Before fly-by-wire (FBW), it was virtually assured that the flight controls on both sides of a cockpit would move in unison, giving pilots a direct, intuitive and non-verbal understanding of what the other was doing. With the advent of FBW, starting with the Airbus A320 family, however, side sticks were made to be passive and independent of each other.

The design decision has led to human factors issues in some cases, prompting calls from international safety organizations for specialized training for aircraft equipped with “non-coupled control sticks.” In particular, regulators want pilots to be proficient at taking over control from each other (with an override switch), as their inputs are likely unknown to one other and in certain accident scenarios have been shown to be diametrically opposed.

Gulfstream and BAE Systems set out to reintroduce the intuitiveness of mechanically coupled flight controls by integrating electronically coupled sidesticks on the G500 and G600 business jets, set for certification this year and next year, respectively. The business jets will be the first commercial FBW aircraft with active sidesticks in service, likely to be followed in 2018 by the airline transport sector with the certification of the Irkut MC-21 single-aisle jet and its active sidesticks built by United Technologies Corp. Aerospace Systems.

“The new active sidesticks provide such realistic tactile and visual feedback that they appear to be mechanically linked,” says Fred George, Aviation Week’s aircraft evaluation editor for Aviation Week & Space Technology and sister publication Business & Commercial Aviation (BCA), after flying the G500 flight-test aircraft in October 2016. “During our pre-takeoff checks, both [the Gulfstream pilot] and I performed flight control checks.” George says. “We watched and felt as the sidestick controls mimicked inputs from each pilot. From the immediacy and precision of their actions, they could well have been mechanically connected rather than electronically linked.”

George went further, taking a stance on the likely safety benefits of the technology: “In BCA’s opinion, they provide a significant improvement in situational awareness from older passive sidesticks.”