NASA considers windowless flightdecks

Designers plan external vision systems for supersonic cockpits.

By Glenn Connor
President, Discover Technology Intl
ATP, Cessna 425

Lockheed Martin calls its supersonic concept N+3 for 3 generations forward. NASA Langley's Flight Deck Interface Technology Group is exploring vision systems for use in advanced aircraft.

Development of any flightdeck begins with a seat and, typically, a window for the pilot to look through. Next the designer conjures up flight instruments and controls, some sheepskin seats and foot warmers and voilà!—you have your basic cockpit. But when aircraft designers begin to consider a flying machine that goes at the speed of heat and has no front window, some creative new thinking is needed.

However, being creative can be a challenge to getting something certified by FAA, especially if you surprise them. Certification or FAA approval of any new technology is typically only successful if there is a lot of analysis and experience. And without NASA Langley Flight Deck Interface Technology Group, evolution of new concepts would be in question.

As a bit of history, some early aircraft designs actually opted out on the front pilot window scheme—like the F103, where the pilot was to look into a periscope, no doubt inspired by Charles Lindbergh's example. Lindbergh had a fuel tank in front and some side windows—and limited exposure to FAA.

As for the lucky F103 pilot, he never saw more than the plywood mockup. But as potential real designs of super­sonic bizjets are being advanced with more frequency, the one design challenge that looms is the problem of a window for the pilot.

Today the problem of design standards and certification criteria of advanced vision flightdecks is the primary activity of Special Committee 213 (SC213). Sponsored by FAA, this brains trust includes the aviation industry, FAA and European regulators—and, at the center of it all, NASA Langley Flight Deck Interface Technology Group Team Lead Randy Bailey and his fellow scientists.

Together with industry, Bailey and NASA's researchers, sitting between SC213's wild-eyed test pilots and bleeding edge engineers, have quietly been inventing and testing many of the new concepts that will likely soon be seen in your future flightdeck.

Future flightdecks may require a pilot and an information officer trained to deal with the increasingly complex onboard systems. This conceptual illustration shows what a windowless cockpit may look like.

The new designs emerging from SC213 and NASA Langley are based on limited natural vision—an operational condition which is essentially zero visibility, and where a window is not much help. Designers see that this zero-visibility operation will require a combination of several systems to enable a pilot to land and taxi and operate in all phases of flight, and function as if you had a window.

From an FAA regulation perspective—see Regulation 91.175—approved (FAA certified) enhanced flight vision systems (EFVS) may be used in lieu of a pilot's natural vision. The regulation also states that a pilot may proceed with the visual segment of the approach based on the use of EFVS to 100ft above threshold elevation.

Currently EFVS is in operation at Bombardier, Dassault, Gulfstream and FedEx. JetCraft is leading the aftermarket push for EFVS and will soon have a Challenger 604 with the system.

The new operational goal has "the express purpose of enabling slpecified straight-in instrument approaches with published vertical guidance to touchdown, landing, and rollout to a safe taxi speed in visibility as low as 300 ft RVR by use of an approved EFVS without need or reliance on natural vision."

For this new operation advanced vision systems will include combinations of enhanced and synthetic vision. New display concepts will range from widescreen high-definition LCDs, HUDs and PFDs with EFVS and SVS fused to operate in all phases of flight.

Aircraft with no front windows

NASA Langley Flight Deck Interface Technology Group Team Lead Randy Bailey. This team is evaluating concepts for advanced vision display technology—combined vision systems. Bailey also coordinates RTCA SC213 efforts for future flightdecks and combined vision.

In some recent supersonic aircraft studies, designers have stated that "high body fineness is one of the general features expected in the N+3 generation of supersonic airplanes." This fact led designers to the conclusion that "a slender body would unfavorably reduce the cross-section of the flightdeck and obstruct pilot vision, likely demanding a full-time forward external vision system."

From the bizjet world, several designs also indicate that vision technology will be required to enable the most efficient airplane design.

Some early patents for supersonic designs also seem to consider the need for a means to enable the pilot to see with no front window, but with something less fancy than electronics. One patent proposed a device that included an "aperture to permit a pilot in the cockpit to look through the instrument panel aperture and nose opening to see the approach and landing environment."

The patent says, "The viewing tunnel allows the pilot to see through a large opening in the bottom and sides of the airplane." The patent included a window and was issued in 1994.

A patent filed by Boeing in 1994 proposes a viewing apparatus through the aircraft structure to see to land.

Boeing, also a member of SC213, has taken the practical steps of ensuring the connection of airline and large aircraft operations to vision-based flightdecks. The company's evaluation of new technology and its deep science connection with NASA on human factors of flightdecks is well known. Boeing's attention to details of display design and the transition of those new capabilities to practical crew training seem to be at the top of the list of requirements.

Previous Honeywell studies on XVS with NASA Langley were focused on research and development of man/machine concepts that could compel a "no-droop" supersonic aircraft design. Honeywell's focus was to "replicate the window—plus" using technology to bridge the gap as needed.


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