How bleeding edge tech keeps Eurofighter Typhoon in the air

Chief test pilot talks stability, weaponry and more

Mark Bowman

TechRadar is - clearly - not a military website despite having "radar" in the title. Nevertheless, we jumped when we were given the chance to talk to Mark Bowman.

He's the BAE Systems chief test pilot, which has got to be one of the coolest jobs in the world.

The Eurofighter Typhoon is at the forefront of technology – capable of reaching supersonic speeds in less than 30 seconds. It's got interchangeable parts – the 13 "hardpoints" enable different weapon configurations to be added.

The most recent innovation on the Typhoon is a head-tracking system, which follows the pilot's gaze to lock onto targets and deploy weapons. We grilled Mark on this and the other components that make the Typhoon the cutting-edge piece of kit that it is.

TechRadar: Can you give us some background on the Eurofighter Typhoon?

Mark Bowman: It's a fourth-generation combat aircraft, pretty cutting edge in most areas. It brings together what would have been squadrons of aircraft in the past in an aircraft that is multi-role. It can perform both air-to-air and air-to-ground tasks, and it's got 13 hardpoints.

It packs in the latest cutting-edge technology – including the helmet-mounted display and very advanced sensors – we're not just talking about weapons here, we're talking about radars, infrared search and track systems and defensive aids. It's absolutely potent, and an aircraft where we can expect to multiply many times the capabilities of early-generation aircraft.

TR: What's the most crucial piece of technology in the Typhoon?

Mark Bowman: All the displays we present to the pilot have to be put in such a way that we can take all that information, process it and present it to him in something he can assimilate quite simply, so he can spend most of his time concentrating on the mission.

Now we're getting the pilot even more involved in the weapons system through things like the helmet-mounted display, which essentially says: "If I know where the pilot's head is at any one time, then I can use that information to steer sensors, to steer weapons, to actually control the aircraft".

We also use voice control, which is another high-end technology. We can talk to the aircraft.

Mark bowman

TR: Does the pilot still have a very fixed role in the plane?

Mark Bowman: At the end of the day, you've still got a prop, you've still got a stick, you've still got that interface with the aircraft. But the aircraft is clever enough to say you're approaching a limit – maybe a high-speed limit, maybe a G-limit, maybe a roll limit. It knows those limits, and it provides information to the pilot to do something about it. Ultimately, the pilot is still the arbiter of good taste and judgement, and we have to give him the information he needs to make both tactical and operational decisions.

TR: What happens if all the automation fails?

Mark Bowman: The safety of the pilot is paramount. However, we're looking at a very unstable aircraft here, it's very aerodynamically unstable. That's controlled by four flight computers – it's a quadruplex redundant system in some areas, and in others it's hexaplex redundant, in terms of things like data. As such, if all that failed, the aircraft is aerodynamically unstable, and as such it wouldn't be able to maintain a controlled flight.

TR: How has the Eurofighter Typhoon changed since you started working with it?

Mark Bowman: When the UK tax payer is spending so much money on technology, there's absolutely no point in buying something that lasts a couple of years. These aircraft are going to be around for 30 or 40 years – maybe longer.

You have to future-proof it to enable technology to go in, to put new weapons in as interfaces develop between the aircraft and the weapons that it carries, and constantly being able to upgrade the aircraft in terms of technology.

The aircraft has been in service since 2004, we've gone through its infancy, and now we're in its adolescence. There's so much more to come in this aircraft, and that's a real testament to the way the aircraft's been designed, and the real future-proofing that goes into such a high-end aircraft.

TR: What's coming up next for the Typhoon?

Mark Bowman: We're not standing still here – there are new weapons coming along. The UK has purchased a new, extra long-range air-to-air missile, called Meteor, which is being integrated on the aircraft. We've got new smart multi-seeker bombs going on there, which use GPS as well as laser guidance. As the weapons are upgraded, the aircraft's there to match it.

TR: How do you simulate such a complex piece of kit?

Mark Bowman: We've got two types of simulators. One emulates the flight dynamics of the aircraft. As I mentioned before, the aircraft is unstable, and we need some pretty good confidence that before we fly it we've got the flight dynamics properly modelled, and we've got the control system simulator to do that.

On the cockpit side, the interface the pilot has with the weapons systems is constantly being upgraded, and we use an active cockpit rig which allows us to simulate all the connectivity between the various sensors and the pilot and develop those as well.

Mark bowman

TR: A lot of consumer technology – from radio to GPS – has come from a military background. Is there anything you're using at at the moment that you could see coming into civilians' lives?

Mark Bowman: In the future, I think you'll be looking at a human usage aspect, the interface between the human and the technology. Where I'd be looking – and I'm only speaking as the monkey with the stick and the rudders – is the automotive industry. We've already seen where voice is used there, and I think it's going to be exploited an awful lot more.

The helmet I use at the moment, and the ability to track where the pilot's head is, and a displacement surface, so you can put imagery on there – you may want that in the civil aviation industry, or you may want it in the automotive industry, to put images in front of the pilot, or the driver.

TR: We're seeing more and more reports of "drones" carrying out military operations. Do you think there's always going to be a role for the pilot in combat?

Mark Bowman: I think there is going to be a growth of unmanned aircraft in the future, and I think the piloting side is going to be complementary to that, in terms of the roles conducted. Those roles where you need persistence – being in the battle area for a long time, doing repetitive surveillance type work – are going to lend themselves more and more to pilotless aircraft, where human fatigue is an issue.

Instances where it's a highly dynamic situation, where ultimately a lot of tactical information is being sifted through, are going to be better suited to manned aircraft. It may be supported in terms of firepower and what-have-you by unmanned aircraft, but ultimately there's going to be manned aircraft in there.

The thing not to forget here is the ethics side of it – if you're conducting wars there needs to be a human face behind it, and I think it's quite important that manned aircraft are seen as the arbiter of whether stores are released, or whether they're not. Being there, and having eyes on the target, is massively important.

I can never foresee that we're going to be in a position to say, "sorry, that's the end of manned aircraft." I think we tried it in the 1950s and failed miserably – I don't really see that the situation's changed.

TR: You obviously don't want civilians being injured or killed during war – is this something you consider when you're building the plane?

Mark Bowman: It's not particular to Typhoon or anything – the ability to limit collateral damage is very much at the forefront of how aircraft weapons systems are developed, and Typhoon is concerned not only with the safety of the pilot who's flying it, but the safety in which ordinance is delivered and targeted.

Article continues below