We asked an art historian to review 8 fighter cockpits

Freed from function how would fighter cockpits appear to the artistic eye? We asked art historian Minerva Miller to gauge how 8 fighter cockpits fit into the history of art.

Convair F-106 Delta Dart

There is something dystopian about this cockpit. It appears to be the work of the advanced hobbyist, a Basquiat-like (see below) puzzle that screams of ability and technical nous. Dials, buttons and sticks converge in a chaotic melange that announces a lack of care in orderliness and ergonomics because this engineer, this pilot, know what everything is. But whilst this appears to be a homage to Post War ‘make do and mend’, do not be fooled. The central gauge and dial are symmetrical and focussed, towards what who knows? – but this cockpit is more Blade Runner than Mad Max.

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

A monumental classicism imbues this cockpit, its Palladian portico is supported by dials in columns. It is severe with its grey imbued De Chirico (see below) palette and lack of colour. Whilst elegant its round features also hint of authoritarianism, the flash of a searchlight, its secretive brutal glamour smacks of the pre-war years. This is a cockpit that shows you the passage of time, that tells the pilot what he should do.

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Grumman F-14 Tomcat

This space is redolent  of Pop Art, it riffs on the imagery of the past but there is an unmistakable element of Studio 54 about it. The joystick and serried ranks of switches remind one of a Lichtenstein image (see below). The pilot here is part of the narrative, two screens reflect back at them. The optimism of the sixties has gone, this is about brittle individualist control, it could be a DJ’s lair or the pilot might be Bowie – in any case this is the cockpit as Warhol print.

Airplane, c.1959
by Andy Warhol

General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon


There is something quixotic about this cockpit. At first glance it looks more organic and textural than its predecessors with its deep womblike chair cover. It has an edge of machismo; the screen nestles between the pilot’s legs and ‘pull to eject’ is the legend on the handle closest to the pilot’s groin. Yet the joystick is not large and there is almost a rococo playful element to the design of the dashboard, see for example the diagram of the aeroplane to the left.  This cockpit plays effectively with the ideas of conflicting mutable gender identity that were popular amongst the Avant-garde New York scene of the time.

Aviation paraphernalia for deep enthusiasts here

Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’

A post-modern cockpit, its colour scheme a martial blue with pops of constructivist red. But whilst the Cold War may still rage, this design is more a homage to the post-modernist irony of the architecture of Venturi and the playful colour dichotomies of Milan design. It presages the obsessions of the coming decade with its playful anthropomorphism – see the joystick  that resembles, a hand, a face.  There is an edge of robotic playfulness, like Alessi’s products which resemble people, this cockpit is awaiting it’s human to climb in and play with it.

Dassault Rafale

The soaring geometic plans of this cockpit have a cubist purity, an abstract minimalist aesthetic applied here with wide open spaces left between controls and two dark enveloping voids. This is not an inward-looking Spartacism however but owes more to elements of Béton Brut and the art of Brutalism.  Whilst there is a restful monumental  element– it is counterpointed by a quietly aggressive quality. It resembles a Samurai Warlord resting having conquered all the blue infinite sky behind him and waiting for the next battle.

Boston City Hall, an example of brutalism using béton brut, that will not give you much useful situational awareness when dogfighting a F-16.

Eurofighter Typhoon

The use of circular planes initially provides a feeling of movement which recalls the diminishing spheres and curves of Futurism and Vorticism.  This sense of elegance is fractured by the dissonance of the angled monitors which, whilst breaking up the curvature, in turn give way to ziggurat-like sweeps of controls. This coupled with the small armies of twinkling seeks to wrap the pilot up in the experience of flying within flying – a meta experience comparable to early virtual reality and digital art forms. A cockpit for the synth age.

Dazzle-Ships in Drydock at Liverpool by Edward Wadsworth, 1919, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Started in 1914 by Wyndham Lewis, Vorticism aimed to reflect the industrial age through hard-edged forms.

 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

This cockpit, like a site-specific art installation, gives less of itself to the viewer. The stability offered by the traditional props of hardware are reigned back in favour of the large screen, a changeable canvas altered by the interplay of the observer and the unavoidable influences of nature. It represents two and three dimensionally the artistic challenges of life.  Whilst offering colour and the stimulation of traditional imagery the physical interaction is limited leaving the pilot with the artistic and psychological challenges of modernity, the role of the individual, and art, within fast moving cultures and spaces, both physical and imagined.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 Cornelia Parker
Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991
© Cornelia Parker

Minerva Miller, M.A.hons (Cantab)  Msc (City)- University Librarian at the University of London

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  2. scottfw

    Guess it might be because I don’t know enough about art theory, or maybe because I’m autistic, or maybe because it is 1am, but I’m not connecting with the way the artist connected with the cockpits.
    Which is not be taken as negative commentary on the purpose of the article, the pilots spend a lot of time in these workplace settings and it is well known that the atmosphere, feel, ‘vibes’, of the workplace do have an impact on the people who work there.

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