The view through a Rockwell Collins head-up display.
Flying commercial jets is getting easier, safer, and more efficient, thanks to the increased use of a technology that the military has used for more than 50 years.
More and more airline pilots now have access to head-up displays, or HUDs, which display crucial information where the pilot can see it without taking his eyes away from the windshield.
HUDs make life easier for pilots, but they also have great benefits for passengers.
The sales pitch for the HUD is safety, efficiency, and reduced pilot workload, Kent Statler, Executive Vice President at Rockwell Collins, a leading HUD manufacturer, said in an interview at the Paris Air Show.
A whopping 70% of accidents could have been avoided with the use of a HUD, he argued, because the device makes taking off and landing — the most dangerous parts of any flight — easier.
Using a HUD, the pilot sees critical information, like altitude and air speed, while still looking out the windshield.
"Eyes up and out is a much safer and more efficient way to fly," Statler said.
For takeoff, the device eliminates chance tailstrikes, when a pilot pulls up too quickly and the tail of the plane hits the ground. During landing, it accounts for factors like crosswinds, and projects the perfect trajectory for the pilot to follow. If he keeps to that, Statler explained, he "will hit right at the right contact point."
Alex Davies / Business Insider
A head-up display in a parked Boeing 787 at the Paris Air Show.
Besides the obvious benefits of safer flights, HUDs can offer passengers shorter flights.
Currently, "decision height" for most commercial aircraft is 200 feet. If a pilot cannot see the runway markers by the time the plane is 200 feet above the ground (if, for example, the weather is poor), he must pull up, circle around, and approach the landing again.
The FAA determines decision height and can reduce it for aircraft equipped with certain HUDs. Statler said Rockwell Collins is working with the Administration to do just that.
The limit could drop to 150 feet, which would significantly reduce how often planes need to abort landings and waste time. That means shorter flights, or at least fewer prolonged ones.
For most plane models still in production, airlines can choose to pay extra for HUDs. Southwest is "very focused on efficiency," Statler said, and usually opts for dual devices, one for each pilot. Both American Airlines, which flies into airports with short runways, and Alaska Airlines, which deals with a lot of rough weather, equip their planes with the displays.
China is really pushing the technology, with a mandate that all new planes have the device by 2025. Statler expects U.S. airlines and plane makers to follow the same trajectory voluntarily, predicting at least a single HUD setup in every new commercial aircraft by 2020.
Some of that growth will come from new types of planes. Boeing has made dual HUDs standard in the 787 Dreamliner. With that kind of exposure, according to Statler, the technology "will gain tremendous momentum going forward."
Rockwell Collins does not disclose pricing, but notes the cost of HUDs is dropping rapidly — by 40 to 50% over the past decade. A compact unit, small enough to fit in a business jet or turboprop plane, is in development.
The quality of commercial air travel may be going downhill fast, but at least passengers may be able to spend less time in the air.
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