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A glass cockpit is an aircraft cockpit that features electronic (digital) instrument displays, typically large LCD screens, rather than the traditional style of analog dials and gauges. While a traditional cockpit relies on numerous mechanical gauges to display information, a glass cockpit uses 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, saving costs. In recent years the technology has become widely available in small aircraft.
As aircraft displays have modernized, the sensors that feed them have modernized as well. Traditional gyroscopic flight instruments have been replaced by electronic Attitude and Heading Reference Systems (AHRS) and Air Data Computers (ADCs), improving reliability and reducing cost and maintenance. GPS receivers are usually integrated into glass cockpits.
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 Electronic Flight Instrument Systems (EFIS) to display attitude and navigational information only, with traditional mechanical gauges retained for airspeed, altitude, vertical speed, and engine performance. Later glass cockpits, found in the Boeing 737NG, 747-400, 767-400, 777, A320 and later Airbuses, Ilyushin Il-96 and Tupolev Tu-204 have completely replaced the mechanical gauges and warning lights in previous generations of aircraft, although they still retain some analogue instruments as backups in case the EFIS displays malfunction.
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, liquid-crystal display (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, 777, 717, 747-400ER, 747-8F 767-400ER, 747-8, and 787, Airbus A320 family (later versions), A330 (later versions), A340-500/600, A340-300 (later versions), A380 and A350 are fitted with glass cockpits consisting of LCD units.
The glass cockpit has become standard equipment in airliners, business jets, and military aircraft. It 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, and Cirrus Design SR20 and SR22 are available with glass cockpit only. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, features a "panoramic cockpit display" touchscreen that replaces most of the switches and toggles found in an aircraft cockpit.
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 very similarly to 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 enable 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 increase safety.
Modern glass cockpits might include Synthetic Vision (SVS) or Enhanced Vision systems (EVS). Synthetic Vision systems display a realistic 3D depiction of the outside world (similar to a flight simulator), based on a database of terrain and geophysical features in conjunction with the attitude and position information gathered from the aircraft navigational systems. Enhanced Vision systems add real-time information from external sensors, such as an infrared camera.
Many modern general aviation aircraft are available with glass cockpits. Systems such as the Garmin G1000 are now available on many new GA aircraft, including the classic Cessna 172. Many small aircraft can also be modified post-production to replace analogue instruments.
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.
Consumer, research, hobby & recreational aviation
Today, smartphones and tablets use mini-applications, or "apps," to remotely-control complex devices, by WiFi radio interface. They demonstrate how the "glass cockpit" idea is being applied to consumer devices. The best aviation-related example is the US$300 Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 and its AR.FreeFlight app: a toy-grade UAV which uses the display and touch screen of a tablet or smartphone to employ every aspect of the "glass cockpit" for instrument display, and fly-by-wire for aircraft control.
NASA Space Shuttle program
The glass cockpit idea made news in 1980's trade magazines, like Aviation Week & Space Technology, when NASA announced that it would be replacing most of the electro-mechanical flight instruments in the space shuttles with glass cockpit components. The articles mentioned how glass cockpit components had the added benefit of being a few hundred pound lighter than the original flight instruments and support systems used in the space shuttles.
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 US NTSB has suggested to the US FAA as mandatory, but the FAA has yet to make it a requirement. A preliminary NTSB factsheet is available. Due to the possibility of a blackout, glass cockpit aircraft also have backup analogue displays for key flight instruments such as the airspeed indicator and altimeter.
In 2010, the NTSB published a study done on 8,000 general aviation light aircraft. The study found that, although aircraft equipped with glass cockpits had a lower overall accident rate, they also had a larger chance of being involved in a fatal accident. The NTSB Chairman said in response to the study:
Training is clearly one of the key components to reducing the accident rate of light planes equipped with glass cockpits, and this study clearly demonstrates the life and death importance of appropriate training on these complex systems... While the technological innovations and flight management tools that glass cockpit equipped airplanes bring to the general aviation community should reduce the number of fatal accidents, we have not—unfortunately—seen that happen.
- Chui, Sam. "A380 Australia visit November 2005". Samchuiphotos.com. Retrieved 2009-08-12.
- Wallace, Lane. "Airborne Trailblazer: Two Decades with NASA Langley's 737 Flying Laboratory". NASA. Retrieved 2012-04-22. "Prior to the 1970s, air transport operations were not considered sufficiently demanding to require advanced equipment like electronic flight displays. The increasing complexity of transport aircraft, the advent of digital systems and the growing air traffic congestion around airports began to change that, however. She added that the average transport aircraft in the mid-1970s had more than 100 cockpit instruments and controls, and the primary flight instruments were already crowded with indicators, crossbars, and symbols. In other words, the growing number of cockpit elements were competing for cockpit space and pilot attention."
- "A320 flight deck". airbus.com. Archived from the original on August 22, 2008. Retrieved 2009-08-12.
- Katz, Peter. "Plane & Pilot Magazine - Glass-Cockpit Blackout". Planeandpilotmag.com. Retrieved 2009-08-12.
- Blackouts In The Cockpit at the Wayback Machine (archived August 17, 2008)
- NTSB Safety Recommendation A-08-53 through -55 Retrieved on 14 April 2012.
- "DCA08IA033". Ntsb.gov. 2008-01-25. Retrieved 2009-08-12.
- SB-10-07, NTSB Press release, "NTSB study shows introduction of 'glass cockpits' in general aviation airplanes has not led to expected safety improvements"