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Flight deck changes over 50 years

by Ian Frow BALPA Log board

For my entire career I was a long-haul pilot although, especially in the early days, we flew a number of short-haul type sectors in both Europe and elsewhere in the world. During this time, there were a lot of changes primarily in the BOAC/long-haul world but with some BEA/short-haul comparisons where applicable.

I joined BOAC in September 1958, and these memories of technical changes are just that – memories – and need an accuracy health warning. The comments are simply mine with the perspective of 47 years working in aviation and in my retirement years (up to the present) having a membership of various aviation safety committees.

Flight deck crew

The DC7 crew consisted of the captain, First Officer, relief First Officer, Flight Engineer, navigator and radio operator. This was typical for most long-haul aircraft types at that time. It is worth noting that throughout the following descriptions of flight deck crew members in the Fifties all are referred to as ‘he’. This is because there were no women on major airline flight decks until the Eighties.

The Captain was frequently a dominant figure who had served in the war and brooked little input from his crew. Crew Resource Management was many years in the future. He usually stayed alone in a superior hotel to the rest of his crew.

The occupant of the right had seat usually had a respectable level of airline experience and the captain occasionally allowed him to fly the aeroplane. The relief First Officer was less experienced (although often with a number of military hours) and he occupied a pilot’s seat whilst one of the other pilots was at rest in the bunk, but rarely had the chance to actually handle the aircraft between his routine checks.

The Flight Engineer had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the aircraft systems and was capable of getting his hands dirty to fix snags down route. He was also often a very effective pilot monitor because his seat was set back from the pilots’ seats and he had a good situational overview. Through the years there were several occasions when a Flight Engineer’s intervention saved the day. The Flight Engineer position effectively ceased after ‘9/11’ in 2002 when the three crew 747s were grounded because of cost.

The navigator was often as old as the Captain, frequently with distinguished wartime experience. The role of the navigator gradually ceased in BOAC as the ‘pilot navigators’ took over, ironically initially trained by the ‘specialist navigators’.

The radio operator had the tiresome task of conducting all HF (long-range radio) transmissions and collecting weather and other information for the Captain. In the Fifties, this crew position was being phased out as the pilots took over all radio duties.


In the Fifties over land, there were radio beacon aids to navigation (NDBs, VORs). Once on the ocean or over remote areas, navigation was by use of Loran, Consol (both using long range radio signals) together with astro and, all too often ‘dead reckoning’ (plotting a track based on the forecast winds). In daylight, over remote land areas it was not even unusual to resort to map reading.

Most fixing methods required plotting position lines on a chart which of course took time. Especially at night, astro navigation came into its own; but a ‘three star fix’ involved 10 plus minutes of calculations, followed by three sights using a bubble sextant, each lasting exactly two minutes and separated by two minutes exactly (the sextant was deployed through a port in the flight deck roof, which replaced the ‘astrodome’ on previous types). The result of all this effort was a three position line fix – but by the time it was plotted on the chart the position was valid fifteen minutes ago.

Even Loran, Consol and ‘dead reckoning’ would not produce an instantaneous fix.  In the later sixties the 707s and VC10s of BOAC were fitted with Doppler which at least gave accurate tracking and groundspeed information. It was not until the Boeing 747 entered service in 1970, with inertial navigation built into its management systems, that a crew could know their instantaneous position.

In the Eighties, once the ‘glass cockpit’ aircraft types entered service, pilots had the luxury of map displays showing a plethora of instantaneous position and route information.  During the Nineties, additional refinements were made to on-board navigation systems incorporating satellite navigation and ground aid inputs being used to refine the INS position to very high accuracy.  No longer was the last known position between five and fifteen minutes ago.

The Development of Instrumentation

In the Fifties, all aircraft instrumentation was ‘electro mechanical’ and the maintenance engineers for this equipment were very closely related to the clockmakers/menders of old.  The compass systems were gyro stabilised but also required checking (using astro) over long periods of flight.  It took a number of ‘controlled flight into terrain’ accidents before the three needle altimeters were replaced by a (still electro mechanical) single needle analogue display showing hundreds of feet with a digital window showing thousands.

All the other flight instruments had an analogue display but with time a digital window was introduced into many of the engine and systems instruments. There are some who feel that the modern glass cockpit digital airspeed displays are inferior to the old analogue format because a needle position can be immediately seen to be correct whilst a digital display requires an extra mental calculation process to assess if the speed is ‘right’.

In the Fifties and Sixties, many airfields had very limited approach aids and for some the only aid was an ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) approach requiring a high degree of skill. Other airfields, especially those with military presence, also had the facility of Surveillance Radar Approach (SRA) where a controller issued directions for maintaining the correct centre line and glide slope. This again required a high degree of skill on both sides and some SRA controllers were better than others. In the Fifties, Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) were being introduced although even at major airfields not all runways had the necessary transmitters.

Autopilots in the Fifties really only provided height and heading hold facilities, not always very well, and requiring careful monitoring. Later autopilot developments made it possible to ‘couple’ to the ILS signal for approach. Eventually, BEA led the field in developing the capacity to make fully automatic landings.


Most crews in the Fifties, both long and short haul, would expect to spend a number of nights away from base. In long haul a trip could be scheduled to last up to three weeks, but with disruptions it could last longer than four weeks.  Disruption was a way of life.

Long haul BOAC/BA crews could also be temporarily based away from base in Honolulu, Hong Kong, or Sydney for periods of some months as a means of avoiding fatigue through large time change.

Initially in long haul, a flight deck and cabin crew would stay together for the whole trip, no matter how long. This developed a useful team spirit (plus a few temporary or long term liaisons). Gradually through the years cabin and flight crews tended to follow different itineraries and would only work together for two or three day’s work which affected both the team spirit (and the liaisons).

Following 9/11 the co-operation between the flight and cabin crew was compromised particularly in respect of safety. There have been several accidents/incidents where the locked flight deck door compromised safety.


Perhaps the most significant changes in aviation in the past fifty/sixty years have been the introduction of the gas turbine engine, highly accurate worldwide navigating systems, the automation of most aircraft systems and, probably the introduction of female flight deck crew members. Pilots have developed from being highly skilled artisans, able to think and react quickly, to being clear thinking operators and monitors of highly complex automatic systems. At the same time their lifestyle has become much more intense and tiring (caused by degradations in Flight Time Limitation legislation) together with the added concerns over security and terrorist activity (together with the endless security screenings).