1987 was the year civil aviation finally arrived in the digital era – with the A320 family. It was in the new short- and medium range Airbus aircraft that many systems that are now standard in most modern aircraft celebrated their premiere. Airbus still uses the A320’s original cockpit philosophy
Even experienced pilots had to do some basic rethinking when the first planes of the A320 family came into service. Because they brought with them a minor revolution in cockpit design. Instead of the usual huge banks of instruments (nicknamed the “watchmaker’s shop” because they all had analog clock faces), the A320 had just six display screens. Plus, the traditional joystick had disappeared. This former key feature of a passenger aircraft’s cockpit, with which the pilot steered the plane with both hands, had been replaced by a much smaller “sidestick,” not unlike a computer joystick, that is operated with one hand only. All of the new Airbus aircraft are equipped with sidesticks.
But the most significant innovation in the A320’s cockpit was hidden behind the paneling. In conventional aircraft, these spaces had been occupied by steel cables, connecting rods and hydraulic systems that transmitted the pilot’s commands mechanically to the wings, the elevators and the tail fin. Although these functions were supported by servosystems like the ones used in modern cars, they still had to be initiated by the pilot’s own muscle power.
These mechanical controls had been replaced in the A320 by electronic systems. Sensors react to the commands received from the sidestick and transmit them digitally to the control surfaces. Known as „fly-by-wire,“ this control system has a whole raft of benefits. It enables significant reduction in overall aircraft weight – and consequently fuel consumption. Plus, it enhances safety, because digital controls can be linked to a flight control computer that verifies commands before passing them on. Where necessary, this computer can even take over steering the aircraft, for example, when the plane hits unexpectedly strong turbulence. Because modern computers can react more quickly than any human being in this kind of situation.
Tests of fly-by-wire systems in military aircraft and prototypes started as far back as the 1950s. And a simple, analog form of this technology was used to fly the Concorde super-sonic aircraft that came into service in 1976. But the A320 was the first civil production aircraft fitted with digital fly-by-wire controls. The system was finally able to prove itself in everyday use and is now standard equipment in all Airbus aircraft.
It goes without saying that even the older-generation pilots were quick to adapt to the new systems. As with every new aircraft type, they had to attend and pass special training courses. Some of them missed the old joystick and the feeling of direct control over the flight process that the mechanical system gave them, for example, when they made a minor flight correction with a light touch of the rudder. They didn’t get this kind of feedback from the digital system. But the design engineers found an answer to that one too. They have built an artificial response into the sidesticks used in the latest fly-by-wire systems.