NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

Nerdguy Friday #28: Wreaking Havoc: Part I-cockpits

a political action-adventure technothrillerAs fans of NerdGuy know, Miranda Chase #7, Havoc, is coming out on April 27th. And I take the task of capturing the techno of my technothrillerishness very seriously. Never moreso than when I’m talking about aircraft.

Why? Because the kidhood dream that I didn’t get to live was to be an airline pilot. (I’m just colorblind enough to be disqualified from commercial aviation. I can see just fine for flying, but not well enough to make it a career.) That doesn’t stop me from having fun researching it.

Crashing an Airbus A330-900neo

The opening have Havoc does not go well for an Airbus passenger plane. (Don’t worry, later in the book it doesn’t go well for a Boeing airplane either.)

“The landing of the Airbus A330-900neo unfolded with a movie-like slow motion feel—even more painfully drawn out than watching Engine One destroy itself and the wing.”

I wanted to capture the cockpit as authentically as a setting as I could.

And that setting cost me HOURS! Not because it was hard, because it was fun. So get ready to waste a little time with me.

Inside the cockpit

Only in older, or the least expensive aircraft are pilots still faced with a “steam-gauge” console.

F-86D Sabrejet cockpit (similar to Miranda’s personal F-86F) (c) Wikimedia

Instead, modern pilots in modern aircraft face electronic displays that can pack significantly more information into single displays (information that might require reading and interpreting 5 or 6 steam gauges can be read in a single glance.)

Miranda’s Cessna Citation M2 (c) AOPA

Let me explain this image just a little as a step up to the next one.

  • A little unclear in the foreground are the side-by-side steering wheels. The most important switch is the microphone switch for press-to-talk over the radios.
  • The two displays directly in front of each wheel may be set to different views for the pilot and copilot. A wide variety of views are available and customizable. One might be the best view for current flight navigation, another for information about an upcoming airport, and yet another for weather information.
  • At the center is a shared display that can be easily seen by either pilot and may be set to a wide variety of screens.
  • These two displays are individually controlled by the smaller blue screens in the center foreground, one for each pilot. These are just glorified menu controls. Check out this quick video:

Just search on Garmin 3000 for a lot more videos. I also read chunks of the 686 page instruction manual (again, just for fun–I’m weird that way).

https://static.garmin.com/pumac/190-02046-01_A.pdf

Going Somewhere a Bit Trickier: an airliner

It didn’t take me long to stumble on this site:

https://www.airbus.com/aircraft/passenger-aircraft/cockpits.html

Thank you, Airbus!

Airbus A330 cockpit (c) Airbus

We’ll start with just this static picture, but it gets way more fun in a moment. Here’s a few things to note in a tour of an Airbus A330 airliner cockpit:

  • First: Where did the steering wheel go? You’ll see instead a joystick mounting to the outside of either seat. It offers more control and leaves a hand free. It also leaves that central area in front of the pilot open of a small pull-out work area when working on paper forms and the like. (And the real truth? Airline pilots rarely touch this control. Most flying at this level is done by telling the computer what to do, and it does the actual flying.)
  • There are a few more screens, but they’re laid out just like in the little Cessna M2 and they serve exactly the same functions.
  • That overhead console is mostly things you only touch once: either setting up a flight or if there’s an emergency. A lot of it has to do with the engines.
  • The big row of stuff between the pilot seats is mostly screen controllers at the top and radios for communication and navigation below. In the middle of that are the big controls for throttles, flaps, and so on.

Now that you’re oriented… Let’s have some fun!

For this specific flight, let’s actually go into the cockpit, courtesy of Airbus.

https://ccntservice.airbus.com/apps/cockpits/a330/

Now that you have the gist of it, you can start exploring. Here are a few fun things I picked out to zoom in on:

  • Almost directly overhead (up arrow), ringed in red, are massive buttons for dousing an engine fire (there are also zoom controls or use scroll). Curious tidbit, a pilot can’t see the engines from the cockpit. If they suspect a major problem, they will typically call a steward or have the first officer go back to look out a window.
  • Straight ahead at the top of the windshield’s center strut is a real magnetic compass. If all of the electronics fail, that compass will still work. The little card below it tells you how to correct the reading for accurate navigation.
  • Just to the right of the center screen on the console, find the landing gear panel (LDG Gear). Look carefully at the lever below the green arrows.  Its head is shaped like side-by-side black tires, just like a landing gear. (And in case that seems fun, glance at the black-and-yellow striped bar just below that. LDG GEAR GRVTY EXTN is the emergency method of lowering the gear using gravity if there’s a failure of the main system. Using this and getting a lock is an unnerving proposition.)
  • Check out the last two sections on the left side of that bottom center panel between the chairs. It’s the camera control for the pilot to see who’s knocking at the door and the release switch for the heavy bolts that lock the door.
  • Now center the view on the windshield that tap a right or left arrow until you’re facing the cockpit door. Aim up and down and see the massive locks that are now installed inside a modern cockpit.
  • Look up to either side above the pilot’s heads and you’ll find the escape rope.

And Looking Down

Go back to the Airbus Cockpit 3D virtual tour…and look down at the floor. Specifically under the back of the left-hand pilot’s seat. See the little hatch? If everything else goes wrong, this is an emergency escape route, but where does it lead?

When passengers sit in an airliner, we know that our luggage and a lot of  other cargo are beneath our feet. But that’s not what’s below the cockpit. Under the cockpit is the avionics bay. This is a cramped space that is almost never entered during flight.

So what’s there?

A typical avionics bay is where the airplane’s computers are mounted. Not one or two, but typically three completely redundant systems.  One of the many reasons that airplane flight is still the safest form of travel.

So next time you fly, feel ready to Nerd On!

And read Havoc to see how I applied all these hours of research.

Havoc

Havoc

Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

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