What’s an aircraft canopy?

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Aircraft canopies protect pilots from the elements and provide a clear view. Military canopies are often bulletproof. Early designs lacked canopies, and pilots had to withstand the elements. Canopy design evolved to include warning displays and pilot eject functions. In World War II, carrier-based pilots launched with canopies open to avoid drowning. Canopies led to pressurized cabins and all-weather flying.

An aircraft cover is a protective cover worn over the cabin. Typically constructed of a transparent or composite material, the aircraft canopy allows the pilot to be protected from the elements while offering a clear view. Fighter jets are aided by the inclusion of a bubble-like aircraft canopy in their design that offers the same unobstructed view. Military aircraft canopy construction is generally made of bulletproof or bullet-resistant materials.

Early aircraft designs did not include an aircraft canopy. These open cockpit designs exposed pilots to rain, snow, cold, and wind. Often the survivor of a military encounter or long commercial flight was simply a pilot who could withstand the elements for longer – the addition of an aircraft cover allowed the pilot to experience a protected environment while flying. Since pilots did not need to follow traffic signs, some early aircraft canopy designs were unable to offer any forward vision. Planes like the famous Spirit of St. Louis only had side windows to allow the pilot to look over the side of the plane to take ground readings.

As aircraft canopy design evolved, the vital operations of aircraft became intertwined with the canopy. Warning instrument displays began to appear on the aircraft’s windshield. Pilot eject functions were also incorporated into the canopy as small explosive charges were formed in the canopy. These explosives were intended to loosen the canopy and allow pilots to fire and exit the plane in an emergency without fear of crashing into the canopy and injury. Unfortunately, early efforts fell short, and many pilots and rear-seat occupants lost their lives as the canopies would not budge when passengers tried to eject them.

In World War II, 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 the pilots crashing in the ocean and drowning due to being unable to open the canopy of their crashed plane. To combat this serious problem, pilots would take off with the canopy open; once in the air, they would close the canopy. This practice resulted in a mandatory slip canopy on all aircraft that would see carrier service and almost ended with the open canopy on fighter aircraft. The aircraft canopy also led the way for the evolution of developments such as pressurized cabins, the ability to fly in inclement weather, and round-the-clock operations.

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