Key Subset for Airline Cockpit

Q: I’m impressed by the sheer complexity of an airliner’s cockpit. There are hundreds of controls and displays. Private planes don’t have nearly so many. Is there a key subset that you primarily use?

The seemingly Byzantine array of instrumentation does contain a subset (or a few subsets) used more frequently than others. There are many controls in a cockpit that are rarely, if ever, touched (unless it’s in the simulator, where the greasy smudge of many a nervous pilot’s finger is found on those switches and buttons not routinely needed).

The contrast of cockpits between large and small airplanes exists for the reason you’d expect: the capabilities of airliners — including small jets and turboprops — are immensely more formidable than those of, say, a two-seat Cessna. Much of what you see controls the workings of what pilots refer to collectively as the “systems.” That’s shoptalk for the electrical, hydraulic, air conditioning, pressurization, and fuel systems, among several others. Then there are navigational computers and displays, as well as controls and displays for the engines. Not to mention the instruments pertaining to flight itself — altimeters, airspeed indicators, and so forth, which are much more elaborate than those aboard light planes. And much of this exists in duplicate or triplicate.

There is a general similarity between models of airplane, but a pilot of one jet would not be expected to hop into another and understand its operation. Separate certification is required when transitioning from type to type, and a typical training course takes weeks.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.