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By 2035, fighter jets might become so advanced that a pilot could control a fleet of unmanned air and ground vehicles from the cockpit, flip a switch to transform a canopy into a laser beam shield, select a target with the wink of an eye, or even talk to the aircraft to fire a weapon.
The cockpit could also be highly personalized for greater comfort, including grips that mold to a pilot’s hands, and thin touch screens that are easily repositioned.
These advanced technologies are among a host of innovations that a team of 15 senior cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy included in their design in the first Boeing-sponsored “Crew System 2035” competition. Their work propelled them to victory in what was described as a close contest with the Naval Academy and West Point.
At a May 6 event recognizing their achievement, the future officers said they were honored by the award and learned many things that will prepare them for their Air Force careers.
“I’m off to pilot training after graduation, so this is definitely a step in the right direction to understand what goes into cockpit engineering,” said Cadet 1st Class Ryan Zielinski of Las Vegas, Nev. “Definitely a cool project to be on.”
Brig. Gen. Dana Born, the academy’s dean of faculty, thanked Boeing for the opportunity to work on a “real project” that helped motivate the cadets and develop the next generation of Air Force officers.
“This project is an example of what partnering can do,” Born said. “We’re glad for the results. We’re even more glad with the learning that occurred that will benefit our Air Force for years to come.”
Cadet 1st Class Andrew Whitmey of Dana Point, Calif., said the competition gave him the opportunity to experience working with a large group over an extended period of time.
“I got a lot of good technical aspects of what being a pilot is like, but I think the biggest impact on me in my career will be the teamwork aspects from this project,” Whitmey said.
Over the past year, the cadets studied what technologies would be mature enough to be incorporated into a cockpit in 25 years. Then they designed and built a full-scale mockup.
“In the beginning, it was a lot of research and arguing about which technology we thought was best because it’s hard to decide what works well versus what could work well in the future,” said Cadet 1st Class Caroline Kurtz of Albuquerque, N.M. “And then the second semester, it was debating about how to actually make all these technologies interact and define the backups if something does fail.”
Lt. Col. Carlene Perry, the cadets’ instructor, said the Air Force will benefit significantly from the insights the cadets gained from the competition.
Raymond McCoy/Air Force Academy
“Out of our team, 13 out of 15 are going on to pilot training this fall, so it’s likely that they will see or be able to have some input into futuristic cockpit designs,” Perry said. “It’s sending out officers that have had a chance to work with industry customers to understand the frustrations of designing military weapon systems and to be able to appreciate all the thought that goes into systems integration.”
Dennis Muilenburg, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, presented the winners’ trophy to the cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“The key that led to your win was the end integration -- how you brought the systems engineering together, how you put it in a pilot’s context and then did the integration,” Muilenburg said.
Muilenburg said he expects much of their work will be reflected in future aircraft.
“When you think about yourselves and these future pilots, they’re going to have the most advanced capabilities in the world, lives will be saved and missions will be accomplished built on some of the work that you’ve done,” he told the cadets.