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MC-21 ushers active sidesticks into commercial aircraft cockpits

Active sidestick controllers will be used on a large commercial aircraft for the first time with the Irkut MC-21 programme’s selection of a system in development for over two decades by a France-based subsidiary of UTC Aerospace Systems.

The announcement on 20 April introduces a potential new breakthrough in cockpit situational awareness for commercial aircraft using a fly-by-wire actuation system and sidestick controllers.

The Embraer KC-390 and the Gulfstream G500 are also in flight test with the BAE Systems-designed active sidestick controllers, but the UTAS announcement on 20 April marks the first application of a large commercial aircraft.

United Aircraft Corp subsidiary Irkut plans to complete first flight of the 180-seat MC-21-300 in 2016, with entry into service following in 2018.

“Active sidesticks significantly improve the level of safety, making evident control inputs of pilots to one another and allowing prompt recovery actions,” says Roman Taskaev, chief test pilot for the MC-21 programme.

Taskaev tested the failure modes of the active sidestick controllers in a series of recent trial runs in a ground-based simulator in Figeac, France, UTAS says.

Cockpits equipped with decoupled sidestick controllers that do not provide active feedback have been highlighted in several aviation incidents. A left-seat pilot on Air France flight 447, which crashed in the South Atlantic in 2009, did not appear to understand that the right-seat pilot was pulling back on his sidestick and causing the aircraft to stall.

The UTAS-designed active sidesticks couple the motions of the left-seat and right-seat controllers. They also provide backdriven feedback based on the aircraft’s actions, so more pressure is required to make inputs that cause higher manoeuvring loads.

Ratier-Figeac, UTAS’ Actuation & Propeller business unit, first began experimenting with the sidestick controllers in the laboratory in the early 1990s. It finally unveiled the system as a product at the 2008 Paris air show, says Marc Gouault, international business development manager for Ratier-Figeac.

Irkut quietly selected the UTAS system in 2010 for the MC-21 family, which also includes the 150-seat MC-21-200, Gouault says.

Irkut plans to receive airworthiness certification for the MC-21 from the European Aviation Safety Administration (EASA). Certificating active sidestick controllers on a large commercial aircraft potentially opens the door to Western-built aircraft.

Gouault says there are not plans to offer active sidestick controllers as a retrofit option on commercial aircraft, but it could be an option for future variants of existing aircraft or new commercial aircraft.

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