Five Top Flight Deck Innovations
Five Top Flight Deck Innovations
Any list of cockpit innovations could easily run to a hundred items, with aviation experts debating their order (as aviators love to do), but here’s a list of five top flight deck innovations to get the discussion started.
#1. The Autopilot (1912)
In 1912 Lawrence Sperry, son of the prolific inventor Elmer Sperry, developed an automatic pilot or “airplane stabilizer” that used the gyroscope, once a child’s toy, to hold an airplane stable during flight.
Aware of the commercial potential of his invention, Sperry chose an aircraft exhibition in Paris for its European unveiling in 1914 (having first completed successful dummy runs back in the U.S.) While we don’t recommend this nowadays, to demonstrate its workings, the inventor and his engineer climbed out onto the wing letting the airplane fly itself in front of an audience.
The gyroscopic principle eventually led to the development of ring laser gyros and modern inertial navigation systems. This groundbreaking technology became part of Honeywell’s legacy with the acquisition of Sperry Aerospace Group in 1986.
Of course, modern autopilots are light years-advanced, with software-based instruments offering advanced capabilities, including “automatic switchover” operation, CAT II approach, windshear guidance and integrated thrust management.
#2. Lighting (1925)
In the very early days of flight, cockpit dials weren’t even lit. Mechanical instruments simply had painted white lettering on black background, reasonably readable in the daytime when the sun was shining. But what about night flying? In 1925, the first landing lights were installed on a mail plane and powered by a car battery.
Nowadays, solid-state electronic controls and displays have replaced the older mechanical-type instruments reducing crew workload, improving flight operations and safety, reducing cost and providing greater flexibility.
#3. Radio navigation (WW II)
Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor, proved the feasibility of radio communication—“wireless telegraphy”—in 1895. People no longer had to depend on sending information over wires, hill and dale, or ships at sea. Airplane pilots especially liked the idea of getting their heads out (we’d have said “heads up” but saving that for later) of maps and visual landmarks, especially when navigating over water and in the clouds.
LORAN (LOng RAnge Navigation), a hyperbolic radio navigation system, was developed in the U.S. during World War II. It was first used by ships and aircraft in the Atlantic theater using low-frequency radio waves giving it a longer range than the comparable British short-range system by as much as 1,500 miles. Basically, position was determined by measuring the difference in time of signal arrival from different stations, called multilateration if you want the technical term.
In the late 1950s, Loran-C came along (aided, of course, by the seemingly ever-present Sperry company), combining two different techniques—multilateration and phase shift—to provide a signal that was both long-range and highly accurate.
Eventually Loran-C was made redundant by GPS and was finally terminated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010, but a half-century of helping vessels of all kinds is not a bad run.
#4. Head-up displays (1940s-1970s)
The basic concept of allowing pilots to focus on flying airplane and not taking their eyes off conditions ahead came as early as the 1940s. As with many of our technical innovations, the idea was first adopted by the military for fighter aircraft.
But first off, let’s clarify the usage: it’s a “head-up” display, not a “Heads up!” display (from football: a warning to look out for danger).
Essentially, a head-up display (HUD) system gives pilots their best view of essential flight information without having to look down at the instrument panel during the most critical phases of flight. The HUD does this by displaying the key flight information onto a transparent screen positioned in front of a pilot’s line of sight, thus increasing situational awareness and enhancing safety.
Despite its somewhat primitive military origins, it wasn’t until the 1960s that a French test-pilot created the first modern HUD and the technology was thereafter introduced to commercial aviation in the 1970s. In 1997 that first Gulfstream IV-SP equipped with a Honeywell/GEC-Marconi HUD 2020 head-up display was delivered. Typical aircraft HUDs display airspeed, altitude, a horizon line, heading, turn/bank and slip/skid indicators.
#5. Synthetic vision (2005)
A synthetic vision system (SVS) delivers a 3-D rendering of forward terrain into intuitive displays to provide improved situational awareness to flight crews—no matter the weather or time of day. Perhaps the key benefit is improved safety of landings during fog other difficult conditions.
Although development began in the 1970s by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, it wasn’t until 2005 that a Gulfstream V test aircraft was outfitted. In 2008 the FAA certified the Gulfstream Synthetic Vision-Primary Flight Display (SV-PFD) system for the G350/G450 and G500/G550 business jet aircraft, displaying 3-D color terrain images from Honeywell EGPWS data.
Minimum aviation system performance standards were published by European Organisation for Civil Aviation Equipment (EUROCAE) in 2008.
Honeywell’s SmartView synthesizes flight information from multiple onboard databases, GPS and inertial reference systems into a complete, easy-to-understand 3-D view ahead with details of terrain, obstacles, weather, the approach path, runway and airport maneuvering areas as well as other traffic.
Its unparalleled resolution and realistic view of surroundings provides a view that pilots would see only on a clear day. We’re not saying they can see “forever,” but SVS certainly enhances safety and gives the flight crew more confidence in difficult conditions.