Updated cockpit technology


Well-known member
Jan 11, 2002
Total Time
SEATTLE -- For years, visionaries in aviation have talked of a future with Buck Rogers safety technology -- gizmos to allow pilots to see through clouds and fog, to navigate and land by satellite, and to give pilots and air traffic controllers new tools to take the next leap forward in safety.

The future, it seems, may be arriving faster than many people realized.

"This is a virtual Nintendo system," said test pilot Mike Carriker as he scanned one of the many new cockpit displays aboard a specially equipped Boeing 737-900 being used to demonstrate to customers, government officials and reporters the gee-whiz technology that is available or will be within the next two years.

Packed into the cockpit, and at consoles that replaced virtually all of the seats in the cabin, were displays that could see through fog, allow pilots to look out the window while still viewing instruments on a slab of optical glass that folds down like a sunscreen, give pilots a moving map to direct them along taxiways and runways in poor weather, and even allow them to "see" their plane from the side from several miles away to determine if they're headed toward an obstacle such as a mountain.

These new instruments are part of an effort by aviation manufacturers, major suppliers and the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce the commercial aviation crash rate by 80 percent in the next few years.

That is a tough order, given that crashes are an extremely rare event, so new thinking and new technology will be necessary to give pilots and air traffic controllers all the information they will need to stay ahead of the small glitches and unlikely events that can combine to bring down a plane.

Most of the technology has its roots in military aviation. But, with less military business in the offing, manufacturers are pushing more commercial aviation sales.

On a recent day when several reporters were offered a ride from Boeing Field to the Moses Lake airfield in central Washington, the weather was terrible. A layer of clouds and fog blanketed the Cascade Mountains, and even normally bone-dry Moses Lake was covered by a low-lying overcast. But that made little difference inside the cockpit.

"That's Mount Rainier," said Carriker. "Probably pretty good skiing today."

Carriker wasn't really looking at the mountain. In fact, he could see nothing outside his windscreen but the inside of a cloud. Nonetheless, he knew that the mountain loomed many miles away and that his plane would crash into it if he did nothing.

The Vertical Situation Display gives the pilot a side view of the plane's flight path with a profile of the terrain outside, predicting not only that the plane could hit a mountain but also when it might overshoot a runway. The display works in tandem with the Enhanced Ground Proximity System, already on most late-model U.S. airliners, which gives a warning up to two minutes before a possible impact with the ground.

Both systems work from a small card that contains a terrain map of almost the whole world, made available from sources such as the CIA after the end of the Cold War.

Even before the plane took off, one of the new systems was already showing off. Two versions of the Enhanced Vision System were scanning the ground, buildings and vehicles outside with infrared sensors.

The systems, manufactured by CMC Electronics Inc. and Max-Viz Inc., can effectively see in the dark and see through fog by measuring differences in the temperature of objects of as little as 1/100th of a degree. A "thermal video" is then projected into the cockpit.

Each system is so sensitive that it is possible to tell where lines are painted on taxiways and runways. Vehicles passing outside are clearly seen because of the heat from their engines, and it is even possible to tell whether the engines have been running for a while or had just been started. People working outside are recognizable, although faces tend to take on a ghostly white look because a human head puts out so much heat.

In flight, it is possible to see other aircraft, except in particularly thick clouds or fog. That includes aircraft that might be mistakenly occupying a runway ahead, allowing the pilot to abort a landing even before the stray plane can be seen visually.

An experimental system, one of the few on the aircraft that won't be generally available in the next two years, goes beyond the capabilities of infrared. The Synthetic Vision System, manufactured by Rockwell Collins, produces a computer-generated video of the terrain in front of the airplane. It can also generate a "pathway in the sky," displaying a virtual tunnel on the screen for the pilot to follow.

The system works from the worldwide terrain database that is already used in the ground proximity warning system, and from aircraft systems that provide precise location and altitude data.

Almost all the technology being demonstrated by Boeing's test plane can be connected to a device called a "head-up display," long in use by fighter pilots and by some commercial airlines. This device, a "HUD" in aviation jargon, is a piece of thick precision optical glass that can be pulled down in front of the pilot.

Using a HUD, a pilot can aim his or her eyes outside the plane while still seeing vital instruments that are projected onto the HUD.

On the ground, the Surface Guidance System, manufactured by Rockwell Collins Inc., displays ground routes from touchdown to the gate or from gate to takeoff. On the HUD, or on another screen in the cockpit, the system superimposes symbols to identify runway and taxiway centerlines and edges. It guides the pilot into turns and superimposes small traffic cones across the display of the plane's path if it is supposed to stop.

Not all the equipment on the 737-900 is for the pilot. One device, called the Quiet Climb System, is intended for the thousands of people who live near airports and complain about noise.

The system automatically reduces the throttle on takeoff to its minimum safe power setting as the plane enters a noise abatement zone. It then powers up the throttle again as the plane leaves the anti-noise zone.

Pilots today must power back by hand in noise-abatement zones, but for safety reasons no pilot would immediately reduce the throttle to a minimum setting. Therefore, pilots apply a little more power than they think might be necessary, giving them a safety margin.

Using the Quiet Climb System, however, the plane's auto-throttle computer immediately reduces the throttle to the minimum safety margin, which is defined as a 1.2 percent climb gradient.

Tests have shown that the system reduces the ground area hit by the worst noise on takeoff by 11 percent. For those riding the lightly loaded test plane, the power reduction felt a little like the top of a roller coaster ride, and the noise level dropped from a roar to what seemed a whisper.

The system is already available on new 737s and will eventually be available on other models, Boeing said.

For the D.C. metro area, that is little comfort for now. For security reasons, planes taking off from Reagan National Airport are not allowed to throttle back for noise abatement.


Well-known member
Mar 23, 2002
Total Time
When do I get one of those babies in my WARRIOR??

:D ;) :D ;)