The Five Coolest Buttons in the Cockpit
Posted on 02/14/2018
Who hasn’t peeked into the cockpit of a plane when boarding a flight?
The dashboard with hundreds of buttons, levers and knobs controlling things the average traveler can’t begin to understand is a sight to see.
It’s no wonder kids are gleeful when the pilot waves them into this ultra cool space for a little one on one time.
Now, Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker is letting the rest of us in on a few of the cockpit secrets.
In an article penned for The Telegraph, Vanhoenacker says each of the hundreds of buttons in a plane’s cockpit controls ingenious technology and carefully crafted aspects of the user experience.
As part of his article, Vanhoenacker revealed five of the coolest buttons and even went so far as to suggest travelers ask the pilot about them when boarding their next flight.
Among the buttons discussed by Vanhoenacker in his article:
The Execute Key (or EXEC Key)
This handy button allows pilots to change a plane’s route during flight.
"In flight, we follow a route that's been carefully programmed into the flight computers. That's true whether we're flying the airplane manually or through the automatic pilot,"Vanhoenacker explained. "But in flight, we often need to modify the route—perhaps we've been given a shortcut by air traffic control, or perhaps the landing runway at our destination has changed."
Once pilots have checked the route modifications in the onboard computers and before the plane actually starts to follow the new route, they press the Execute key. At that point, the plane's existing route is replaced by the new, modified path.
Mode Selectors for Internal Reference Systems
These switches are described by Vanhoenacker as “probably the most remarkable bit of aerospace technology you’ve never heard of.”
That’s quite the introduction. Vanhoenacker goes on to explain that these inertial reference systems, configured before each flight, help pilots to know where the plane is without any other reference to the outside world, such as a GPS.
"Think of that - no GPS satellite signals are needed, no star sightings, nothing. Inside the black box, each of these three powerful digital brains just know," he said.
The mode selectors for internal reference systems can also help distinguish the plane's speed and direction from that of the wind carrying the plane. They can also sense gravity. Cool right?
The START Switches
It's as simple as it sounds, these switches start the plane.
"In an environment as complex as an airliner cockpit, there's a huge premium put on simplicity—on buttons that do just what it says on the tin. Visitors to the cockpit often ask how we start the engines, and it's hard to answer without sounding as if we're dumbing it down," said Vanhoenacker. "But it really is this simple. To start the engines, pull the start switch and then move the master switch for each engine to RUN."
The Mic/INTERPHONE Switches
"Airliners are designed to be flown by two pilots, which means we spend a lot of time talking to each other. In flight though, we typically wear pricey noise-canceling headsets due to the sound of the engines and the airflow," said Vanhoenacker.
In order to speak normally with each other, (without taking their hands off of the controls - yikes!) the pilots flip the mic switch to the interphone position.
The External Power (EXT PWR) Control Switches
Last but not least, the switch that keeps the aircraft powered when not flying.
"One of the simplest but best questions that we're asked -often by children- has to do with how an aircraft is powered while it's parked at the gate. After all, if the engines are shut down, what's keeping the lights on?" Vanhoenacker said.
As it turns out, there are a couple of answers to that question.
First, most aircraft have an APU or Auxiliary Power Unit.
"It's a little jet engine in the tail of the aircraft that can power the aircraft on the ground and sometimes serve as a backup power source in flight," Vanhoenacker explained.
The other option? The plane can simply be plugged into the airport's electrical power supply, saving fuel and reducing emission and noise.
PHOTO: Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker dishes on the cockpit buttons that
control some of a plane's most interesting features. (photo via