A Cockpit Without Windows?

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.

 

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20 Responses to A Cockpit Without Windows?

  1. Kayak Jack says:

    The Spirit of St. Louis had almost no windows. But, just because you can do it doesn’t make it a good idea.

    Frankly, I love to watch the scenery slide by my cockpit window. Wheat fields, streams, lakes with fishermen moving around, rivers where I canoe, fall colors of red and gold, oval tracks where guys train horses every day, mazes cut into corn fields, freshly cut hay, houses under construction, school buses lined up with a que of kids, etc. all are mine to see from my plane. Something tells me that – if I were interested in seeing it electronically – I could do it in more comfort and cheaper at home.

    I’m reminded of all those predictions – since the 1940′s – that, in a only very few years, everybody would be either (A) driving a car that can fly, or (B) flying around in their personal, strap-on helicopter.

  2. Fred Stadler says:

    I can remember (though only barely) when elevators were deemed to require an operator, who watched the progression of floors through a window in the door. The public seemed to quickly accept that unseen mechanical controls might even more safely guide elevator movement at the push of a button. And for many years passengers at airports like DFW have willingly climbed into fully automated train cars to move between terminals without any apparent human guidance.

    So while windowless airliners (and personal transportation vehicles, too) seem a bit unsettling, I expect they may be accepted more quickly than most expect. Most of the technology already exists and there are powerful economic forces to drive the change. We may see pilotless cargo airplanes first, but human transport can’t be too far behind. I expect that my grandchildren will only barely remember when they had to turn a steering wheel in their car to keep it from running off the road and when they saw the back of two pilots’ heads as they boarded an airliner.

  3. Wayne says:

    Mac,

    Early astronauts objected to window-less capsules because they knew orientation required contact with the outside world. Pilots favor cables rather than trusting a computer to move flight controls. Synthetic vision functions beautifully…until it fails.

    Then, everyone aboard regrets having relied upon technology…but not for very long!

  4. Craig says:

    How about when everyone is riding around safely in windowless cars, then let’s have the conversation about windowless airplanes.

  5. Cary Alburn says:

    I suggest that we don’t have such a conversation, whether cars or airplanes, at all!

    Cary

  6. I agree, Mac. In fact, I’ve said for some time we’ll see at least a demonstration of this with two captains aboard a transPacific cargo flight within the next five years: except for takeoff, climb, descent and landing, when a two-pilot crew flies and ground copilots monitor, one pilot on board will be on duty at a time with the other in crew rest, with copilots on the ground primarily responsible for the flight working in four-hour shifts. Right there it saves the airline two additional pilots salary and support for each Pacific crossing.

    Further, within 10 years we’ll see at least a demonstration flight of a totally remotely piloted transpacific flight, again starting with cargo operations.

    If the autonomous car (by Google) takes root it won’t take long for younger passengers to accept the perceived benefits of remotely piloted airliners and even business aircraft.

    This is entirely different from recreational aviation. The fact we like to look out the windows as we do the flying has nothing to do with what will happen in the professional cockpit.

    Thanks for giving us a peek at the future.

  7. Tom Davis says:

    There could be (maybe there already is) an organization called the “Automated Transportation Association” whose members would be fascinated by this sort of thing. I doubt that it’s the kind of flying that most EAA members aspire to.

  8. Larry N. says:

    Will they eliminate passenger windows too? Flight crew spend more time in the aircraft (though not on a single flight) than passengers, so I’d expect the same human needs to be there for the flight crew as for the pax.

  9. Tom says:

    Who would want to be an airline pilot without the incentive of windows? Who would want to ride in an airliner with pilots on the ground and no “skin in the game”?

  10. brett hawkins says:

    While interesting in a general, Mechanics Illustrated, way, methinks Mac wrote the basic article for NBAA or some other industry organization and submitted it to EAA as well. I mean, who wants to read about improvements in stall-avoidance technology for homebuilt aircraft more than once a month?

    If we really want to look into the future, I have been awaiting instantaneous teleportation since I used to freeze my a** off on the chairlift skiing as a kid. I mean, “Beam me up, Scotty!” The TSA is already grooming passengers to calmly walk into small cubicles and be zapped by various electronic particles. Why not walk out the other side of the cubicle into Customs and Immigration in Tokyo, dispensing with the entire, antiquated, concept of airplanes?

    Meanwhile, how to get that pesky odor of raw gas out of the cockpit of my homebuilt!

  11. Rob Warner says:

    This is not a new concept. The only thing that hs changed is that cameras have improved … to better than the human eye.
    Back in 1993, I packed a specialized parachute for a two-seater F-104 fighter flown by NASA. They were testing an under-nose camera concept that was supposed to led to a window-less cockpit on an American-made SST.

  12. Rob Warner says:

    The general public already flies, drives and walks around without looking out their windows.
    The closest I ever came to dying was over Pitt Meadows Airport, when a Mooney blundered into the circuit without bothering to ask permission of an air traffic controller.
    Every day I see cars turning through busy intersections with drivers talking into their cell-phones.
    Meanwhile, pedestrians routinely believe that their cell phones contain force fields that will protect them from fully-loaded cement trucks moving down-hill a the sped limit.

  13. Jaxs says:

    I’m a long-time EAA man, and I LOVE this stuff.

    This is what real experimentation is about. We should be doing it in our light planes NOW, not waiting for Honeywell to build it into million dollar jets.

    Tinkerers should be on the cutting edge. That’s the way aviation began, and it has always been part of the true spirit of EAA. You’re not experimenting if you’re only bolting together the 10,000th RV. That’s just manufacturing. Do something truly NEW for a change.

  14. Bill Landry says:

    Mac,
    Apparently you have not flown with some of the pilots I have flown with that have complete “glass” cockpits. They act like there are no windows in the plane already.
    One recent flight, I was riding co pilot for a maintenance check out and noticed the attitude indicator start to roll and a slight dive. I looked at the pilot and he was twisting knobs and playing with the GPS system. I woke him up before we got into a bad situation.
    Getting scary out there.

  15. Earl Turner says:

    Why do away with windows? We have the technology to make them bigger and increase the streamlining at the same time – Think of Wonder-Woman’s transparent airplane. Think of the B29 – no aerodynamic penalty there. The Boing Dreamliner has huge windows with very little aerodynamic penalty. It doesn’t matter which industry you work in, no-one wants to sit for 12 hours in a cubicle without a view of the outside.

  16. Larry N. says:

    Actually, Earl, the telephone industry has been a workplace with no windows for a lot of years. In 33 years I never worked in a telephone building that had windows, other than in administrative areas (and only a few of those). and I don’t know how much further back than the 1950s that was true, but as far as your statement applies to aviation I’d certainly agree.

  17. Eliacim Cortes says:

    Aircraft windows replaced by synthetic vision is too tame. Let’s take it all the way and not travel at all! After all, we can simulate flying somewhere in our computers, and then we can take virtual tours of the destinations on Google Earth. We can Skype with people instead of visiting them… and so on. C’mon Mac!

  18. Pingback: Windowless Cockpits on the Horizon | High Altitude Flying Club

  19. Steve Phoenix says:

    Actually, with a little imagination, I can see the windowless technology having an application to open cockpit technology. Basically, with a low cost synviz and ADS-B, I don’t see why a Fly Baby couldn’t operate in clouds but just using VFR procedures rather than the complex IFR system. I think it would be kinda fun to experience the moistness of the inside of a cloud in an open cockpit airplane.

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