DO PILOTS REALLY NEED WINDOWS TO FLY?
By Paul Conley
In the early days of aviation, pilots sat in open cockpits and had great views of the skies around them and the earth below. They were also subjected to rain, bitter cold, bugs and the occasional wayward bird. As airplanes evolved, so did the cockpit. Wood and cloth were replaced by sheet metal. Goggles and scarves gave way to windows.
Now, the cockpit is evolving yet again – and the window is out the window.
Airbus, one of the world’s largest commercial airplane makers, has filed a patent for a jet with a windowless cockpit. That’s right, the pilot and co-pilot will have no windows at all. And the cockpit won’t even be at the front of the plane. It might be down in the belly with the luggage, or all the way in the back inside the tail section.
Madness? Perhaps. Yet there is a method.
Placing the cockpit and all its windows up front messes with a plane’s aerodynamics. “The nose should ideally be lancet-shaped,” writes Airbus in its patent application. Windows are also heavy and require numerous structural reinforcements, which increase the overall weight of the aircraft. Taking the cockpit out of the nose decreases both drag and weight, improving fuel economy. It also makes more room for paying passengers in the main cabin. Cha-Ching!
How exactly are pilots supposed fly without windows? Digital viewscreens and holograms. Airbus argues that existing windshield assemblies limit the pilot’s views to the immediate front of the aircraft, while “a virtual reconstitution of the real environment” would actually increase safety by offering the choice of multiple views.
During takeoff and landing, the system would access an airport’s data bank and generate a real-time, 3D reconstruction of the airport and all ground obstacles between the runway and the arrival or departure gate.
In flight, holograms projecting storm clouds, mountains or other nearby aircraft would “immerse the pilot in a three-dimensional universe, at the center of the action.”
Finally, moving the flight deck to a part of the plane that’s isolated from the passenger cabin effectively eliminates the opportunity for terrorists to break into the cockpit and take control of the aircraft.
Whether Airbus actually builds a commercial jet with a windowless cockpit remains to be seen. Such an aircraft would face serious scrutiny from regulators and from potential customers. Keep in mind though that advances like back up sensors, adaptive cruise control and automatic braking systems that are becoming commonplace in many cars also faced similar hurdles.
Taking the concept a step further, removing windows opens the door to a pilot-less plane—one that’s flown by an operator on the ground much like a military drone, or a completely autonomous aircraft controlled by advanced computer systems. If that sounds scary, it shouldn’t. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the leading cause of commercial airline accidents is human error. The same goes for automobile crashes, which explains why Google is so intent on bringing its self-driving car to market.
Merge the two ideas and you’ve got the flying car that every kid has dreamed of since The Jetsons. And by the way, there’s an XPRIZE in development for that too.
Paul Conley is a contributor to XPRIZE and an editorial consultant to brands, nonprofits and business publishers. He also writes about his unconventional approach to work, life and happiness at ABigFishinaSmallPond.com.