Go back 78 years to December 17th, 1935 and the Douglas DC-3 is making it’s first ever flight. This was to be a defining moment in aviation history, as the Dc-3 would go on to revolutionise air travel in the 40s and 50s as well as prove vitally important during World War 2. The Military version the C47 Skytrain was produced in huge numbers with over 10,000 built, seeing action all across the WW2 theater.

Douglas DC-3

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

But it’s the cockpit on the DC-3 we’re interested in, as looking at what it would have been like to sit in this aircraft and fly it contrasts enormously with the modern jets of today and shows (more so than arguably the exterior or even passenger interiors) how far aircraft have evolved. Predominantly, it appears very uncomfortable with most surfaces metal and dozens of pedals and levers sticking out at various angles. 

Back then, controls were mechanical and the displays were analogue. Over the years, cockpits have evolved to become more advanced whilst at the same time more comfortable.

Inside a cockpit

So, what do you find inside a cockpit? There are usually dozens of instruments, depending on the aircraft, however there are several that are considered core and found in most aircraft.

  • MCP – Mode Control Panel. Used to control heading, speed, altitude, vertical speed, vertical navigation and lateral navigation, and sometimes also houses the autopilot controls.
  • PFD – Primary Flight Display. This area contains displays that show visually the altitude, air speed and attitude. 
  • ND – Navigation Display. Usually situated next to the PFD, the ND shows the current route and location of the aircraft.
  • EICAS/ECAM - Engine Indication and Crew Alerting System (Boeing)/Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor (for Airbus) . Used for monitoring fuel temperatures and pressures, electrical systems, cabin temperatures and pressures, control surfaces and more.
  • FMS – Flight Management System. This is used to check the flight plan, speed control, navigation control etc.

How cockpits have changed

So how have cockpits changed since the DC-3? The truth is the changes are incredibly vast. In fact, the design of cockpits is an enormous subject in itself involving cognitive science, anthropometry, ergonomics, human computer interaction and other areas. Every aspect of the cockpit has been, over time, subject to scrutiny – even down to individual controls.

Many changes are established as the result of certain events or tragedies. For example, cockpit entry doors were redesigned to better withstand potential intrusions after the events of September 11th, 2001. Locking systems and the doors themselves were built to withstand forced entry, making it more difficult to hijack an aircraft. 

Over recent years a major change has been the move towards what is known as a “Glass” cockpit. A Glass cockpit replaces the analogue displays (such as in the DC-3) with digital displays and readouts. Typically, these displays are LCD. This move is significant as it allows pilots to access information much more quickly and efficiently, by adjusting their displays to provide different information. It also means more cockpit space, as less space is taken up by clunky analogue dials. 

The Embraer Phenom 300 cockpit is worlds apart from the DC-3

The Embraer Phenom 300 cockpit is worlds apart from the DC-3

Comfort is another area where cockpits have changed and evolved greatly. In the Embraer Phenom 300 private jet, the cockpit was designed to be equally comfortable as the cabin is. Padded, comfortable seats and carpeting give a more luxurious feel to the cockpit, whilst the ergonomics have been carefully considered to ensure alertness.

The controls are also much different compared to the DC-3. The DC-3 features what appear to be steering wheels but is actually a centre stick, and as the way they move is very different, this steering wheel appearance has evolved over time into what looks more like a cross between handlebars and a computer joystick. Practically though, the modern design of the centre stick is more ergonomic and comfortable and fits in better with the control of the aircraft.

Controls are also evolving towards what is known as “fly-by-wire” technology. Fly-by-wire removes the physical, mechanical connection between the pilot and the control surfaces of the aircraft and replaces it with electrical control systems. The movements made by the pilot are turned into electronic signals which are sent down wires, hence the term. Fly-by-wire systems also allow computers to stabilise and control the aircraft.

What next?

Many expect that Glass cockpits will evolve to utilize full touch screen interfaces, in fact the iPad and other tablets are already being used as extra tools by many pilots and airlines. These interfaces may be detachable, potentially allowing the pilot to view information from anywhere in the aircraft, even being able to fly.

These changes in technology could allow cockpits to become more space efficient, allowing aircraft to utilise more space for passengers or cargo. Whatever happens however, we expect that cockpits will continue to evolve at a rapid pace and it’s likely the cockpits of 20, 30 years from now will be very different from today.