A glass cockpit is an aircraft cockpit that features electronic instrument displays. Where a traditional cockpit relies on numerous mechanical gauges to display information, a glass cockpit utilizes several displays driven by flight management systems, that can be adjusted to display flight information as needed. This simplifies aircraft operation and navigation and allows pilots to focus only on the most pertinent information. They are also popular with airline companies as they usually eliminate the need for a flight engineer.
In recent years the technology has become widely available in small aircraft.
The primary component of the glass cockpit is the Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS), which displays all information regarding the aircraft's situation, position and progress. Comprising left- and right-side primary flight display (PFD) and multi-function display (MFD) screens, EFIS primarily covers horizontal and vertical position, but also indicates time and speed. The second part of the glass cockpit, comprising over-and-under center display screens, shows the aircraft's systems conditions and engines performance. This is variously called EICAS (Engine Indications and Crew Alerting System) or ECAM (Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitor), the former being the Boeing term and the latter Airbus' acronym. All this information is graphically presented in a 'need-to-know' basis, however the pilot may query the system for further details of interest.
Early glass cockpits, found in the McDonnell Douglas MD-80/90, Boeing 737 Classic, 757 and 767-200/-300, and in the Airbus A300-600 and A310, used EFIS to display attitude and navigational information only, with traditional mechanical gauges retained for airspeed, altitude and vertical speed. Later glass cockpits, found in the Boeing 737NG, 747-400, 767-400, 777, A320, and later Airbuses, have replaced completely the mechanical gauges and warning lights present in previous generation aircraft.
Prior to the 1970s, air transport operations were not considered sufficiently demanding to require advanced equipment like electronic flight displays. Also, computer technology was not at a level where sufficiently light and powerful circuits were available. The increasing complexity of transport aircraft, the advent of digital systems and the growing air traffic congestion around airports began to change that.
The average transport aircraft in the mid-1970s had more than one hundred cockpit instruments and controls, and the primary flight instruments were already crowded with indicators, crossbars, and symbols, and the growing number of cockpit elements were competing for cockpit space and pilot attention. As a result, NASA conducted research on displays that could process the raw aircraft system and flight data into an integrated, easily understood picture of the flight situation, culminating in a series of flights demonstrating a full glass cockpit system.
The success of the NASA-led glass cockpit work is reflected in the total acceptance of electronic flight displays beginning with the introduction of the MD-80 in 1979. Airlines and their passengers alike have benefited. The safety and efficiency of flights has been increased with improved pilot understanding of the aircraft's situation relative to its environment (or "situational awareness").
By the end of the 1990s, LCD panels were increasingly favored among aircraft manufacturers because of their efficiency, reliability and legibility. Earlier LCD panels suffered from poor legibility at some viewing angles and poor response times, making them unsuitable for aviation. Modern aircraft such as the Boeing 737 Next Generation , Boeing 777, Boeing 787,Boeing 747-400ER, Boeing 747-8, and Boeing 767-400ER, Airbus A320 family (later version), Airbus A330 (later version), Airbus A340-500/600, Airbus A340-300 (later version), Airbus A380 and Airbus A350, Boeing 717 are fitted with glass cockpits consisting of liquid crystal display (LCD) units.
The glass cockpit has become standard equipment in airliners, business jets, and military aircraft, and was even fitted into NASA's Space Shuttle orbiters Atlantis, Columbia, Discovery, and Endeavour, and the current Russian Soyuz TMA model spacecraft that was launched in 2002. By the end of the century glass cockpits began appearing in general aviation aircraft as well. By 2005, even basic trainers like the Piper Cherokee and Cessna 172 were shipping with glass cockpits as options (which nearly all customers chose), and many modern aircraft such as the Diamond Aircraft twin-engine travel and training aircraft DA42 are available with glass cockpit only.
Unlike the previous era of glass cockpits—where designers merely copied the look and feel of conventional electromechanical instruments onto cathode ray tubes—the new displays represent a true departure. They look and behave a lot like other computers, with windows and data that can be manipulated with point-and-click devices. They also add terrain, approach charts, weather, vertical displays, and 3D navigation images.
The improved concepts enables aircraft makers to customize cockpits to a greater degree than previously. All of the manufacturers involved have chosen to do so in one way or another—such as using a trackball, thumb pad or joystick as a pilot-input device in a computer-style environment. Many of the modifications offered by the aircraft manufacturers improve situational awareness and customize the human-machine interface to enhance safety.
As aircraft displays have modernized, the sensors that feed them have modernized as well. Traditional gyroscopic flight instruments have been replaced by Attitude and Heading Reference Systems (AHRS) and Air Data Computers (ADCs), improving reliability and reducing cost and maintenance. GPS receivers are frequently integrated into glass cockpits.
All new airliners such as the Airbus A380, the Boeing 787 and private jets such as Bombardier Global Express and Learjet use glass cockpits. Certain general aviation aircraft, such as the 4-seat Diamond Aircraft DA40, DA42 and DA50 and the 4-seat Cirrus Design SR20 and SR22, are available with glass cockpits. Systems such as the Garmin G1000 are now available on many new GA aircraft, including the classic Cessna 172.
Glass cockpits are also popular as a retrofit for older private jets and turboprops such as Dassault Falcons, Raytheon Hawkers, Bombardier Challenger, Cessna Citations, Gulfstreams, King Airs, Learjets, Astras and many others. Aviation service companies work closely with equipment manufacturers to address the needs of the owners of these aircraft.
As aircraft operation becomes more dependent on glass cockpit systems, flight crews must be trained to deal with possible failures. In one glass-cockpit aircraft, the Airbus A320, fifty incidents of glass-cockpit blackout have occurred. On 25 January 2008 United Airlines Flight 731 experienced a serious glass-cockpit blackout, losing half of the ECAM displays as well as all radios, transponders, TCAS, and attitude indicators. Partially due to good weather and daylight conditions, the pilots were able to land successfully at Newark Airport without radio contact. Airbus has offered an optional fix, which the U.S. NTSB has suggested to the U.S. FAA as mandatory, but the FAA has yet to make such a requirement. A preliminary NTSB factsheet is available.
Published - July 2009
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