Featured image: Fabrizio Spicuglia/Airways

Center of Operations: The Evolution of the Cockpit

The cockpit is the control room of an aircraft – everything that happens on a flight is managed from this center of operations. Artemis Aerospace investigates how cockpit design has changed over the years.

We’ve all seen photos of an aircraft cockpit – a bewildering array of lights, switches, panels, buttons, levers and monitors. Cockpit technology has evolved hugely over the years and pilots need regular simulator training to ensure they’re on top of all the changes. But how have cockpits developed and what changes have been made over the years?

To start with, why is it called a cockpit? Originally the word meant a pit in which cockfighting took place in the 16th century. In 1609 a small ‘theatre’ in the round was set up in Drury Lane in London for cockfighting events; this became known as the Cockpit Theatre and subsequently went on host world-class drama and become a major cultural centre in Tudor England.

Later on, cockpit became a nautical term, referring to a part of a ship in which the ‘cockswain’ sat. The cockswain was the pilot of a smaller boat which could be lowered into the water and rowed to collect visitors to the ship or take crew members ashore.

By the 18th century the naval cockpit had become the area on board ship where the ship’s surgeon carried out treatment on sailors wounded in battle; eventually it became the name of the area in a vessel from where it is steered, which is usually a cavity at the stern.

Lockheed-L-1011 cockpit. Photo: ALPA

The Flight Deck

It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the term ‘cockpit’ came to mean the place where a driver or pilot sits. In larger aircraft it’s more commonly known now as the flight deck. When the pioneering Wright brothers launched the world’s first aeroplane in 1903, the pilot simply lay across the lower wing to steer.

World War I accelerated aircraft design on both sides, with cockpits being introduced in designs such as the Sopwith Camel, Handley Page Type O and Fokker D VII, although pilots were still completely exposed to the elements. By World War II pilots were finally given some shelter in their Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters, as prior to that the rise of commercial aviation began to demand more comfort for passengers.

Other cockpit technologies which have evolved include the replacement in the 1970s of the old analogue gauges by digital ‘glass panel’ instrumentation. Standardisation of cockpits began to take shape in the 1940s with the ‘Basic T’, which placed the attitude and airspeed indicators, altimeter, heading indicator, turn co-ordinator and vertical speed control in a set pattern.

Boeing 737-8 cockpit. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways

From the Yoke to the Side Stick

The control sticks have also undergone numerous updates, such as yokes, or control columns. Using both hands, the pilot controls the pitch and roll of the plane using the yoke and rotates the control wheel to access the ailerons.

The side stick control was first introduced in a commercial aircraft on the Airbus A320; it was designed to give a clear view of the central display panel, and meant that the pilot could operate it with one hand, giving more flexibility. However, some airlines continue to use the control column; it has been a longstanding debate in aviation as to which is the better option.

The latest cockpit technology involves connectivity and data-sharing, AI assistance, touch screen displays and voice control features among others. It’s a constantly changing field of expertise and the extensive knowledge necessary to pilot an aircraft needs to be very regularly updated and augmented. The interval between training can vary, but it’s usually every six, nine or twelve months, depending on the airline or regulating authority.

Embraer-E2-Simulator. Photo: Embraer

Simulators

Training simulators are a crucial part of this. These cockpit substitutes enable pilots to train in every type of weather condition, for every possible eventuality, over any country and at any airport. Even the worstcase scenarios such as multiple engine failure during takeoff at full capacity can be simulated so if it ever happens, the pilot will automatically know exactly how to handle it.

In addition, rules and regulations change, safety practices are updated, aircraft are enhanced and upgraded, new aircraft and technology are unveiled, or a pilot might simply move to an aircraft they haven’t yet flown. Air traffic management and communication procedures change over time, and with commercial air traffic expected to grow significantly, pilots will have to manage increasing airspace congestion.

As a result, flight simulators are used constantly, and the simulator equivalent of AOG (aircraft on ground) time, when one is out of action due to a fault, can be just as disastrous as it can for a real aircraft. Usually booked 22 hours a day, 7 days a week, a backlog can grow and pilots who have deadlines to complete their training can be left unable to fly.

So it’s crucial that simulators function without lengthy breaks—and this is where component supplies specialists like Artemis come in - working with manufacturers, training centres and airlines to provide a rapid and reliable response to every possible issue, whether it’s simulator spares supply, component repair, manufacturing support or global logistics solutions.

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