Tuesday, October 25, 2005
"COCKPIT" Just Sounds Dirty
(Here's a look at the cockpit of my beloved DC-8, the quintessential old airplane.)
Ernest K. Gann, in "Fate is the Hunter," wrote about the cockpit as a kind of inner sanctum, and wrote eloquently about the hush and trance-like concentration that are part and parcel of the flight environment. (If you are interested in flying things, it's a fantastic read about the earliest days of airline flying.) I've had a fascination with airplane cockpits since long before I learned how to fly. I remember having had a 747 cockpit poster on my bedroom wall thru all of my teen years (though I had forgotten that until just now). Today, I have a lovely--well, lovely in an oily, machinery geek sort of way--collection of a couple hundred cockpit photos on my computer, and my desktop is often set to this folder so that I'm treated to a rotation of pilot workplaces during the day. Let's look at some of them, shall we?
(The Dornier 328, my last airplane.)
I think it's more than just a fascination with machinery, though most little boys (and pilots) need nothing else to hold their interest. I think there's the idea that this huge machine must be controlled, and so every system and control function must be routed in a systematic way up to this tiny room at the front, like all the functions of the body's nervous system terminating at, or originating from, the brain. All these myriad systems, flight instruments and navigation, operational things like electrics and hydraulics and fuel systems (each quite complicated in itself), all interface in this small area. And because we use this cockpit not simply as a convenient place to read the newspaper, but to control the airplane, it becomes a kind of bionic attachment to us, a cybernetic extension of our bodies. I pull back on the yoke and rotate it to the right, and the whole huge machine pitches and tilts to my command, like the movement of my own limbs but hugely exaggerated.
(Airbus A-320, quintessential modern airplane.)
And further: the airplane is a product of human design, envisioned and built for human needs; our cockpit is not what a cow or a manatee would come up with (I was going to say sparrow, but a sparrow don't need no stinking cockpit). And so, after some basic decisions are made, we get to the study of ergonomics. True, there's physics underneath, but out of an almost infinite range of forms the endeavor might have taken (and early airplane cockpits were all over the place!), we settled on what we now have and we work within a fairly narrow range, evolving and refining a known and trusted concept. To look at a hundred different airplane cockpits is to see the products of 100 different herculean industrial design processes trying to solve the same problems, but in ways that extend far beyond simple stylistic decisions.
(The Concorde, the world's fastest passenger aircraft--sadly, now retired.)
What is called ergonomics in automotive design, where it deals with comfort and convenience, becomes in the world of aviation the study of human factors. Here, it goes beyond whether it's a pain in the ass to have to reach too far for the radio knob or whether your Big Gulp irritatingly blocks your view of the climate control system display; the layout of switches and controls--more than this, the very design of a system and its user / machine interface--becomes the product of intensive study and years of research and data collection.
(A Russian Beriev seaplane, one of very few large airplanes with a stick--instead of a yoke.)
A prime example (I blabbed about this before here @ "Flying Stuff"): when airplanes for years had had three crewmembers, the business of engineering the flight engineer out of the cockpit in the late '60s was no easy task: what about the jobs he used to do? How do we push those tasks off onto pilots, whom we have long believed had their hands full just flying the airplane? How do we design the systems NOT TO NEED routine human intervention?
I can hear my wife now. "OH... MY... GOD!! OMYGODOMYGODOMYGOD!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!" Hey, when you spend a thousand hours of your year locked in a broom closet with a couple other guys, this shit comes to matter!
This plea will fall on deaf ears. OK, I better stop.