Many similarities can be found in any plane’s cockpit, including an array of switches, information screens, and more. However, depending on the manufacturer, you may notice the presence of a yoke or a side stick. While Airbus planes have side sticks, Boeing planes have yokes to steer the plane. But why is this the case? Does it make a difference in how the aircraft operates? Let’s figure out!
Before the introduction of the A320 family, all aircraft in the cockpit had a central yoke. The yoke was the primary tool for controlling the aircraft’s functions, giving pilots manual control. The yoke was the industry standard for a long time, being used on every type of aircraft, from the turboprop to the 747.
But in 1985, Airbus made the decision to transform commercial aviation by switching the A320’s central yoke out for a side stick. Up until that point, fighter jets like the F-16 or Rafale were the only ones with side sticks. Along with the new “fly-by-wire” system, which replaced manual flight controls with computer-based controls, Airbus decided to introduce the side stick.
There was a business reason for the change. Airbus was looking for a way to break the 737’s stranglehold on the narrowbody market. Airbus differentiated its planes by introducing the side stick, giving airlines a fundamentally different aircraft to the 737: the A320.
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The side stick
Airbus was able to recreate the cockpit configuration and simplify controls thanks to the new computer-based controls. The single-handed side stick made flying more comfortable and gave pilots more room to interact with new information systems.
Airbus continued to use the side stick on all subsequent aircraft, so nearly all Airbus aircraft in the sky now have this design. The lack of a larger yoke means more space, which Airbus has used to design a new cockpit centered on computers and displays. Recently, the company has moved to implement a touchscreen cockpit, eliminating the need for manual switches entirely. Actually, Boeing considered incorporating a side stick into the first 737 aircraft as early as 1967. However, due to design considerations and concerns that the change would be too drastic for existing pilots, it chose not to.
With the success of the 737 and 747, it was logical for Boeing to stick with a similar cockpit design. This is not to say that Boeing has not adopted the newer ‘fly-by-wire’ systems. The 777 was the first aircraft to use the new system, with subsequent 787 and 747-8s improving on it.
Boeing clearly does not see any reason to abandon the yoke. There is little reason to make fundamental design changes as long as the company can continue to innovate. Its most recent aircraft, the 777X, retains the yoke while incorporating a futuristic, touchscreen flight deck.
Because of its design for minimal conversion training, the 777x fight deck shares many similarities with the 777 and 787. The fully configurable dual pilots displays and heads-up displays are among the notable differences. Nonetheless, at least one switch is new – the wingtip controls. This feature is located on the upper panel and resembles a wingtip.
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So now, which is better?
The first question you may have while reading this is, which of these systems is better compared? Airbus and Boeing provide compelling and logical reasons for their systems’ superiority. However, the real answer is complicated (and differs depending on who you ask).
The pro-Airbus camp claims that the side stick makes flying more comfortable for pilots and ensures they stay within safe limits. With more space and one free hand, the side stick also makes operating the array of computers and systems much more effortless. The side stick is also the next step in flight development, laying the groundwork for future innovations.
The pro-Boeing camp claims that a yoke is an essential tool for emergency flight operations, allowing for an override in emergency scenarios. The opposing party also claims that the yoke design preserves more general flying skills and coordination between the pilot and co-pilot. Finally, the yoke is an integral part of the flying tradition, and there is little reason to change it because technology can evolve around it instead.
The same opinion is expressed when speaking with pilots. Depending on the aircraft, some claim the yoke provides more control, while others claim the side stick’s comfort is unmatched. ‘Which is better?’ is difficult to answer because, clearly, Airbus and Boeing have different design philosophies.
Finally, Boeing and Airbus have opposing views on the level of automation in the flight deck. This, in turn, translates to the amount of flight experience pilots have on board the aircraft, both of which have advantages and disadvantages. While it’s unlikely that Airbus will ever return to the yoke, could Boeing? We’ll find out in the coming decades.