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Equipped with two huge digital screens, Hill Helicopters’ new digital cockpit concept looks fit for the bridge of a superhero-movie spaceship until you see the cyclic-and-collective flight control configuration common to conventional helicopters.
By melding the ergonomic comfort and elegant instrumentation of a luxury car with the flight control and information presentation of an aircraft, Hill Helicopters has arrived at a completely redesigned cockpit for its clean-sheet HX50 five-seater.
Over two decades of flying helicopters and driving luxury cars, Hill Helicopters founder and chief engineer Jason Hill became acquainted with the amenities present and lacking in both user experiences, he told Vertical in an exclusive interview.
“The genesis of the design process was my 20 years of experience flying helicopters and driving premium cars . . . when you do both regularly the difference is stark and as an experienced engineer it was clear to me the main reason for this was not technical, but lack of real competition in the market,” Hill said. “Nobody had ever been forced to do it better and so the status quo has existed unchallenged for many years.”
“It always seemed silly to me that climbing into and out of a helicopter was so awkward, clambering over the cyclic and then being presented with hardware in a vehicle costing much more than a house that looks better suited to secondhand earth-moving equipment,” he added. “We wanted the function of the flight controls to be delivered absolutely optimally but also elegantly in a manner befitting such an expensive product.”
The Hill Digital Cockpit (HDC) suite will be type approved for the experimental HX50 and type certified in the commercial HC50, but both will essentially be identical from a user perspective, Hill said.
“Our cyclic provides the ability to raise and lower the pilot and co-pilot grips independently so each occupant can position their stick comfortably on their thigh without impeding the other,” Hill said. “By lifting the cyclic up, pilots can slide in and out of the cockpit easily without need of amateur gymnastics.”
Mounting the cyclic in front of the pilot behind the PFD screen means that the cyclic grip can float over the pilot’s legs and not be encumbered by them, Hill said. The collective is integrated with the armrest and a new integrated pilot interface (IPI), promoting comfort and proper support for a pilot’s arm to allow better fine fingertip movements for control inputs to both the collective and the avionics.
Hill is singularly focused on enabling visual flight rules (VFR) helicopter pilot mission requirements, specifically point-to-point and off-airport flying at relatively low altitude. The cockpit is designed to provide only the information a pilot needs, when needed and reduce pilot workload. The system is not fly-by-wire, instead opting for the functional simplicity of computer-assisted hydraulic flight control system.
Autopilot functions are provided by parallel electric actuators that are integrated into the flight controls to deliver haptic feedback to the pilots through the cyclic and collective. This allows power state and limits to be communicated by feel rather than looking at the gauge when operating in confined areas or during critical phases of flight.