Cockpit Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The area within an aircraft from which pilots operate the aircraft’s controls.

The term “cockpit” originated with the ancient sport of cockfighting. Early pilots had to control unstable airplanes through control levers positioned without regard to one control’s effect on another. Pilots stayed busy, their motions reminiscent of the frenzy in the gaming floor’s cockpit.

Although early airplanes accommodated pilots, they had no cockpits by modern definition. The Wright brothers’ Flyer pilot lay prone, having controls in reach but little else. No flight instruments existed until about 1911. In his underpowered, box-kite-like 14-bis, Alberto Santos-Dumont stood erect while becoming Europe’s first airplane pilot. By their first decade, airplanes had evolved cockpits as effective yet inefficient workstations.

By World War I, fighter cockpits gave their seated pilots a control stick, a rudder bar and precious few instruments. Open cockpits were a hallmark of pre-1920 airplanes—rarely were cockpits enclosed. As enclosures became prominent in the 1920’s, some pilots disliked them, wanting the wind on their faces to indicate slips or skids. By the 1930’s, most airplanes featured enclosed cockpits, although efficient pilot motion stayed a low priority.

The layout of cockpits only slowly became logical, with their instruments and installations sometimes cumbersome. Lockheed’s prewar Model 14 Hudson is an example of cockpit inefficiency; its Royal Air Force (RAF) version was a handful for its single pilot. In his 1972 memoir, H. A. Taylor recounted the difficulties of solo flight in the Hudson, beginning with starting the engine. It was a procedure that “was preferably done with three hands, each with more than the usual number of fingers and thumbs,” and involved simultaneously pressing buttons for both the starter motor and booster coil while holding a spring-loaded, three-position switch that selected the engine to be started. Meanwhile, an engine-doping pump and a wobble-pump had to be worked, and as soon as the engine fired, the idle cut-off lever had to be released and the throttle manipulated while the booster button was continually pressed. The layout of these vital mechanisms added to the challenge: “The buttons, switches and doper were on a fore-and-aft electrical panel to the pilot’s right; the wobble-pump handle was at the rear of the throttle pedestal; and the cut-off levers sprouted, among a dozen or more others, from the top of this pedestal.”

Not all 1930’s manufacturers spurned pilot efficiency. By the early 1930’s, Germany’s Junkers Aircraft built its Ju-52/3m, called “Tante Ju” (“Auntie Junkers”) by her adoring crews. Its innovations included dual instruments, a series of mechanical devices to reduce distraction-induced pilot errors, and effective weatherproofing. Logic arranged its flight instruments, and the pilot and copilot could both reach the brake lever. By the climax of World War II, cockpit efficiency had become a manufacturing priority.

Modern Cockpits

Airplane cockpits range from the single-place, where the pilot is the sole occupant and performs all duties, to the multi-place, in which several crew members share duties such as flying, communicating, navigating, and systems monitoring. Cockpit designs demand unique considerations.

Accessibility means that the pilot’s station must be easily reached upon entry and easily departed at flight’s end. Restraints must counter turbulence, yet allow quick crew egress in emergencies. Once seated, pilots must be able to reach all of the flight and systems controls. The control sticks so favored by early designers provide an unencumbered view of the instrument panel, and fall to hand naturally. Control yokes, or wheels, create an automotive feel that comforts new aviators, but blocks pilot vision of parts of the instrument panel. Both amateur airplane builders and conglomerates, such as Europe’s Airbus Industrie, have found value and pilot acceptance of side-sticks, joysticks mounted on the cockpit bulkhead, or side wall, where they can comfortably be reached by the pilot’s hand. These controls can be reliably gripped, even in tense moments or in turbulence, when jolts and jostling fling a pilot’s reaching hand from levers or dials.

From the 1920’s through the 1950’s, training airplanes tended to have tandem cockpits, in which the student and instructor sat on the airplane’s centerline, one behind the other. Advantages included the students’ ability to perform maneuvers in either direction with equal challenge, for their field of vision either way remained identical. Additionally, students tended to develop cockpit skills more quickly because their instructors remained essentially hidden. Disadvantages included the need for duplicate instrumentation and the instructors’ inability to see nuances in student facial expressions. In the 1950’s, as most trainer cockpits adopted side-by-side seating, designers strove for cockpit efficiency. Sometimes that goal is still unmet. Ten accidents occurring between 1972 and 1982 prompted development of what is known as cockpit resource management. Accidents underscored the need for physical changes in cockpits. Studies revealed surprising clues to the dangers induced by poor design.

By the twentieth century’s close, newly produced airplanes had begun to incorporate cockpit ergonomics. Ergonomics considers the design of the human body, including its ranges of skeletal and muscular motion. Normal operation is the first consideration, but airplanes encounter strong turbulence, operate in daylight and darkness, and can climb in minutes from searing heat at the airport to subzero temperatures at altitude. Designers must consider these factors and more, plus incorporate characteristics to maximize crash survivability. Like the rest of the airplane, the cockpit is a compromise, for which designers cannot rely on tradition. Today’s cockpit designers use recent and exhaustive studies to meet their goals. Despite its claustrophobic faults, the cockpit holds strong allure to millions. Depicting airplanes, artists usually focus on cockpits, for therein sits an airplane’s humanity, and what many see as its ultimate office.

  • Caidin, Martin. The Saga of Iron Annie. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. An account of one of the world’s most famous airplanes and the travails of restoring an airliner-sized antique to flying condition.
  • Connor, C. W. Proceedings of the Seventh Aerospace Behavioral Technology Conference:Operational Information Transfer Technology: Are We Designing for the Human Operator? Warrendale, Pa.: Society of Automotive Engineers, 1989. A compilation of twenty-three highly technical assessments of aerospace issues, including cockpit design.
  • Satchell, P. M. Cockpit Monitoring and Alerting Systems. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 1993. A technical work directed to aviation’s production professionals.
  • Szurovy, Geza. Wings of Yesteryear: The Golden Age of Private Aircraft. Osceola, Wis.: MBI, 1998. A nostalgic review of 1920’s- to 1940’s-era light planes, lavishly illustrated with superb color photos, posters, and contemporary black-and-white photographs.
  • Taylor, H. A. “Flying the Harassing Hudson.” Air Enthusiast Magazine (December, 1972): 292. A pilot’s memoir of Royal Air Force Service during World War II.


Flight control systems




Alberto Santos-Dumont

Training and education

Wright Flyer

The modern cockpit is laid out for optimum ease of operation by both pilot and copilot, unlike many early aircraft designs.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
Categories: History