Developing new aviation technology takes a very long time compared to changing other industries. That’s one reason why aviation companies have to be thinking about and testing new concepts that are far into the future. Most of these futuristic ideas never come true–but nobody wants to be left behind.
At Honeywell’s annual press event at the NBAA business aviation convention this week the company talked about some of the furthest out ideas that are actually being imagined, at least a little.
As you would expect remotely piloted airplanes are given serious consideration. Now that a drone can make a carrier landing what’s left?
Or, how about airplanes sharing a copilot? For example, a copilot could be in at least one airplane in a broad area. If the captain of any other airplane were to be incapacitated or otherwise need help electronic connectivity would connect the copilot to that airplane. The obvious advantage is you don’t carry around, and pay, copilots when they may not be needed.
But an idea that would probably alarm and infuriate more pilots than any other is building a cockpit without windows.
The benefit would be to save the weight and structural complexity of a windshield. You have to heat a windshield and also make it strong enough to withstand large bird impact at high speed. Windshields also craze, crack and in other ways require replacement.
But the really big savings from a windowless cockpit would be to optimize the shape of the forward fuselage. To be useful a windshield needs to be close to vertical and that distorts the shape of the nose. The abrupt upslope of the windshield forces the airflow to accelerate quickly and that adds drag. At typical jet cruise speeds airflow over the windshield area–called the canopy–is often transonic which is really draggy. Even in slower airplanes the forward fuselage shape is not optimum because of the windshield.
This is not a new issue. The supersonic Concorde could not achieve its Mach 2 performance with the windshields adding drag. The stories I have heard is that designers thought about eliminating the Concorde windshields but pilots revolted. The solution was a retractble visor that streamlined the shape for cruise, but was lowered for takeoff and landing so the pilots could see out while flying in the terminal area.
But the Concorde was designed about 50 years ago and a lot has changed. Now we have synthetic vision of incredible detail available in all sizes of airplanes. Some airplanes already have enhanced vision systems that use infrared or radar to show pilots the terrain and runway ahead.
Traffic warning systems are already better than any human pilot eyes at finding other airplanes and plotting avoidance maneuvers. In busy airspace airplanes already have transponders for traffic systems to find. And soon we will all have ADSB to broadcast our exact location to all.
Airplanes have been making automatic landings with essentially zero visibility for at least 40 years. I have landed a Gulfstream with the windshield covered using enhanced vision displayed on a HUD to see the runway and handfly the landing and rollout. And that was several years ago. The technology is already here and will become ever lower in cost and more widespread as the years go by.
One welcome change pilots would find in a windowless cockpit is that the cockpit could be anywhere in the airplane. Instead of being crammed into the pointy end pilots could luxuriate in the broad spaces of the middle of the fuselage.
Will I live long enough to fly in a windowless cockpit? I doubt it. But I have not come close to guessing how rapidly other technologies could become available. There are economic reasons to make a windowless cockpit, and it would be a half step toward leaving pilots on the ground as drones do. But there would be one heck of a rebellion from pilots if any airplane maker tries to block our view.