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I was just wondering: is it possible to have a commercial plane with no cockpit windshield, just external cameras and video screens?

The question come in my mind after reading the nth occurrence of laser in pilot's eyes. Moreover, a structure without windscreen is surely lighter: when there are not passenger, we avoid to put windows! Which are the limits and the opportunities to this solution?

With "ever" I don't mean "in centuries" but in 30/40 years.

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I am sure such idea was already mentioned several times here. Technically, it is completely possible. However, it has significant problem. It adds a point of failure and nobody wants to add that. – Jan Hudec Feb 19 at 15:35
Preventing laser attacks using aircraft without windows is like preventing burglary by building homes without windows: It's not a solution. A good solution would be to have kW-lasers onboard which fire automatically on the source in an act of self-defence. – mins Feb 19 at 16:26
The biggest problem is depth perception, without the ability to adjust the view based on the position of the observer, its going to be difficult to judge distances. This will be especially confusing since the camera is not in the same location as the pilots head, making it hard to translate it to a 1:1 eye:camera system and having the perspective in a different position than the pilot(s). – Ron Beyer Feb 19 at 17:59
@TomMcW: Re "stupid people", think of it as improving the gene pool :-) – jamesqf Feb 19 at 18:29
@reirab Go big or go home. – HCBPshenanigans Feb 20 at 18:57
up vote 11 down vote accepted

Is it possible? certainly yes. Airbus has applied for a patent for a windowless cockpit in which the external view is displayed in the cockpit using cameras and screens. The technology itself is available and some significant progress has been made in recent years in the related equipment.

Will it become a reality? Maybe. At present, there is nothing wrong with windshields in aircraft (pointing laser at aircraft is illegal; anyway, lasers can damage camera sensors too). Why fix something that ain't broken? In the future this may well be used, maybe in supersonic aircraft (For example, spike aerospace has proposed a design without cabin windows; interestingly, the design still has cockpit windows). Addition of cameras and displays adds one more layer of complexity, which is at present unnecessary.

Also, there are other issues to consider. In order to give the pilot with a view at least as good as the exiting aircraft, images from multiple cameras have to be 'stitched' and displayed. The system should be able to do this without any lag (F-35 had a similar problem while joining feeds from its DAS). Unless there is a compelling reason for the addition of cameras and displays, the windscreen is here to stay.

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"The system should be able to do this without any lag" There are studies about how much "lag" a human can notice and that's not even "can't compensate for", IIRC it's around 60ms which in computer time is eternity these days. I highly doubt that joining static cameras onto a static display was the problem, it was probably the fact that the displays on the F-35 were not static. Also the F-35 uses very old computer technology. – Sam Feb 19 at 19:43
One reason to do this would be that windshield are expensive (>$20K) and have a fairly high failure rate, in my experience #1 windshields last about 6 years at a commercial airline. They are also very heavy. They create a weak point in the fuselage requiring heavier structure and usually force a less than idea aerodynamic shape. So there are reasons other than laser pointers to do it. – OSUZorba Feb 19 at 23:21
@Sam, I am not sure what the lag is, but I know that lag in video causes issues on KC-10 refueling operators. Basically there is enough lag to cause the operator to start pilot induced osculation. I know there was a lot of work on the KC-767 and KC-46 remote aerial refueling stations to remove as much lag as possible, which of course is easier with today's technology. The other problem with remote aerial refueling operations is the loss of depth perception. – OSUZorba Feb 19 at 23:26
Well I hope they don't get that patent then! Clearly the NASA plane has already done this before so it's not a new idea. – curious_cat Feb 20 at 3:51
@reirab - 60ms latency, not a 60ms refresh cycle. You're seeing things 60ms after they happen. – Compro01 Feb 20 at 10:05

It's entirely possible to do this now, it's simply not a good idea. The drawbacks to safety outweigh the benefits of doing so. If you have no cockpit windows an electrical or systems failure would leave pilots totally blind, without any references whatsoever. The "mark I eyeball" works in a wide variety of conditions and does not require electrical power of any kind. Plus, there's usually 4 of them in the cockpit, and chances are at least one of them will work.

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With modern fly by wire systems, doesn't a total electrical system failure result in loss of control anyways? If a windowless cockpit was implemented, it would likely have the same number of redundancies as other essential flight systems. – RockPaperLizard Feb 19 at 23:53
Misleading visual cues is major cause of incidents. Relying on vision didn't prevent the Grand Canyon Crash 1956. OK argument for slow moving civil aviation but gains as much you lose for passenger airlines. – user2617804 Feb 20 at 5:00
@RockPaperLizard The power supplies for it could be equally redundant, but it would be hard to make the screens themselves equally redundant while preserving their position. Also, placing redundant cameras close enough that they are capable of producing the correct field of view and also far enough apart that they wouldn't be likely to get taken out by a single event (e.g. bird strike) could be tricky. Doubly so if that single event is something like icing or a hail storm. – reirab Feb 20 at 6:02
@reirab Those are good points. I'm not sure they are insurmountable, but good points nonetheless. – RockPaperLizard Feb 20 at 6:12
@user2617804 Your comments are true. It makes me wonder how we can envision the cockpit of the future assuming pilots could not directly view their surroundings. – RockPaperLizard Feb 20 at 6:14

Somewhat, but the lack of depth perception may be an issue on the taxiways.

But if lasers is the concern, I think they should install something similar to the auto darkening lenses used by welders to the front windows.

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You could at least reduce, if not completely solve, this problem by using VR headsets (e.g. Oculus Rift.) You could even attach cameras to the headset itself and have the system programmed to display the cockpit interior except when the pilot is looking where the windows would otherwise be. – reirab Feb 20 at 6:17

That should be ... exciting ... during an electrical failure.

Good luck getting it approved for use anywhere in the world, you can't even build a pure glass cockpit in many jurisdictions. Likewise you can have all the cameras you like provided you can still look out the window.

It's certainly technically feasible but it's not a good idea.

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Technically possible but not very comfortable. As a first step, windowless passenger aircraft could be attempted. In crowded Indian buses with windows being swamped by opaque advertising material it is very disconcerting not knowing where you have reached. Passenger experiences can be taken as a starting point. Also the experience of astronauts could be considered....

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