telling the plane to do one thing, it may well do something different. The 1994 China Airlines crash at Nagoya, where a battle between the pilot and FMS resulted in the Airbus A300/600 coming down on its tail, was a classic “mode awareness” accident.

The key problem with any current FMS is the way it communicates data to the pilot – that is the interface. Experts claim that operating one is like using an early PC running DOS software, when it should be like using a Mac. The task is made worse by the input device: an ABC keyboard, instead of the universally familiar QWERTY format. This is hardly user-centred design.

Perhaps with these shortcomings in mind, product design students at the Art Center College of Design were approached byMcDonnell Douglas Research & Development in California to come up with ideas for the flight deck of its twin-jet planes in 2015. Students tackled instrument and overhead panels, seats and pedestals. Integration of the pilots into the working environment and better access to information, claimed the students, would lead to greater vigilance and minimal fatigue for pilots.

The students’ efforts seem to answer the calls of industry experts for a design that involves pilots more physically and offers them more immediate and intuitive feedback. Kevin Fallon and Kevin Hoffer reduced “heads-down” time to a minimum and placed the primary flight control displays on head-up display. They also introduced a horizontal desk area. With a vertical facia of controls, touch-screen technology is problematic because it requires a steady hand from the pilot. The desk feature gets round that by offering the pilot’s arm and hand greater support. Touch-screens can be built in and the interface with the FMS hugely simplified. Pilots can page through the system functions and enter data fast to reduce heads-down time.

Introducing fly-by-wire electronic technology in place of cables and pulleys meant that Tony Boczkowski and Eric Olson could reduce the size of the pedestal, the central control unit between the two pilots. The radio interface panel slides out automatically. Other students simplified the overhead controls and contributed a smartcard feature allowing the pilot to pre-program the preferences for his or her instrumentation and seating.

The study went far beyond McDonnell Douglas’ expectations: “Remarkably, from a technical point of view, everything the students came up with could be incorporated into our designs for future aircraft,” says Michael Liedtke, the company’s manufacturing specialist and liaison officer for the project.

But judging from the speed of movement of aircraft companies in the past, we shouldn’t hold our breath. While we wait, pilots will have to learn how to do a perfect job with an imperfect system.

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