It is hard to overestimate the importance that the design of the cockpit has on a pilot’s perception of the qualities of a helicopter. It is not only the place where the pilot is accommodated but is also where he or she exercises control over the craft and all its systems. In addition all sources of information from both the aircraft itself and the external environment find their focus in the cockpit. Like early aeroplanes the first helicopters had very simple cockpits with little more than the flight controls, some basic instruments and simple engine controls. As the number of systems that the pilot had to interact with grew, helicopter cockpits became complex areas of controls and instruments. It is true to say that the ergonomic aspects of design have not always been addressed with the importance that they deserve and as a result rotary-wing pilots have had to cope with major deficiencies in the design of their cockpits.

7.2.1 Assessment methods

When assessing a cockpit as a whole or any individual part of it, it is vital to keep the role of the aircraft firmly in mind at all times. Clearly this requires a detailed knowledge of the role and precisely how operational crews will conduct each aspect of the mission. There are two distinct approaches to conducting the assessment, both of which are taken in a full evaluation.

Initially each item in the cockpit is evaluated individually. Gauges are checked for size, markings, location, etc., while each switch is tested for ease of operation, labelling, provision of guards against inadvertent operation, and so on.

The second and more important approach is to conduct the assessment in the context of a realistic mission. This will discover if the individual cockpit features, when combined, are ideally suited to the role. The various mission profiles are broken down into individual tasks and the actions that each crew member will need to make are determined together with the information they will need to receive. In other words the entire interaction of the crew with the aircraft and its systems is determined for each phase of the mission or missions. These factors are often considered before entering the cockpit so that the controls and displays provided do not influence the consideration of what is required.

A thorough evaluation of all aspects of the cockpit is made on the ground before the airborne assessment is conducted. This ground assessment should be conducted in a variety of lighting conditions. If a simulator is available this is also used to reduce the amount of flight time required. It must be stressed, however, that operating the aircraft in flight, under realistic environmental and operational conditions is essential if all cockpit deficiencies are to be identified correctly. All the equipment that may be worn or carried by operational crews is used during the assessment. For example, NVG, body armour and life preservers are worn and maps, respirator cases and personal weapons are carried and stowed. It is often the case that the designer has insufficient knowledge of what clothing and equipment operational crews will use.