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What is an Aircraft Canopy?

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  • Written By: Lori Kilchermann
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Images By: Kansasphoto, Codex41, Alexander Maksimov
  • Last Modified Date: 07 December 2016
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An aircraft canopy is a protective cover used over the cockpit. Typically constructed of a clear or composite material, the aircraft canopy allows the pilot to be protected from the elements while offering a clear view. Fighter aircraft are aided by the inclusion of a bubble-type aircraft canopy in their design which offers the same unobstructed view. Military aircraft canopy construction is typically made of bulletproof or bullet-resistant materials.

The earliest aircraft designs did not include an aircraft canopy. These open cockpit designs exposed the pilots to rain, snow, cold and wind. Often, the survivor of a military encounter or a long commercial flight was simply a pilot who could endure the elements the longest—the addition of an aircraft canopy allowed the pilot to experience a protected environment while flying. Since pilots didn't need to follow road signs, some of the earliest aircraft canopy designs failed to offer any frontal vision. Planes such as famous Spirit of St. Louis had only side windows to allow the pilot to look over the side of the aircraft to take ground readings.

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As aircraft canopy design evolved, vital airplane operations became intertwined with the canopy. Heads-up instrument displays began to appear on the wind screen of the aircraft. Pilot ejection functions also were incorporated into the canopy as small explosive charges became fashioned into the canopy. These explosives were intended to break the canopy loose and allow the pilots to shoot up and out of the aircraft in an emergency without fear of crashing into the canopy and injuring themselves. Unfortunately, early efforts fell short and many pilots and rear-seat occupants lost their lives as the canopies failed to yield as the passengers attempted to eject.

In World War II, aircraft carrier-based pilots were taught to launch their aircraft with the canopies in the locked open position. This was done when several failed launches resulted in pilots crashing into the ocean and drowning due to not being able to open the canopy of their crashed airplane. To combat this serious problem, pilots would take off with the canopy open; once airborne, they would close the canopy. This practice resulted in a mandated sliding canopy on all aircraft that would see carrier duty and all but brought an end to the swing-open canopy on fighter planes. The aircraft canopy also forged the way for the evolution of such developments as pressurized cabins, the ability to fly in inclement weather and around-the-clock operations.

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