The “Human” in Cockpit Design

Though it seems inherent to include human factors in cockpit design, this notion has changed considerably since--. Today’s pilot is familiar with the presence of adjustable seats, reach envelopes, control locations, and other crucial amenities within a cockpit. This was not, however, always the case. From the U.S. Air Force to commercial jets, aircraft design was not always based on human safety and comfort.

At the dawn of its designs, cockpit layouts and infrastructure were considered incredibly unsafe. In the 1940’s, United States Air Force pilot fatalities while manning an aircraft were at a record high. At the time, and for decades to follow, the statistics used in cockpit design included only the physical measurements of a few hundred male pilots. This was also during a scientific period where personality traits were considered to be linked with physical attributes— a notion no longer deemed valid.

It wasn’t until the 1950’s, that a more reflective demographic of the pilot community was measured by the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright Air Force Base. The results marked a new era in cockpit design and history. The findings helped advance design parameters to those used today, which are based between the 5th and 95th percentile of the average human build. These advancements have led to the inclusion of anthropometry, the science of measuring human individuals, in aviation cockpit design. It essentially includes measurements of the body when it is in movement and when it is still. The science is now a fundamental part of ergonomic design within an aircraft.

Another important human motivated innovation in cockpit design is Eye Datum, or Design Eye Reference Point (DERP). The FAA defines this as the ability to view all main cockpit instruments while maintaining a reasonable view of the outside world with minimal head movement. Identifying a design eye position is one of the first steps in the procedures used in cockpit. The modern flight deck is designed around this indispensable detail.

With these advancements in design, the modern cockpit uses a “human centered” mentality. The layout is specifically modeled on safety, comfort and organization. From display screens, to shapes and colors used, most mechanical details and parts now cater to the pilot, whomever they may be.


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