Why is it so important for pilots to maintain a correct seating position? To a large degree, pilot seating and pilot comfort will have a direct impact on the safety and efficiency of the flight for all flight crew and passengers. Read on as we explain further..
Ergonomics in the cockpit refers to the design of the cockpit and its controls to fit the physical and cognitive characteristics of the pilot. The goal of ergonomics in the cockpit is to improve the safety, comfort, and efficiency of the pilot. This can be achieved through proper and logical arrangement of controls, functions, displays, seating and other equipment, such as your EFB.
Cockpit design and pilot seats
Did you know that when an aircraft is designed, they actually specifically design the cockpit for the ‘average’ person? That is often called the 5th-95th percentile approach, that is, it should be easy for about 90% of people to comfortably sit in the cockpit (excluding the very short, and the very tall – where space in that front row might be limited).
The rear pilot in a tandem seating configuration sitting in the second-row seats also needs to ensure correct seating position, which is slightly elevated higher above the front-row seat so as to get a clear and unobstructed view forward.
The pilot seats on an airplane are designed to be adjustable1 and comfortable. The position can change depending upon what you need at any given time, so it will fit all types of flyers just right! The seats and the materials composing their structure are just as important for safety and comfort.
Shouldn’t all cockpits have ventilated front seats, a spacious flight deck, seats that recline and feature quality leather upholstery??
You can read more about Pilot Seating Position in this article on Airbus HERE2.
Pilots eye position
The seat being adjustable does more than just provide comfort, it’s actually critically important for the pilot to be seated in the correct spot so that their eyes meet the eye point or Designated Eye Position (or Design eye position, DEP)3.
The position of the pilot’s eyes is an important consideration, as it can have a significant impact on their ability to see and interpret the visual environment.
The position of the ‘eye point’ or ‘design eye position’, as you may expect, is typically located in the cockpit near the windscreen.
This is a spot at which the pilot’s eye is designed to sit, so they can comfortably and safely see and access all instruments and attitudes for the aircraft. This is especially important for take-off and landing, situational awareness and spotting traffic and dealing with emergencies. As pilots, our vision is our primary source of information that we use to build knowledge of our environment, so it’s important that we follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on pilot seating to meet the design eye position.
This is just as important with basic single-engine training aircraft where we must memorise attitudes for different phases of flight, as it is with complex multi-engine jet aircraft that use Heads up Displays (HUDs) where images are projected onto screens in front of the pilot’s face to help them understand the aircraft state and improve situational awareness.
Heads-up displays actually only work for a small window on either side of the Design Eye Position (up/down, left/right, forward/back – so technically a small sphere which our eyes should be within) for you to see all of the information concurrently in your visual field. Next time you have the opportunity, whilst looking into a HUD, move your head and watch the display clip or be cut out as your eye moves outside the DEP.
Importance of sitting correctly
Sitting correctly will reduce fatigue and stress on the body, ultimately making it easier to fly and focus your attention on what matters – improving performance.
Sometimes, if the seats aren’t adjustable enough, flying schools will provide cushions to help raise you up to the correct seating position so that your eyes are roughly in line with the Design Eye Position. This can be tricky though, as cushions do compress over time. Shorter pilots know all about the use of seat cushions!
Generally, pilots should be seated with good lumbar support, a straight neck and back, and in a relaxed manner without muscle tension or having to pull themselves up on the seat to see. You can read more about back pain in professional pilots in this article HERE4.
“Many people from other walks of life also experience low back pain, but for the pilots, it really does come with certain aspects of the job. This includes long hours in the cockpit, ineffective lumbar support and seat padding, poor posture, the vibrations during the flight, forces exerted on the back during take-offs and landings as the plane is at an angle, stretching the body to reach the controls and switches while remaining strapped into a fixed seat.”brookfieldav.com/single-post/2017/05/26/lower-back-pain-a-curse-for-the-professional-pilot4
You should not have to strain and your harness belts should be firm but not restrictive on your breathing or circulation (aerobatics pilots may choose to pull their harness much tighter, especially the lapstrap to keep them firmly in the seat while inverted!).
Your feet should naturally rest on the rudder pedals – I personally prefer to keep the heels of my feet on the floor of my cockpit with the tips of my feet on the bottom of the rudder, away from the toe brakes, so that I don’t inadvertently apply braking in aircraft that feature rudder tip braking.
You can find more info on the importance of seating position for pilots on Skybrary HERE5.
I adjust my rudder pedals so that I am not straining at full deflection, which is critically important when handling engine failures in a multi-engine aircraft.
You need to be able to comfortably reach and operate all of the primary, secondary and tertiary controls in the aircraft, such as the yoke or stick, throttle(s), Rudders, Brakes, flaps, airbrakes or spoilers, and other switches such as engine controls, pressurization controls, overhead panels and radio panels and ideally Commonly needed or critical circuit breakers.
Circuit breakers (CB’s) can be tricky and not always something you can reach in flight – so it’s well worth having a think about where yours are, common emergencies and how you will deal with them. For example, during an electrical failure at night, or a smoke and fumes event, could you reach or find appropriate CB’s without light or clear visual reference? In many of the aircraft I flew, it would have been exceptionally difficult and required me to essentially get out of my seat and use a torch.
Each aircraft is different though, so it’s definitely worth going over ergonomics thoroughly with your flight instructor on the ground before you begin flying, and it’s something worth revisiting periodically.
Pilots and flight crew can fly long missions – some military pilots fly over 20 hour missions with air to air refueling! A more common endurance is around the 10-hour mark for long-haul air transport, with domestic typically being under 5 hours. This is a long time to be sitting in those front seats, so make sure it is set up correctly, and that if you have the ability to get out of the seat and have a rest, that you do so.
However, this all depends on the company you work for and the routes you fly. Initially, your flying lessons will typically be below 1 hour and gradually increase as you build endurance and stamina in the aircraft.
In summary, you need to have ergonomics sorted so that you can be comfortable, reduce fatigue and focus on what really matters – flying the aircraft and making good decisions.
- ‘Seat Adjustment’, Ed Kolano, AOPA. Published: Sep 5, 1998. Accessed online at https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/1998/september/flight-training-magazine/seat-adjustment on Dec 30, 2022.
- ‘Are You Properly Seated?’, Airbus. Accessed online at https://safetyfirst.airbus.com/are-you-properly-seated/ on Dec 30, 2022.
- ‘Design Eye Reference Point in Light Aircraft’, Aviation Solutions. Published: June 19, 2018. Accessed online at https://aviationsolutions.net/design-eye-reference-point-light-aircraft/ on Dec 30, 2022.
- ‘Lower Back Pain: A Curse for the Professional Pilot’, Brookfield Aviation. Accessed online at https://www.brookfieldav.com/single-post/2017/05/26/lower-back-pain-a-curse-for-the-professional-pilot on Dec 30, 2022.
- ‘Pilot Seating Position’, Skybrary. Accessed online at https://skybrary.aero/articles/pilot-seating-position on Dec 30, 2022.