Flying Open cockpit: a breath of fresh air

Flying an open cockpit can be exhilarating. It’s a great way to experience the sights, sounds and smells of flying like our forefathers did. There are some challenges and hazards associated with open cockpits, but we think it is worth it for the sense of freedom and exhilaration you feel when flying open cockpit.

I have always enjoyed my experience flying open cockpit aircraft, like the DH82 Tiger Moth flights I did, and when the opportunity has arisen, to slide the canopy open in flight in the Nanchang.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of open cockpit aircraft, some of the challenges pilots face when flying open cockpit, and some of the most popular open cockpit aircraft you can fly today.

After pestering a PT-19 owner for my first open-cockpit ride, I entered a world of unlimited possibilities with nothing above (or inside) my head. As with other firsts, you can fantasize about the anticipated joy until convinced you know exactly what it’ll be like, only to be disappointed. To me, open-cockpit flying exceeded expectations. Back then I rode motorcycles, so when transitioning to topless flight it was clear this was motorcycling in the sky.

Paul Berge, AvWeb
open cockpit tiger moth
The pilot fo this open cockpit Tiger Moth waves to the camera

History of open cockpit aircraft

The open cockpit aircraft was first developed in the early days of aviation. Pilots flying aircraft with open cockpits were able to get a much better view of their surroundings and communicate with other pilots or crews more easily, giving an advantage to early fighter pilots during dogfights. This was so much an issue, that In when the SE5a fighter was designed at first had a closed cockpit – Pilots felt it stopped them seeing ‘The Hun in the sun’ and it was replaced with an open cockpit design instead.

open cockpit fighter
Early fighter aircraft used open cockpits for visual advantages of sighting opponents.

However, open cockpit aircraft became quite challenging to fly as technology advanced and aircraft became more sophisticated – able to fly higher, faster and farther than before. Open cockpits became an aerodynamic disadvantage, as they produced a lot of form drag on the aircraft.

In extreme weather conditions, such as strong winds or thunderstorms, it became difficult for pilots to control the aircraft and items in the cockpit, or to even keep warm and comfortable when flying at altitude or in cold weather as there is little protection from the elements.

Risks of open cockpit flying

Flying open cockpit can be a thrilling experience, but there are some risks pilots need to be aware of.

  • Communication: One of the main challenges is communication. In open cockpits, it can be difficult for pilots to hear one another and give or receive instructions, even when using headsets.
  • Inclement weather: In windy conditions or rain, it can also be difficult for pilots to keep control of items in the cockpit as they can be buffeted around by wind or damaged by rain.
  • Comfort: Sound and temperature can also be an issue, with loud engine noise and extremely cold temperatures making it difficult for pilots or passengers to concentrate or stay comfortable in the cockpit.
  • Harnesses: If you are not strapped into your harness correctly, there is nothing stopping you from falling out of the aircraft should you for some reason experience negative G forces or a loss of control. This applies equally to things like maps, stopwatches, ipads, and snacks, which can turn into very dangerous FOD.

Despite these challenges, many pilots still enjoy flying open cockpit aircraft for the exhilaration and freedom it provides. Some of the most popular open cockpit aircraft include:

Open cockpit aircraft you can fly

Many open cockpit aircraft are still in operation today, and they provide a glimpse into the history of aviation as well as an adrenaline-filled flying experience.

Some open cockpit aircraft you can fly include:

Piper J-series Cubs can also be flown with the windows open, but many consider this to not strictly be a true open cockpit aircraft.

Open cockpit
The Boeing stearman is an absolute favourite of mine

Pilot gear needed to fly open cockpit aircraft

When flying open cockpit, it is important to remember to dress appropriately for the weather conditions. In cold weather or if planning to fly at high altitudes, pilots should wear layers of clothing and a good hat or helmet, as well as gloves and boots.

In hot weather, it is important to wear light clothing and drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat are also essential in hot climates, especially if flying a single-wing aircraft with no shade from an upper wing.

Flying goggles are a favorite of open cockpit pilots. They protect your eyes from the wind buffeting and also keep your face warm. To complete the cliche look consider a white silken neck scarf, big pilot watch and a leather flight jacket!

Pilots should also consider noise-canceling headsets or helmets with ANR if they are planning on flying open cockpit for an extended period of time, as the noise level can be quite high inside the aircraft and noise-canceling headsets will reduce fatigue. A properly fitting flight helmet will solve this issue, keep your face and eyes shielded from wind, and help keep you protected in an accident.

Lastly, if you are using an EFB like an iPad, you will want a decent mount to ensure the thing stays in the aircraft!

Things you will notice flying open cockpit aircraft

The first thing you will notice when you start the engine is the noise, and the prop wash! This is where you realise a proper fitting flight helmet or goggles is essential – and when flying this only gets louder and windier!

You should usually always take your first open cockpit flight with a qualified flight instructor, because they can be a bit more difficult to fly. They are typically tailwheel aircraft, and you will need to really make good use of the rudder to fly them safely. A good idea is to take your first experience as a passenger, so its less overwhelming when its time for you to actually fly the aircraft.

If you are with a flight instructor, going through a handling exercise and eventually practicing stalling and recovering the aircraft, you will notice just how quiet and calm it can get. If your aircraft is aerobatic rated, you are within limits for aerobatics and you are qualified (or your instructor is qualified to teach), aerobatics in an open cockpit is just mind blowing

Summary of flying open cockpit aircraft

Flying open cockpit can provide a unique experience for pilots and passengers alike. Although open cockpit aircraft can be more challenging to fly than closed cockpits, many pilots find the freedom and exhilaration they provide well worth any additional effort.

Open cockpit flying provides a unique view of the world and a connection with aviation’s past. However, there are some challenges pilots must face when flying open cockpit aircraft including communication difficulties, wind control, sound levels, and extreme temperatures.

Pilots should dress appropriately for the weather conditions and consider noise-cancelling headsets if they are planning on flying open cockpit for an extended period of time.

With careful preparation for inclement weather, open cockpits can offer a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors and experience aviation history.

open cockpit
Dawn patrol for a formation of tiger moth open cockpit biplanes
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ken johnson


Ken is a passionate aviator, a professional pilot and flight instructor. He has over 17 years of flight experience across hundreds of aircraft ranging from recreational, aerobatic, historic, commercial and military aircraft, training hundreds of students along the way. Find out more.

Ken has 124 posts and counting. See all posts by Ken

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