Design Concepts Take Off

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To Danny Pestonji, the cockpits of present-day McDonnell Douglas airliners have an unappealing retro look.

"The first time I saw it was like, 'Ewww, this thing needs to be redesigned,' " said the senior at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "It looks like it's from the '60s or '70s. The sheepskin on the seat was kind of tacky."

Although the innards of modern airliners are stuffed with the latest technology, the cockpit--or flight deck, in today's terminology--largely retains the look of decades past: a forbidding cocoon of dials, toggles, lights, instruments.

They are safe, proven designs, McDonnell Douglas officials are quick to point out. (The sheepskin conforms to the shape of the body for comfort and absorbs sweat.)

Changes aren't easy to make, or cheap. Something as simple as a change of color would require extensive testing and FAA approval--in this instance, to show that the new color wouldn't cast more glare into the pilots' eyes.

But McDonnell Douglas, a distant No. 3 in the commercial aircraft market, is looking for ideas to help it leapfrog over Boeing and Airbus. "We kept doing the same thing," said Memo Pedroza, a senior engineer. "It was time for us to do something new, something different."

Looking for ideas, Michael Liedtke, a technical specialist at McDonnell Douglas, persuaded the company to turn to people who were inexperienced, untested and knew next to nothing about airplanes: students at Art Center.

"They're not carrying the baggage, partly out of experience, that says, 'You can't do this, you can't do that,' " Liedtke said.

Still, he said, "it was a pretty radical idea." But his superiors went for it, and they like what the students produced.

The result of the $50,000 class project--the MD-2015 Flight Station--sits in the middle of a hangar at McDonnell Douglas' Long Beach facility. The outside is a dented nose of an old DC-9 aircraft. The inside, while not Star Trek, has a sleek, streamlined appearance reminiscent of a Lexus car.

"Coming from Mercedes, I would call it a Mercedes," said Liedtke, who worked as a project manager for the German auto maker before switching transportation industries last year.

Liquid crystal display screens replace most of the dials and toggles. The controls to set radio frequencies--typically needed only at the start of a flight--slide out of sight. Heads-up displays project information onto the cockpit windows.

Three-dimensional maps display the plane's path. Mountain peaks that rise above the plane's altitude are conspicuously colored in red. The track lighting fixtures can be removed in emergencies to double as flashlights.

The conventional airplane steering controls have been replaced by an ergonomic joystick-like device that slides comfortably under the palm and fingers. "I call it the flounder," Liedtke said.

Comfort amenities are included, too. Inserting a "smart" ID card into a card reader automatically adjusts the seat and lighting to the pilot's preferences. The sharp metal edges of seat rails that routinely scuff pilots' shoes have been rounded and covered with plastic. A motorcycle-type footrest flips out.

The sheepskin seat covers have been replaced by a mesh-like fabric. Air-filled bladders in the seat's cushions adjust throughout the flight--instead of the occupant having to shift around in the seat, the seat itself shifts, preventing fatigue.

There's even a beverage holder, which snugly clamps around the cup to prevent spills during turbulence.

The 10 students in the class were as ignorant of airplanes as Liedtke had hoped, as were their teachers. Tom Campbell, one of the two instructors, summed up what he knew about aircraft in plain talk: "Nothing--only that they get off the ground and then they land and then I'm really happy."

Not surprisingly, not everyone at McDonnell Douglas was enthusiastic initially. "A lot of people were really skeptical [about] what a bunch of students could come up with," said engineer Pedroza.

"What could these people do for us? How could they help our team?"

But now, comparing the Art Center design with what exists currently, "it's night and day," said Charlie Wood, a senior pilot with McDonnell Douglas. "I'd like to fly this thing."

For research, the students toured McDonnell Douglas, flew a flight simulator and interviewed pilots. Liedtke provided them with reams of technical information.

McDonnell Douglas brought the old DC-9 nose to the center, knocked out a wall and bolted it to the outside of the classroom building.

As the students progressed, Pedroza and others were gradually won over. Pedroza recalled watching one student doodle during the course of a meeting. "In 15 minutes, he had drawn three different airplanes," he said. "I was like, 'Wow--they're pretty talented.' "

The flight deck design was the first large-scale project for most of the students. "Probably the most interesting thing about the whole project is the group dynamics," said Peter Gardner, one of two project managers who shepherded the design through the three-month process. "It was just a constant juggle of what the best idea was."

The smart-card seat-adjustment system, for example, was inspired by one found in Acura cars. "We just said if cars have it, why not airplanes?" Pestonji said.

There were a few glitches. "Our first model melted," Gardner recalled. The Southern California sun roasted the inside of the DC-9 nose. Even as the students presented their initial ideas via teleconference to McDonnell Douglas, "you could see the adhesive moving. Slowly this corner was beginning to move away from the other components in the flight deck."

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For the central part of their final presentation, the students produced a video explaining the features and design ideas behind the MD-2015 Flight Station. About 150 McDonnell Douglas employees came to listen. They left inspired.

"It gets the whole team thinking of different approaches to the same problem," Pedroza said.

Some of the students' simpler ideas--the beverage holder, perhaps--might be incorporated into the MD-95, McDonnell Douglas' next aircraft, but most will have to wait until the next century for aircraft that have not even made it to the planning boards.

Later this year, the company will begin designing the flight deck for those future planes, said Ron Suiter, general manager of aircraft systems at McDonnell Douglas. "This was part of our homework for advanced flight deck concepts that we are hoping to incorporate in the future," Suiter said. "They came up with some clever ideas."

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