Home » This Is Why Commercial Airliners Have Opening Cockpit Windows As Weird As That Seems

This Is Why Commercial Airliners Have Opening Cockpit Windows As Weird As That Seems

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The other day, our very own David Tracy posted a little video on the Instant-Grams that showed something fascinating: a pilot, leaning out of an open cockpit window, fiddling with his windshield wipers, like I’ve done a billion times in the crapboxes I’ve driven over the years. The action looked so simple and familiar, and yet the context felt, you know, strange. Because that’s a commercial airliner! And somehow it just doesn’t seem like you should be able to do this in a commercial airliner. But you can, and there are reasons why you can, so let’s dig into that.

The idea of the opening cockpit window just makes the plane feel so analogous to things we’re used to in a car, it’s almost impossible not to imagine it being used for mid-cloud hovering tollbooths or a pilot trying to navigate through an Arby’s drive-through or cranking that thing open when the co-pilot lets a juicy one rip or any number of other open-window situations we can all relate to.

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Just so you can see how familiar yet strange this feels, here’s David’s little video:

 

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A post shared by The Autopian (@theautopian)

So, why do these open at all? There are actually a number of reasons, most of them quite obvious, even mundane when you think about it. Sometimes the flight crew may want to communicate with the ground crew around the plane when it’s on the tarmac. Is there any more reliable and straightforward way of doing that than opening a window and yelling? Some things are just hard to improve on.

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The opening window also acts as an escape hatch in case the pilots can’t get out of the plane any other way, which seems quite reasonable.

The window can only be opened if the plane is at a low enough altitude and unpressurized; the mechanism requires the window to slide inwards and then back, which would be impossible to do while the plane is pressurized.

You probably want to see this in action, don’t you? And you’re probably wondering what happens if a plane takes off with the window open, right? Well, Boeing made a whole training video explaining it all! And it shows the window mechanism and an amazing other use of the opening window!

Did you see what’s going on at this point in the video? If something is obscuring either of the front windshields, you can open the side window and poke your head out, like a hyperintelligent dog, and fly the plane from there!

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That’s astounding, right? Are goggles standard equipment to pack in some cubby in the cockpit? And the fact that the aerodynamics of the plane make it possible at all to stick your head out – even at the suggested speeds of 180 mph (160 knots) or below – without blowing your eyebrows clean off your head is incredible.

I’m not sure that completely explains how pilot selfies like this one are possible, but it’s a start. Actually, that selfie is a fake; the out-the-window part was shot on the ground, and then the sky was composited in. Don’t be fooled!

Here’s another video showing how to open the window:

That’s a little more secure-looking than the car vent window latch I was imagining. My experience with car vent windows makes me wonder if these things end up whistling annoyingly as that rubber ages and dries. That would be annoying as hell.

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That same pilot also explains a bit more about the opening window, the aerodynamics that form a “bubble” around the cockpit, and how 747s don’t have this feature:

This video also notes the use of the opening window in cases where smoke or fumes are on the flight deck, which makes sense.

So, while not all aircraft have opening cockpit windows, some, like the Boeing 737 or Airbus 320, certainly do, and they seem pretty damn useful to me. While I think David’s shock and surprise are understandable, it’s really not all that shocking.

Sometimes the pilot needs to take a parking ticket out from under the wiper or the day is just too nice for A/C and they want to fly with an elbow out the window. Who are we to deny them such joys?

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Guillaume Maurice
Guillaume Maurice
26 days ago

sometime a pilot needs to go out of the cockpit in a hurry because there gunfight between terrorist and an assaulting police force taking place in the plane. In that instance the window comes handy, even if the jump is a bit high, it’s better to have a sprained ankle than to be full of bullets.

https://www.gendarmerie.interieur.gouv.fr/gendinfo/histoire/26-decembre-1994-l-assaut-spectaculaire-du-gign-a-marignane

sorry for the French, you can find it easilly in video on YouTube

UA6 Driver
UA6 Driver
26 days ago

It’s so nice to be able to open the windows on the 737 on nice days when you sitting on a quieter ramp. Fresh air when you spend most of your day in an airplane/jetbridge/airport is a treat.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
27 days ago

This is one of the many reasons I hate flying.

It’s a childhood road trip all over again.

Sitting in the back, squished between two people, with no leg room (feet on the hump), with windows that don’t roll down. Stifled by my birth order and our poorness. While the captain (Dad) hangs his arm out the open front window giving us odd orders we must obey and vague clues as to how much closer we are to our destination.

Oh please, let an oxygen mask drop from the ceiling of this malaise era tomb.

Greensoul
Greensoul
27 days ago

Mystery solved, thanks Jason! I always thought the Spaceballs cafeteria threatened to put in a drive through window and Boeing was planning ahead. Boeing, we can’t keep doors on our jets, but dammit our pilots will get an out of space Starbucks latte!

DadBod
DadBod
27 days ago

I believe the pilots of British Air 009 had to look out the side windows to land the plane after the windshield was sandblasted by volcanic ash.

DadBod
DadBod
27 days ago
Reply to  DadBod

Also this documentary on the flight is nuts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkRQWNf69fM

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
27 days ago
Reply to  DadBod

“ Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

Wuffles Cookie
Wuffles Cookie
27 days ago

If you want to get all technical about it, just quote the FAR directly:

14.CFR.25.772.a:

“For airplanes with a maximum passenger seating configuration of more than 20 seats, the emergency exit configuration must be designed so that neither crewmembers nor passengers require use of the flightdeck door in order to reach the emergency exits provided for them”

Manuel Verissimo
Manuel Verissimo
27 days ago
Reply to  Wuffles Cookie

[PTSD intensifies]

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
27 days ago

The window opens so that they can go through the Drive – Thru at Jet’s Pizza!

ヽ(͡◕ ͜ʖ ͡◕)ノ

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
27 days ago

They crack that window open a little bit when they have dogs in the cockpit so they don’t get too hot. That way they can run into the store for 5 minutes to grab a pack of smokes.

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
27 days ago

How is there nothing in this or the comments about the pilot sucked out a window in flight?

DadBod
DadBod
27 days ago
Reply to  notoriousDUG

No shit! How did Jason not mention this?

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
27 days ago
Reply to  notoriousDUG

Another “Oops, wrong bolts” moment.

Sklooner
Sklooner
27 days ago

They have to be able to remove the ‘Will buy your plane for cash’ flyers under the wipers somehow

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
27 days ago

I figured the window opened so the pilots could double-check that no tires fell off the landing gear.

Collegiate Autodidact
Collegiate Autodidact
27 days ago

The window opens so the pilot can give a credit card and sign the receipt for the gas:
https://youtu.be/_aYaN0vciMI?si=JxU_jlMgHd9I0Yiy

Checkyourbeesfordrinks
Checkyourbeesfordrinks
27 days ago

Came for the Airplane! reference, was not disappointed

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
27 days ago

Also to flip the bird to that jerk who cut you off on the taxiway.

Elanosaurous
Elanosaurous
12 days ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

I was just on a plane the other day that had to do an emergency brake right before it went onto the main runway. No idea what happened but it was a major jolt and I imagine there was some hand signalling going on in the cockpit….

Last edited 12 days ago by Elanosaurous
IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
27 days ago

The windows open so that the flight crew can’t Dutch oven each other, obviously.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
27 days ago

When I flew C-130s, we occasionally attended air shows and after landing rollout we’d open the cockpit windows and extend American and squadron flags while moving on the taxiway and parking ramp and waved to the spectators. Also popped the overhead escape hatch and had a crew member waving from there.

David Tracy
David Tracy
27 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Username checks out.

Also, you rule, C-130 pilot.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
27 days ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

When I was MIG fighter jet flier pilot, window use for expelling diapers full of I HOP tooty fruity breakfasting bomb. Making good times.
Also fine works getting booger from off finger.

Last edited 27 days ago by Col Lingus
Data
Data
27 days ago

If you’re driving with your head out the window, you’re obviously Ace Ventura.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nOxdKcqC_I

Disphenoidal
Disphenoidal
27 days ago

Mentour Pilot is the best.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
27 days ago

The window also gives a place to hook a flag when on the ground, which applies mostly to aircraft handling head of state/head of government transport, and is a carry over from nautical practice. Not in the top 10 of manufacturer concerns for the feature, but it is used for that nonetheless

Berck
Berck
27 days ago

> Are goggles standard equipment to pack in some cubby in the cockpit? 
Yup. Often they’re integrated with the oxygen mask, though, for quick purging in the event of a cabin fire. But some aircraft have them separate from the mask.

10001010
10001010
27 days ago

On the 737-Max that window is there so the pilot can lean out and smack the single malfunctioning angle of attack sensor.

Last edited 27 days ago by 10001010
Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
27 days ago
Reply to  10001010

On other 737’s new windows open up as you fly!

Mercedes Streeter
Mercedes Streeter
27 days ago
Reply to  10001010

Omg, that’s a deep cut of a COTD nom if I’ve ever seen one

Chronometric
Chronometric
27 days ago
Reply to  10001010

737-Max AoA Sensors, the Lucas fuel pumps of the sky.

Peter d
Peter d
27 days ago
Reply to  10001010

It is absolutely shocking that on a plane that sells for ~$100 million aircraft that they couldn’t spend a few extra kilobucks for redundant sensors for a safety critical input. Even if they didn’t want to do the three sensors that are the usual solution (with three sensors the two that are reading the same are usually correct) they could have had a second sensor which would throw a disagree flag and let the system know everything is AFU and therefore cancel the automatic anti-stall actions and warn the pilots – this would have likely prevented loss of life – at least for the second crash…

Amy Andersen
Amy Andersen
27 days ago
Reply to  Peter d

Mild misuse of metric prefixes is one of my favorite jokes. Gotta get me a few kilobucks for a new shit box…

10001010
10001010
26 days ago
Reply to  Peter d

What’s absolutely revolting, but sadly not shocking, is that Muilenburg didn’t get tried or convicted for what happened under his watch. His only consequence was getting fired but even that came with a healthy separation bonus. All those souls are on his head and he should have to feel that.

A. Barth
A. Barth
27 days ago

I hope that somewhere within the FAA there is a person with the job title of ‘Window Regulator’.

LarsVargas
LarsVargas
27 days ago
Reply to  A. Barth

There is, but the role has it ups and downs.

A. Barth
A. Barth
27 days ago
Reply to  LarsVargas

Clearly

David Tracy
David Tracy
27 days ago
Reply to  LarsVargas

Best not ever travel to Munich, or this person will find themselves broken.

MrLM002
MrLM002
27 days ago
Reply to  A. Barth

I hope so too, they spend too much time as it is making the lives of pilots who’ve done nothing wrong a living hell, meanwhile it seems like 737 Production got outsourced to Yugo and noone cared till planes started falling apart

Drew
Drew
27 days ago

Sometimes the pilot needs to take a parking ticket out from under the wiper or the day is just too nice for A/C and they want to fly with an elbow out the window. Who are we to deny them such joys?

You have to make sure to pop out a door plug to get good cross-ventilation. Luckily, it seems this may happen automatically on some flights.

PajeroPilot
PajeroPilot
27 days ago
Reply to  Drew

I wonder if they got that annoying “helicopter” buffeting sound from the back of the cabin, like when one of your kids rolls down the rear window?

Drew
Drew
27 days ago
Reply to  PajeroPilot

Shoot, it’d have to be awful, too. I’d be yelling for someone to pop out another one before my eardrums exploded.

PajeroPilot
PajeroPilot
27 days ago
Reply to  Drew

“Will whichever one of you kids opened that bloody optional emergency exit plug SHUT IT!”
“But captain, I’m feeling air sick!”
“I don’t care, you’re making my bloody head explode!”
“Um… sorry, I can’t.”
“There’s no such word as can’t!”
“I mean… it fell in someone’s back yard.”
“RIGHT! That’s it! That plug’s coming out of your allowance!”

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