Skip to content

How Working on the Flight Deck has Changed During the Last 50 Years by Ian Frow ASG Committee Member


A Personal Note

Capt Ian Frow on the flight deck of a British Airways B747 (Classic)

Once I had started to write this blog it turned into something slightly different with a more personal remembered slant. (My personal reminiscences are in italics) 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. This essay reflects the changes primarily in the BOAC/long haul world but with some BEA/short haul comparisons where applicable.

The memories of technical changes are just that – memories – and need an accuracy health warning. And 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.

I joined BOAC in September 1958.   At that time young pilots joining ‘The Corporation’ were mortified to find that first; they were to be Flight Navigators.  The reason was that the ‘specialist’ navigators were, like the radio operators, being phased out

 Following a year’s mini degree ground school, we went off to navigate across the Oceans and Deserts of the world, initially under instruction.  In the summer of 1959 I flew on my first flight as a BOAC flight deck crew member.  The aircraft was a piston engined Douglas DC7c bound for New York via Boston – a long day’s work before Flight Time Limitations were invented. I was there to observe the navigator navigating but no more than that.  It turned into an epic.  We did numerous missed approaches at Boston, failed to get in and went on to New York Idlewild where we landed after yet more missed approaches.  The total chock to chock time was 14 hours 15 minutes which I only exceeded when I operated a 747 from Hong Kong to London in 1985!

Subsequently I was a ‘pilot navigator’ on Britannia 102s, Comet 4s and Boeing 707s before completing a pilot course on the 707 and then being able to sit in both the right hand seat and at the navigator’s table.  In 1972 I converted onto the Boeing 747.  Lacking in enthusiasm for many conversion courses, it was an aircraft I flew, in various versions, until my retirement in 2002, thus completing 30 years on the type.

Despite this I was also exposed to many other aircraft operating regimes through my work in the BALPA technical section, and in particular work on the BALPA Concorde Evaluation.

Flight Deck Crew in the Fifties

The DC 7c 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’.  There were no women on major airline flight decks until the eighties.


He was frequently a dominant figure who had served in the war and brooked little input from hi

The flight deck of a B707

s crew.  Crew Resource Management was many years in the future. He could be a petty tyrant an attitude of mind not helped by the fact that he received excessive respect from both his crew and the ground handling staff. He usually stayed alone in a superior hotel to the rest of his crew.

First Officer

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.  All too often, in his apprenticeship as a commander, he adopted all the worst traits of his captain.  He, together with the other flight deck crew members, would stay not only in a separate hotel from the captain but also in an hotel different to that of the cabin crew.

Relief First Officer

He 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. He was often frustrated since he rarely had the chance to actually handle the aircraft between his routine checks.

Flight Engineer

He 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 the Flight Engineer’s seat was set back from the pilots’ seats

Engineers working on a Comet 4c

and he had a good situational overview. Through the years there were several occasions when a Flight Engineer’s intervention saved the day.  As a group they traditionally had a very good instinct for finding a bargain, particularly for breakfast deals.   The flight engineer position continued into the 747 era but effectively ceased after ‘9/11’ in 2002 when the three crew 747s were grounded because of cost.


He was often as old as the captain, frequently with distinguished wartime experience. (This could also be the case with the Flight Engineer and Radio Operator).   He was the intellectual of the crew, sometimes a demon cards player. The role of the navigator gradually ceased in BOAC as the ‘Pilot Navigators’ took over, ironically initially trained by the ‘specialist navigators’.

Radio Operator

He had the tiresome task of conducting all HF (long range radio) transmissions and collecting weather and other information for the captain.  HF was often impossible to read and usually a cacophony of noise. Radio operators often had a reputation of being eccentric and odd (due to listening to all that noise?).  In the fifties this crew position was being phased out as the pilots took over all radio duties.

Flight Deck Crew in the Twenty First Century

The standard crew of a Captain and First Officer is sometimes augmented in long haul by one or more crew members. Thus on most sectors the tasks of those five fifties crew members are now performed by two.  The vast amount of automation

The flight deck of a Finnair A350

and automatic information sources has to take the place of those three lost crew.  Generally automation copes but sometimes, in unusual emergency situations, the extra hands, heads and eyes may be missed. (The Qantas A380 engine disintegration incident in Singapore would probably been a disaster had it not been for lucky chance that there was a heavily augmented crew on the flight deck).

The advent of Crew Resource Management training has totally revised the power/authority gradient on the flight deck – there are now few captains who believe they have a direct line to the Almighty.   However there is an increased tendency for the left hand seat to have relatively few years’ experience. Thus first officers with even more limited experience no longer have the facility of learning by osmosis, watching and learning from the techniques of highly experienced captains.

The removal of an engineering specialist (which happened many years earlier in short haul) has meant that pilots have, one the one hand to rely far more on the ground maintenance engineers and on the other they have be able to do some of the more simple engineering checks and procedures themselves.

Navigation - from the Fifties until the Twenty First Century

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. In the North Atlantic and the Pacific there were a number of stationary ‘Weather Ships’ who would add to their weather reporting role by giving passing aircraft radar fixes.

(In some areas of Europe there were chains of radio stations whose signals produced an approximation of a position on a rolling map on the flight deck.  The ‘Decca Navigator’ was allegedly quite good when it worked properly).

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 2 minutes and separated by 2 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

Concorde flight deck

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’.

The attitude displays in the fifties were not especially user friendly and could be subject to acceleration errors. There was a variation between types which meant that some attitude displays showed bank angle at the top whilst others had the indication at the bottom of the dial. This often caused difficulties when converting from one type to another. Through time flight director displays were added to show navigation information when on airways and, eventually, ILS demands on approach.  Later information from the INS was available and more recently from the Flight Management System.  Some early flight directors were more popular than others but each type had its proponents.

 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

Heathrow Radar 1960s

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. (On that first BOAC flight of mine I believe we were attempting to make approaches using a mixture ADF and a less than perfect radar controller). 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. It is now possible to make automatic landings in visibility conditions so poor that the next problem after landing is finding the terminal.

Modern autopilots are so accurate and reliable that pilots are encouraged to use them as much as possible.  The autopilot may be engaged shortly after take-off and not disengaged until landing at destination.  Whilst properly managing the automatic handling and management systems can be intellectually challenging, the lack of pure aircraft handling practice is leading to concerns that pilots may not be able to cope when full automatic control is not available. Several recent accidents have reinforced this concern.


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.  (BOAC had a number of day trips to Europe. Scheduled for a day trip to Frankfurt, I set off with just my briefcase, only to arrive home ten days later having been to Australia – laundry had been a problem!). The plus side was that there many free days in some attractive places (but also in some hell holes).

(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).

One of the pleasures of long haul flying was the ability, during periods of low workload, to entertain passengers visiting the flight deck.  This meant that during an airline career it was possible to have met a number of the famous, the interesting and, sometimes, the boring.

(I particularly remember being having Nelson Mandela join us on the flight deck for the landing into Johannesburg just months before he became president of South Africa. But there was also an inebriated Judy Garland who insisted on continuously singing ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ on a London to Rome sector). 

Possibly because it was an unfamiliar environment, it was surprising how many of the famous had quite different personalities on the flight deck from their public profile.  Flight deck visits were undoubtedly a most useful PR exercise for the airline. Following 9/11 and the security closure of all flight deck doors this facility was lost.  At the same time 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).

Ian Frow 23rd November 2016

This article was originally published in the BALPA Blog 2016