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A modern passenger jet suddenly encounters some very turbulent air. The captain, who was just enjoying his toilet break, rushes back into the cockpit. Just as he's about to sit down the plane drops, causing him to hit his head on the overhead panel, accidentally pressing some buttons with it. Oops...

Does this happen and how is the potential impact mitigated?
Are the buttons in the cockpit designed to withstand accidental activation from such uncontrolled movements? Do they activate instantaneously or require prolonged pressure?
If activated immediately, what are the most dangerous buttons, and do the pilots have enough time to assess what happened and undo some of the changes before they present a real danger?

What about other types of accidental inputs? For instance, a pilot stumbling and inadvertently interacting with the center console controls, or any other plausible scenario that has either occurred in the past or could reasonably transpire in the future. How are these potential incidents managed within the cockpit's design?

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    $\begingroup$ You mean like Air India Express Flight 611 which (barely) crashed into the concrete wall of the airport because the pilot's seat collapsed and he accidentally hit the thrust lever causing the thrust to be too low for take-off? $\endgroup$ May 16, 2023 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ A video about an incident where the pilot's camera was wedged between the seat and the yoke, causing unintentional input: youtube.com/watch?v=Dl-Fl66Jfao $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    May 22, 2023 at 21:41

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The buttons activating functions that cannot be cancelled are protected against accidental activation

  • Some buttons have a guard cover that has to be opened before you can reach the switch. You won't open that by just bumping into the switch.
  • Engine fire extinguishers usually need to be pulled and rotated. Again, won't happen by just bumping into them.

These also protect against activation by accidentally reaching for the wrong switch by being very different from the simple buttons or flip switches around them.

Also rotary switches are somewhat safer against this since they need to be grabbed rather than just pushed.

But otherwise no, most switches are not protected against accidentally bumping into them.

And it did cause some close calls and even accidents in the past. One example that comes to mind is Gol flight 1907 which was caused by the pilot of the other plane involved accidentally—not even any turbulence, just somewhat careless placement of leg and less then ergonomic placement of the switch—turned off transponder (and less then ergonomic radar display due to which the controller didn't realize anything is wrong and therefore didn't query the pilot what is going on).

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There aren't any switches on an overhead panel that will cause the airplane to do anything crazy from random bumps by a body part. It's all subsystem on/off or mode switches. The more important subsystem switches, say for the main generators, are normally the "lever-locked" type; that is, you have to pull them out to select them, and bumping them with your head without doing that will just leave a dent in your head.

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