As I have been flying helicopters for over 20 years, I have spent a great deal of time in cockpits. I often think about cockpit design, who creates the design, and why. It is similar to the design of a great pilot watch, in that when it is done right, it is usually simple, easy to read, functional, and all the parts continue to work in the worst conditions (when you need it most).
It sounds straight-forward, but amazingly, you could be flying a 2 million dollar helicopter (or airplane), and have a cockpit with the same ergonomic design as a 1960's vintage Volkswagen Beetle (apologies to vintage Beetle fans). Here's a few examples:
Bell 206B pilot/co-pilot seats - These seats are made of poor quality fabrics, stuffed with foam that becomes crushed flat in a matter of months, and are usually not re-stuffed for 10 years or more.They were also designed with little, or no lumbar support, making for a very uncomfortable day overall.
If you are a low-time, hours starved pilot, then you will have no concern with this whatsoever, but for us older, been there/done that guys, the Jet Ranger seat is a bit of an industry joke.
With newer designs, and more attention to pilot comfort, cockpit seats are now becoming something you actually want to sit on.
Fortunately for us, they are also becoming safer. In the new Eurocopter AS350B3 for example, the old fiberglass bucket seats have now been replaced by milled aluminum, crash attenuating seats. These seats are designed to absorb the impact of a vertical crash with a seat compression stroke, as opposed to the compression of your spine.
The Glass Cockpit
One of the greatest advances in cockpit design in the last 20 years is the use of screens to display information to the pilot instead of dials and gauges.
This comes down to simplicity and reduction in workload for the pilot. A great example would be a comparison between a mid-70's airliner like the DC-9, and a modern machine like the A-380. The DC-9 cockpit is positively packed with gauges, switches, dials and breakers. So many in fact, that a third crew member was often required in this vintage of aircraft. A serious in flight emergency would have required the co-pilot and flight engineer to find the corresponding maintenance or flight manual and assess the problem.
In a modern, glass cockpit, all primary navigational, avionics and aircraft information is displayed on anywhere from two to four large TV screens. Often, the information is displayed in a "need to know" manner. In other words, the screens are not cluttered with information you don't need to see. When there is a change, or problem, it will quickly display the data to the flight crew.
In many modern aircraft, the 400lbs of manuals that once resided in cabinets in the cockpit are now contained digitally in the smart cockpit, allowing access by the flight crew at the push of a button.
The advantage to all this new technology is simple. It makes the difficult, complex and sometimes dangerous job of flying more simple. When this really comes into play is during an emergency. As soon as a pilot has to begin dealing with an in flight emergency, the less clutter, confusion and unrelated information, the better.