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Advanced flight decks


Modernization of global airspace requires cockpits to meet operational demands with innovative technology that accommodates human factors to unprecedented levels.

By Don Van Dyke
ATP/Helo/CFII, F28, Bell 222.
Pro Pilot Canadian Technical Editor

Defining the capabilities, configurations, and designs of advanced flight decks demands vision, imagination, and the coordination of a wide range of disciplines. The paramount goal is to match hardware/software, human factors, and system requirements based on their usefulness and appropriateness in meeting the needs and aspirations of air transport.
Modern aviation depends largely on air traffic management (ATM) infrastructure using aeronautical-specific communications, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) networks which share information and data (voice, digital) with qualified users.

Compatible flight decks must be simple, secure, smart, and cost-effective workplaces from which pilots can operate (command and control) aircraft in coordination with ATM.

The ordered axiom of aviate, navigate, and communicate – which has served generations of pilots – has occasionally, in times of crisis management, given rise to discontinuities in pilot/ATM collaboration.

Goals of modernized airspace

The FAA-led Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) was launched in 2004 to modernize the US National Airspace System (NAS) by migrating current ground-based air traffic control (ATC) to satellite-based ATM in order to make flying safer, more efficient, and more predictable.

NextGen and the European SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) will accommodate increased traffic volume and a greater diversity of users (passengers, cargo, UAS/RPAS, space launch/reentry vehicles) in a fully interconnected system defined by clear secure communication, stricter separation parameters, shared real-time information (identity, weather, traffic flows), and greater delegation of flight trajectory operational conformance to flightcrew.

Advanced flight decks

Advanced flight deck designs apply sophisticated technology and innovation to accurately meet the requirements of modernized airspace, optimize flightpath management, and improve airframe, propulsion, and systems integration. The materials that could be used to achieve such sophistication in the cockpit design are steel, titanium, aluminum, fiberglass reinforcement, vinyl, tempered glass, etc.

Greater data sharing and analysis yields more efficient flight paths, reduced flight times, lower fuel consumption and emissions, and other wide-ranging benefits. Improvements will come through traffic information service – broadcast (TIS-B) and flight information service – broadcast (FIS-B) for traffic and weather updates, electronic flight bags (EFBs), which provide information in electronic format, and synthetic vision systems (SVSs), which provide external topography information to the cockpit.

AAtS (airborne access to system-wide information management [SWIM]) will provide flightcrews with real-time access to SWIM, while airborne collision avoidance system (ACAS-X) will operate like TCAS, but with fewer nuisance alarms.

Pilot-centered flight decks feature intuitive interfaces which make hazardous situations easier to identify, relieving pilots from repetitive or non-rewarding tasks, improving decision-making processes and reaction times, and helping to manage peak workloads which can occur during typical flights.

Improvements to phases of flight expected under NextGen are identified in GAO’s report, Air Traffic Control Modernization: Progress and Challenges in Implementing NextGen, available for download at gao.gov/products/gao-17-450.

Communications. Primary communications can be moved from voice to digital data exchange through data communications (DataComm), such as text-based controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC). DataComm also streamlines sharing of weather and other information through SWIM.

Navigation. Performance-based navigation (PBN) describes an aircraft’s capability to navigate using performance standards. PBN comprises area navigation (RNAV) and required navigation performance (RNP).

RNAV enables aircraft to fly on any desired flightpath within the coverage of ground- or space-based navigation aids, within the capabilities of aircraft self-contained systems, or a combination of both capabilities.

RNP is RNAV with additional onboard performance monitoring and alerting capabilities. RNP allows the aircraft navigation system to monitor achieved navigation performance and informs the crew if requirements are not met. Onboard monitoring and alerting enhance pilot situational awareness and can enable reduced obstacle clearance.

Surveillance. NextGen provides air traffic controllers with accurate aircraft location and a clear vision of surrounding conditions, including weather patterns and other aircraft. In a world of connectivity, automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast (ADS-B) offers a new level of safety and efficiency.

Free surveillance of surrounding traffic is available on all ADS-B In receivers. Free access to weather and flight information is available on ADS-B In receivers equipped to receive Universal Access Transceiver (UAT) broadcasts. Fuel and time savings accrue from more complete surveillance, as well as from direct aircraft-to-aircraft applications. This is a major difference between ADS-B and radar.

Two initial cockpit applications – in-trail procedures, and cockpit display of traffic information (CDTI)-assisted visual separation (CAVS) – are deployed now. As aircraft continue to be equipped with ADS-B In avionics, more applications will further improve safety, increase capacity, and reduce harmful aircraft emissions.

Weather. FAA’s vision for connected aviation technologies would, for example, permit aircraft to exchange information with a variety of entities responsible for coordinating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or commercial space operations without the need for dialogue with ATM. Direct communication with NOAA would allow access to and evaluation of real-time weather information beyond the range and limitations of conventional radar.

The 5-place Vertical Aerospace VA-X4 for advanced air mobility features Rolls-Royce all-electric propulsion and a Honeywell fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system. Commitments to acquire as many as 1000 of these eVTOL aircraft have been received for service entry in 2024.


The digital world in which connected aircraft operate continues to evolve unabated to improve flight safety, efficiency, capability, and product range. However, accompanying challenges and shortcomings await resolution.

Automation. Automation transforms a pilot’s role from actively operating the aircraft to monitoring automated systems. However, lack of practice can erode manual and cognitive flying skills.

Situational awareness can be reduced by unexpected automation behavior and by significant workload challenges when systems fail. Managing automation (when involving data entry or retrieval through a keypad) can increase workload by placing additional tasks on the pilots.

Communications. This increased use of data link will be driven by saturation of existing VHF radio networks as both the number of aircraft increases, and the number of coordination tasks between each flight deck and ATC increases. Data link communication offers viable relief from frequency congestion, but has some possible disadvantages.

On-ground communication for crew may still continue with the help of reliable two-way radio communication systems, which has been the norm amongst ground staff. Regular maintenance work for these systems here can ensure that they remain effective in disbursing information throughout the airport to all concerned parties.

Delegation of separation and sequencing responsibility will result in increased use of CPDLC. Interaction with a DataComm display transforms communication into a visual task which may demand an unsafe increase in head-down time, particularly during single-pilot ops.

Navigation. The graphical clarity of modern primary flight and navigation displays improves pilot situational awareness, but flight management computers (FMCs), with their multiple capabilities, introduced the potential for mode confusion. The FMS can take the pilot out of the cognitive loop by being so accurate and reliable that critical sensory faculties become dulled.

US-based operators flying internationally face requirements that may differ greatly from FAA mandates. Some require ADS-B, FMS, and CPDLC, a combination not currently mandated by FAA; North Atlantic (NAT), Europe, and Asia require FANS 1/A (CPDLC and ADS-C); and China requires commercial aircraft to be equipped with head-up displays (HUDs) by 2025. NBAA advises that these requirements may affect intercontinental business aircraft as well.

Surveillance. The NextGen flight deck is challenged by desired delegation of responsibility for separation. Currently, in the NAS, aircraft separation and sequencing are the exclusive purview of ATM. Pilots need the services provided by controllers and are obliged by regulation to use them. As yet, no display on today’s flight deck is capable of facilitating these tasks, nor are pilots trained to accomplish them except to maintain visual separation in the vicinity of airports.

Weather. Identification of adverse weather (and its impact on pilot planning) differs between out-the-window and mobile presentations of prevailing conditions. Differences in perception of trigger severity and potential impact affect pilot planning and time sequences. Updates to flight conditions after a flight briefing is obtained may not be communicated in a timely manner to pilots.

Cybersecurity. Digital infrastructure and connectivity benefit aviation communications and administration, but also increase the potential for cybersecurity breaches. For example, CPDLC enhances ATM surveillance and intervention capability to lower mid-air collision risk while reducing voice traffic on radio frequencies.

Unfortunately, these communications are unsecured, leaving them open to compromise. The interconnectedness afforded by the Internet can potentially allow unauthorized remote access to aircraft avionics. Vulnerabilities in aviation are increasingly fast-moving and unpredictable. Not to forget, people also use mobile phones on plane wifi which can attract hackers to track a lot of information as well as hack into the mobile database. These security breaches can cause severe issues related to aircraft movement as well as functioning (click here to learn more about mobile security stats).

Hence, adversaries continue to probe for security gaps in systems to exploit for financial, reputational, and mass disruption gains. As systems become more connected, cybersecurity is made more open to risks. Selected significant threats and defenses have been discussed in Pro Pilot (Connected aircraft and cybersecurity, June 2021, p 20; Threats to connected aviation, May 2020, p 38).

GE Aviation’s Open Flight Deck project partners BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, and the UK’s Coventry University and University of Southampton to future-proof advanced flight decks by overcoming barriers to the introduction of new aviation technology.

Promising technologies

Advances in flight deck design will offer intelligent assistants (IAs) to aid in pilot decision-making and support controlled aircraft maneuvering. 3D aural augmentation of visual displays can focus pilot attention on specific tasks and improve reaction times in locating features. Auxiliary synthetic speech may prove effective in mitigating adverse flight deck aspects of DataComm. Conformal 3D symbology presented on a head-mounted display (HMD) can enhance pilot situational awareness by providing an unlimited field of view of operational hazards as an element of flight-deck-based traffic merging and spacing.


Current Rolls-Royce development activities include evolution of the gas turbine and researching radical alternatives such as electrification. Advanced flight decks afford a platform and capabilities to improve integration between airframe, propulsion, and systems.

The 2018 Royal Aeronautical Society International Flight Crew Training Conference (IFCTC) focused on making better pilots in the traditional sense. The 2021 IFCTC, scheduled for Sep 25–26, will concentrate onpreparing pilots to gain expert understanding of high-technology flight decks and their management, to characterize the human interface with technology, and to quantify elements of performance-based training and quality oversight.

Professional pilots are a fundamental resource when developing strategies and plans to maximize the utility of advanced flight decks. Aviation’s growth will benefit from their insights.

Don Van Dyke is professor of advanced aerospace topics at Chicoutimi College of Aviation – CQFA Montréal. He is an 18,000-hour TT pilot and instructor with extensive airline, business and charter experience on both airplanes and helicopters. A former IATA ops director, he has served on several ICAO panels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and is a flight operations expert on technical projects under UN administration.