Taking the window seats (and windows) from pilots and co-pilots

July 8, 2014

Who would’ve thought that the glass-cockpit concept – the use of programmable displays to replace radar screens, dials, and navigational instruments – would lead to airline cockpits with no windows? It seems it has as Airbus, the European consortium that designs and builds airliners, filed last year for a patent on its windowless-cockpit concept.

There are several advantages to the idea. The current windows on cockpits add weight and degrade the fuselage’s aerodynamics. They also increase maintenance, require windshield wipers or some other “cleaning” subsystem, and expose the flight crew to potential damage from bird strikes. And with no need for a windshield to see where they are going, the flight crew could be housed elsewhere in the plane, freeing up space for paying customers or more cargo. For example, the cockpit could be moved to the vertical stabilizer or even the belly of the plane.

While I’m sure a windowless cockpit is possible and would save money, there are still a few hurdles that need to be overcome before I schedule a trip on one. For example, how do planes get from the passenger terminal to the runway without running into another plane, a piece of yellow gear, or an animal (or person) that has wandered onto airport property? Are the electronics and sensors so precise and failsafe that flight crews would never need to visually check to ensure the runway was clear for take-offs or landings, to scope out weather ahead, or to ensure no engines are on fire? And can aerospace engineers design visualization subsystems that never fail or give false readings? If they can’t, what does Airbus suggest flight crews do in a dark windowless cockpit when there is a total electrical failure? And if fault-proof, vandal-proof electronics and communications are available, why not eliminate the cockpit crew all together and let computers on the ground fly the planes?

One thing I can be pretty sure of, pilots will not like this. But from their perspective, it’s better than turning airliners into passenger-carrying drones flown from a trailer complex somewhere in the Midwest.

Here’s a patent drawing from Airbus showing how the flight crew could be relocated to the tail.

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