The cockpits of fighter aircraft have come a very long way since the early days of canvas and wood biplanes. Originally, not much attention was paid to its design and layout leaving the ensconced pilot in the less-than-optimal position of having to remove his attention from the sky to look at instrument gauges, dials, charts, etc. The advent of projected gunsights (a reticle superimposed on a thin plate of glass mounted in front of the pilot’s eyes) further led to the HUD, or Head Up Display. The HUD seemed to be the first instance of aircraft designers paying special attention to the needs of the pilot in stead of just focusing on the capabilities required of the aircraft.
The HUD evolved gradually, displaying airspeed, targeting solutions, an artificial horizon and more, allowing the pilot to keep his eyes on the sky without having to look elsewhere to get vital information. The development of the HUD was especially crucial as it came at the beginning of the jet age, the time when air forces of the world moved on to fighter jets as their mainstays, retiring propeller-driven fighters for good. Maverick from Top Gun said it best: “You don’t have time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead.” Screaming through the sky at nearly a thousand miles per hour in a fighter jet loaded for bear is a tough enough task to take charge of in itself. Distractions can prove extremely fatal. The HUD helped, in this respect, keep pilots a little safer than before.
The next big step was bringing in the multi-function display, or MFD. The MFD’s a screen that can be configured by the pilot to display different sets of data, useful to him in-flight, such as maps, fuel readouts, and weapons stores available to the pilot, among other bits of information. However, MFDs were still surrounded by old analog instruments, cluttered around the dash in front of the control stick and throttle. Thankfully (for pilots, at least), MFDs became more common in the cockpit, replacing gauges, dials and tapes, ushering in the era of the glass cockpit… and that brings us to where we are today.
Above, you’ll see an image of the cockpit of a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The latest development in cockpits for fighter jets, it’s designed to ease the workload on the pilot, bringing up all useful and relevant information onto a massive touchscreen panel display in front of him. There’s no traditional HUD in this jet, however. Instead, the pilot uses a helmet-mounted HUD and visual cuing system. It makes targeting as simple as looking at whatever you wish to achieve a lock on, and letting the onboard computers do their jobs. Also present in the F-35’s cockpit is a voice recognition system allowing the pilot to literally speak to his aircraft and have it respond with the appropriate action. A far, far cry from the old days when the cockpit was littered with needle gauges, buttons and knobs, which could very well have brought down the plane if fiddled with wrongly.
Pretty cool, huh?