Flying twice as fast as an AR15 round and capable of pulling G forces that leave pilots with the same painful lack of mobility as if they weighed an actual ton, a fighter aircraft asks a lot of its pilot.
Fighting and surviving in such a hostile environment requires lightning-fast assimilation and response to a mass of information. Not only this, but today most fighters are multi-role and are tasked with destroying both air and surface targets. This is possible thanks to the wonder of the modern cockpit. We asked former Topgun instructor and F-14 Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek to give us the lowdown. Let’s slam the canopy shut and take a flight through 65 years of cockpit design.
“Sixty-five years seems like a long time, but the F-106 Delta Dart with which I start could be a threat today if still operational. And its near-contemporary, the F-4 Phantom, is still in service with five countries.
I was a Topgun instructor and an F-14 RIO, but for this article I’ll move into the front seat and look at instrumentation and controls. This is not an exhaustive survey, but a look at representative types that I selected. I’ll address the earliest version of each type because later developments had more to do with technical advancements than the state of aircraft design. Imagine a Spitfire Mk 24 with a podded radar, helmet mounted cueing system, and ASRAAM – with the controls and displays to support it all – and you get the idea.
“ICS check.” “Loud and clear.” “Okay, let’s get going.”
F-106A Delta Dart (first flight: 1956). I chose the F-106 to start because it is a memorable aircraft design of the 1950s. As a latter century series aircraft, I will argue it was part of the beginning of modern fighters. The Delta Dart was called a development of the F-102, but is significantly improved. In fact, the F-102 cockpit looks like something out of a hobbyist’s basement, while the -106 looks like a fairly modern fighter/interceptor, at least before the dawn of glass cockpits. The tape instruments add a modern touch, and the fact that it’s single-engine allows the panel to be less cluttered than dual engine types. I’ve read that the procedure to select weapons was “cumbersome” and would be difficult to accomplish under combat conditions. Such realisations were sweeping the aviation industry and led to modern HOTAS cockpits.
As a teenager I met a pilot who flew F-106s in the Florida Air National Guard, based in my hometown, and he arranged for me to fly their simulator during one of my visits to watch them fly. I was pretty excited, and to my surprise discovered that I was able to avoid crashing – with a lot of coaching from the simulator control console. The moving map display in front of the control stick was cool, it seemed futuristic in the 1970s.
F-4B and F-4C Phantom II (first flights: 1961, 1963, respectively). I selected early Phantoms to help form a baseline, and the pilot instrument panel is similar to the F-106 in level of complexity. With a back-seater to handle the radar, the F-4 didn’t need a two-headed stick like the F-106. One element that doesn’t show up in the cockpit photos is the relatively poor outside visibility of both of these early aircraft; it just wasn’t a priority. But at least the F-4 pilot had a head up display (HUD), while the F-106 pilot had a large radar scope in front of his face. The Phantom HUD was likely deemed essential to its strike-fighter role.
F-14A Tomcat (first flight: 1970)
As a former Tomcat RIO I did not spend much time in the front seat, only a few sessions in simulators, and to keep the playing field level I am basing these comments on cockpit photos. I like the arrangement of critical flight instruments in an upper tier, with engine instruments and a situation display below them. The stick and throttle have numerous switches and buttons supporting HOTAS. The forward control panel looks relatively simple compared to the contemporary F-15A (which I am not evaluating), which can be at least partly attributed to the Tomcat having a rear cockpit for armament control switches and other controls. (F-15A first flight: 1972) The F-14A pilot’s primary tactical display was a repeat of the RIO’s TID, so crew coordination was important. The F-14A HUD was helpful in some situations but most pilots decided it wasn’t that good: when it displayed all info it was cluttered and not what a pilot really wanted, and in the declutter mode it didn’t display very much. This was finally fixed in the F-14D, which got an improved HUD. The large canopy provided excellent visibility, which was one of many lessons from Vietnam air combat incorporated into the F-14.
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F-16A Fighting Falcon (1974)
A relatively uncluttered cockpit for a multi-role fighter, can be attributed to factors such as single-engine, limited air-to-air radar in the A-model, and emphasis on the HUD, as well as good design, of course. The monochrome tactical display is low and centred, with primary flight instruments immediately above. Cockpit visibility was outstanding due to the lack of a canopy windscreen bow and high-mounted seat. The side-mounted control stick pioneered in the F-16 has become familiar on other modern fighters and some commercial aircraft.
Su-27 ‘Flanker B’ (1977)
Approximately similar to the F-14 and Tornado in terms of visual complexity, with a major difference: no video screen in the centre. Some images show a video screen to the right side of the control panel. Lack of a tactical overview display seems to me a reduction in situational awareness, even if the pilot is using a helmet-mounted display (the early Flanker pilot had a rudimentary helmet cueing system rather than a display). Equipped with the now-standard HUD and HOTAS. The high seating position and bubble canopy provide excellent visibility. The cockpit looks less cluttered than the MiG-29, which also had first flight in 1977, probably because the bigger size provides more real estate for displays and controls.
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Tornado F3 (ADV; first flight: 1979). This is another pilot cockpit that benefits from being able to shift some controls and switches to the back seat. The F3 instrument panel is uncluttered, and features two medium-size video screens (I’ve seen smaller), one directly in front of the pilot. HOTAS – check … HUD – check, with extra points for wide angle … and of course there’s the wingsweep controller. The more I look at it, the more I like the neat and well-organised layout. One reason is the gauges are one of three sizes; in many American fighter cockpits each instrument seems to have a unique size. Tornado is probably one of the best cockpits before “glass” took over and gave us MFDs. Tornado also has a generous canopy, although it doesn’t have the 360-degree view of other fighters.
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Reader, from this point forward, please assume a HUD and HOTAS. They are now as standard as the wheel-shaped landing gear handle on the left side, as common as black and yellow stripes in a fighter cockpit. In addition, the remaining aircraft have multi-function displays instead of analogue instruments.
Rafale (first flight of Rafale C: 1991). Hard to believe it has been around 30 years since its first flight! The cockpit still looks modern and uncluttered. This is possibly due to the control stick being on the right side instead of central. The throttle has display image controls, ensuring a strong finish in the battle for who has the most HOTAS buttons. The wide-angle HUD, bigger than on previous aircraft, has to be a welcome development for almost any mission. The central screen is a ‘Head Level Display’ in Dassault terminology: larger than the side screens, which improves the pilot’s view of the image from a targeting pod. A large display was something F-14 RIOs enjoyed when viewing LANTIRN on our Tactical Information Display (TID or Programmable TID) compared to other fighter displays of the mid-1990s. The Rafale’s HLD is also focused at a greater distance than the screen’s actual distance from the pilot, which allows the pilot’s eye to remain focused at near infinity whether looking through the HUD or at the HLD, instead of changing focus between infinity and 1 metre. This may not sound significant, but it’s something I learned when I studied HUDs as a college student; a fine point that is very important.
Typhoon (first flight: 1994). To my eye, the Typhoon cockpit doesn’t look as sleek as the Rafale’s, because Typhoon has more controls and the MFDs look more familiar. Typhoon is more spacious, although I must admit Rafale appears adequate. Like the Rafale, the Typhoon also has a wide-angle HUD. These two aircraft are frequently compared, with this Hush-Kit article an excellent example but they have different purposes and strengths. The Typhoon’s multiple MFDs and pilot-tailorable displays look like a great way to display huge volumes of information very effectively. Like Rafale, Typhoon has a voice input system. I know these things are tested extensively before being fielded, so I’ll hope it works well, but based on current voice controls I am suspicious. Typhoon also has the benefit of a mature helmet display/cueing system, something only just entering the Rafale community (for at least one export customer).
F/A-18E Super Hornet (first flight: 1995). For the purposes of this overview, the Super Hornet cockpit appears similar to the Typhoon – modern and well-organized – with some notable exceptions. First, the Super Hornet doesn’t have a wide-angle HUD. I like the glare shields protruding from the top of the SH panel.
F-35 Lightning II (first flight: 2006). The biggest attention-grabber in this cockpit is the single large screen, with touch controls so extensive we see relatively few switches and controls elsewhere in the cockpit. The originator of the big screen was Gene Adam and he was at Macs in St Louis. He was predicting big picture flat screens in aircraft way back when a TV was the size of a camping rucksack.
The biggest attention-grabber is the side-stick location – yet another is the lack of a HUD – replaced by the pilot’s helmet-mounted display (HMD). The F-35 is establishing a new standard for fighter cockpits, with a similar large single display planned for the Gripen NG and Super Hornet Block III upgrade. The designed integration of the large display and the HMD will give F-35 pilots a very high level of situational awareness on any mission. I will complete this review by relating a candid discussion I had with unnamed F-35 pilots, who knew my service background. I felt they would have unloaded if they had any complaints. Instead, they smiled and said the new jet was – “Incredible,” with a big smile. Or maybe it was, “Awesome.”
Before leaving, let me offer a thought, something any aviator can tell you. If you look at these images and think the cockpits look complex, it’s because you don’t have experience in that type. The first time I saw the rear cockpit of an F-14, with dozens of panels and controls, I was stunned. But after completing my training and then flying more frequently (I averaged 39 hours a month my first few months in a fleet squadron in 1981), I realised I was reaching for switches and adjusting controls almost subconsciously. Training will be the key for pilots to employ these cockpits, no matter the design features or flaws.”
Former Topgun instructor and F-14 Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek has a new book out: ‘Tomcat RIO’. It tells the story of his return to the F-14 community after his tour as a Topgun instructor, as well as his eventual command of an F-14 squadron. It includes some of his best stories and unexpected challenges. It is available now in hardcover and e-book versions, and includes more than 50 of his amazing photographs. Here is his website.
Article idea suggested by book pledge supporter Greg Cruz. The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here.