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Supersonic bizjets could have windowless flight decks

'Glass cockpit' next step - no actual glass

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Executive jet manufacturers, hoping to make some big money developing small supersonic bizcraft in the post-Concorde era, are seemingly undaunted by the economic climate. With the help of NASA, they are also working on some nifty tech fixes to the serious problems faced by supersonic civil aviation.

Strangely perhaps, one of these is being able to see out of the front of the aircraft. As those familiar with the late Concorde will know, an aircraft intended to go supersonic needs to have a long, pointy nose. Its wings will also tend to be swept well back for flight above Mach 1. But, if nothing changes, this makes it impossible for the pilot to see the runway when coming in to land.

Concorde dealt with this problem by drooping its nose after slowing down, giving the pilot a better view. Some military aircraft achieve a more nose-down attitude during landing by swinging their wings forward. But shapeshifting airframes like these are seen as too expensive for a small business jet; apart, perhaps, from an extending "Quiet Spike" nose probe for mitigating the sonic boom effect.

However, some designers believe there's no need for pilots nowadays to have an actual transparent window in the nose of the aircraft. Rather, the flight deck would have vision screens relaying pictures from cameras. This could offer an excellent view regardless of the aircraft's position, and would also simplify the structure of the airframe. Small windows for passengers at the sides of an aeroplane are much simpler to put in than the usual big wide-angle ones at the front.

In fact, Gulfstream are already trying out such technology with NASA help at Edwards airforce base in California. A test pilot in the rear seat of a NASA F-18, furnished only with small side windows and a display relayed from an HD cam in the front cockpit, has been flying the aircraft without difficulty. (For now there is a hands-off safety pilot with unimpeded view sitting up front.)

Aerospace Daily and Defense Report quotes Larry Myers of NASA as saying that the idea is "to convince the FAA that under visual flight rules you could do this, and so far it looks like you could”.

It seems that an FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) test pilot will be given a chance to try out the fly-by-cam system later this year.

Of course, there will be those who say that if the pilot can fly the plane using a camera picture, there's no need for him to be on board at all - as indeed he often isn't, in modern military aircraft.

One could go further, indeed. The Space Shuttle has the same forward-view landing issues faced by supersonic aircraft to a very high degree, being a hypersonic airframe with no option to change shape at all. It doesn't have any camera system either; it lands itself almost completely without pilot input, as will many of the next generation of unmanned military aircraft.

As a result, the upcoming roboplanes won't really need pilots at all, as they can easily be handled for most of a flight by operators with minimal training.

It seems unlikely that the billionaire businessmen of the future would be willing to get into a plane without a pilot aboard, of course - even if it was much faster and cheaper. But more and more, aviation engineers are beginning to chafe at the limitations imposed on their designs by the requirements of pilots who in a strictly technical sense are becoming less and less necessary.

It certainly seems plausible that in some aircraft at least - if they don't want to find themselves sitting on the ground flying by remote, or even out of a job altogether - pilots will soon have to put up with virtual screen windows rather than real ones.

Alternatively, they might use some kind of nifty video goggles/head-mounted system to "look through" the aircraft's structure in any direction they like. This can already be done to some degree with the helmet displays of the F-35 strike fighter, now in flight test: aircraft, missiles etc being tracked by the plane's all-around infrared sensor system can be "seen" on a pilot's visor even if he is looking down through the cockpit floor or over his shoulder.

This all gives a bit of a new twist to the phrase "glass cockpit", anyway. Until now, this has generally referred to the replacement of old school clock-style dials, knobs and so forth with interactive menu-driven screens.

It now seems that a truly modern glass cockpit might be one in which all the windows have disappeared. ®

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