The Jet Age (1958 - Today)

The Computer Revolution in the Cockpit

To manage the complex technology of modern airliners, flight crews rely on computers to fly aircraft and to monitor aircraft systems.

The first autopilots were used on airliners in the mid-1930s. In the late 1950s, electronic computers became small enough to be used aboard aircraft. Sophisticated digital computers can now fly aircraft in virtually any situation, while ensuring that all systems are functioning properly.

Digital technology has enhanced safety and efficiency and reduced the flight crew's workload.



"Fly-by-wire" technology translates the pilot's actions into electronic signals, which computers use to manipulate flight controls. The computers constantly monitor pilot input and prevent the aircraft from exceeding its flight envelope, thereby increasing safety. And because fly-by-wire replaces heavy, complex mechanical linkages with lighter electrical wires, it is more efficient.

Invented by NASA in the 1970s and first used in fighter aircraft, this technology was a direct spin-off from the space program, which used fly-by-wire systems to maneuver the Apollo lunar module.

Gary Krier

In 1972, NASA research pilot Gary Krier became the first to fly a digital fly-by-wire aircraft when he piloted NASA's highly modified F-8C Crusader jet fighter.

Airbus A320 Cockpit
National Air and Space Museum Archives

The Airbus A320 revolutionized commercial aviation by introducing digital fly-by-wire technology in civil airliners. Featuring a glass cockpit with a unique side-stick controller to fly the aircraft, the A320 set a new standard for safety and efficiency. Every new airliner designed since it entered service in 1988 has incorporated glass cockpit and fly-by-wire technology.

Airbus A320  Glass Cockpit Display
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

Glass Cockpit

A modern airliner typically features a "glass cockpit"-computer monitors that show flight, engine, and aircraft performance data in easily understood displays. A set of up to six computer monitors can replace hundreds of gauges and switches, greatly simplifying the tasks of the flight crew.
Pioneered by NASA and the aerospace industry, the glass cockpit was introduced in 1982 and is now the industry standard.
Gift of Airbus