It’s every man’s dream to operate a blinking array of buttons more complex and beautiful than a symphony – here’s what they do.
The space shuttle Endeavour
At the controls:Chris Hadfield, former test pilot, astronaut, commander of the International Space Station and mission specialist on this Nasa space shuttle
“This is the most complex flying machine ever built. It launched as a rocket, flew as a spaceship and landed as a hypersonic glider.”
“For launch, your nose is pointed at the sky. The commander climbs into the left seat (1), the pilot the right (2). Behind them sit mission specialists one and two, on the right and left respectively.
“Between the knees are the control column joysticks (3 & 4). You can move them forward and back to tip the shuttle nose up and down. Left and right lowers and raises the wings. You can also twist the column, yawing you sideways.
“To fly, you type instructions into the keyboard panel (5). It’s in hexadecimal – primitive programming language. The shuttle had extremely limited computer memory. The software to fly the entire shuttle was around 128KB – equal to two Commodore 64s. Above the commander’s seat are the main computers of the shuttle (6) where the memory resides.
“During launch, you’re crushed back into your seat. In eight minutes and 42 seconds, you go from a standing start to Mach 25 – 20,000 miles per hour. You’re burning fuel at 12 tonnes a second. It’s like you’re in the jaws of a shark, shaking you all the way up. The vehicle vibrates so strongly, you can’t focus on the instruments: the altimeter (7), the compass (8), the artificial horizon (9). That’s why you grab on to the chin-up bar (10) to pull yourself forward, allowing your neck to soak all the vibration so you can take readings.
“On your ascent, there’s a constant technical chatter between the four of you. You’re ready to react to the thousands of things that can go wrong. There are 500 switches in the cockpit – you need to know what every one does and how they fail. There’s the Orbital Manoeuvring System (11), controlling your orbit and altitude, the auxiliary power unit and your critical pressure gauges (12). The physical part is nothing compared to the mental endurance. As mission specialist one, I had to monitor all the systems and keep track of the vehicle’s energy. The commander flies the ship, the pilot controls the thrusters (13).
“To land, you fire your engines over Australia and glide to Florida. It takes an hour, you circle down in S-turns. It’s 3,000C outside – the windows glow red like a blast furnace. When you slow down to Mach 5, the commander reaches for the switches by his hip (14) to rotate the Pitot tubes, measuring air speed. The final 10 minutes, you’re flying a freight train falling out of the sky. You use your HUDs (15 & 16) for all your critical information and electronic navigation aids (17) to get you aligned. You flare a kilometre above the ground, and pull back on the stick only then. You come down at 300 knots and steer down the 5km runway until you stop.
“Some crews have lost engines or electrical systems. The only problem I had was one of the lightbulbs burning out. That, and a seagull crapping on the window (18) just before we launched. We docked with the Russian space station Mir, came home and that crap was still there.”
The F-16 fighter jet
At the controls:Dan Hampton, veteran of the Gulf, Kosovo and Iraq wars, where he piloted this F-16 Fighting Falcon
“I flew more than 150 combat missions in the F-16. I was a ‘Wild Weasel’, a surface-to-air missile killer, tasked by the US Air Force to destroy enemy air defence systems.”
“From the air, unless somebody sneaks up behind you, you’re going to see them on your radar (1). Above that is the radar warning receiver (2). When someone locks on to you with an air-to-air or air-to-ground radar, it’ll flash a warning that someone is coming after you. I always looked at it as an opportunity. Most fighter pilots want to be seen – they want to go find the bad guys.
“During the Iraq war, there was one occasion I gave emergency close air-support to troops on the ground. The heads-up display (3) flashed I was low on fuel. There’s an altimeter projected on to it (4), but I was flying so low because of a sandstorm below that I could simply use visuals. I went as low as 200ft when I squeezed the trigger (5) on the side-stick controller (6) and took out an enemy convoy. I could’ve also pressed the red button. We call it the pickle button – it’s your bomb release (7). In fact, you can control all of your weapons systems and your multifunction display (8) from the controller.
“Below the HUD is your up-front control keyboard (9). You can set up radio and comms through that. In between the rudder pedals (10), past the conventional aircraft instruments (11), there’s a yellow handle. It’s the ejector seat (12). If you have to get out, then you get out. Pull it at zero altitude and zero miles an hour, and it’ll shoot you high enough that your chute will automatically deploy and you’ll survive. Use it in mid-air and you’ll be out the plane and with a parachute within a second-and-a-half. I never ejected. I may have lost my engine a few times, but I never ejected.”
The Flight is out now (HarperCollins); Chasing The Demon is out 24 July
The prototype race car
At the controls:Nick Tandy, Porsche motorsport driver and winner of the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans race, driving this Porsche 919 Hybrid
“The race had seven hours to go when I entered the cockpit. My knees were right up against the steering wheel (1), I just about had enough room to move my elbows. It’s an uncomfortable place to be. It’s so cramped in there, it’s like sitting in a bathtub.
“In a 24-hour race, you’re still against the clock (2). You have to get in and out the car quickly. The wheel’s cut-off design means you can slide in underneath, the flat top means you can easily see over it.
“The cars at Le Mans are two-seaters. Your passenger, though, is a high-voltage battery that powers the car for 24 hours (3). There’s no handbrake. We only have two pedals – brake and throttle (4). The windshield is smaller than a regular road car (5) and is made from polycarbonate so it weighs as little as possible. On a tight corner, you usually have to look out of the side window.
“Every primary function in operating the car is on the wheel. It ranges from the clutch and gear-shift paddle on the reverse side (6), to the controls you regularly play with throughout the lap: brake balance (7), traction control (8), to an overtake button (9). There’s a yellow pit speed-limiter button, too (10) – regulating your speed in the pit lane. When the engineers call, you can use the rotary dials in the thumb positions (11). You have the power to change thousands of presets at your fingertips.
“Everything we need to hand is displayed on screen, from electrical usage to fuel (12). But it’s not easy. It’s one of the skills of a topline racing driver, being able to drive a car subconsciously while operating a computer system from within the cockpit. At night, it’s all lit up – but you’ve still memorised where every button is without sight.
“On the dash panel is the secondary control – buttons you don’t normally need in a normal race situation. Things like the back-up fuel pump (13), the wiper system (14) and reverse gear (15). Beside that is the main ignition switch (16) and the emergency fire extinguisher (17). It’s connected to a fan below (18), blowing air to cool the driver down – even then the cockpit can get close to 30C.
“When I came out of the car the final time we still had four hours of the race to go. But we won. The car was faultless, all the systems had been managed throughout the race, meaning we didn’t have to use many of our cockpit options. In the best races, the job of the driver is relatively easy.”