When discussing the cockpit of aircraft, a canopy refers to a type of transparent enclosure that may be present on various models. Depending on the type of window canopy that is present on an aircraft, pilots and passengers may be provided an environment that is controlled and/or pressurized. The main advantage of the canopy is the greater field of view that is provided to the pilot, that of which far surpasses those of traditional flight deck designs. While maximizing the view that a pilot has of their surroundings, the windshield canopy is also specifically designed to promote optimal aerodynamic efficiency as well with reduced drag.
In the early days of aviation, many aircraft were devoid of canopies. As such, pilots often chose to only fly during optimal weather conditions as they would be exposed to the surrounding atmosphere, wind, and weather. Windshields soon began being implemented in World War I, and the gradual advancements made to aircraft speed eventually led to the fully enclosed cockpit and windshield canopy.
When the first canopy designs were introduced, engineers utilized flat glass panels that were secured in a frame with muntins. As the muntins decreased overall visibility and the glass construction was heavy in weight, aircraft soon switched to the acrylic bubble canopy around the World War II era. Boasting lower weight and more visibility, the acrylic bubble canopy continues to support a majority of fighter aircraft to this day.
While the canopy is advantageous for its visibility, it also serves a crucial role in the ejection seat system of high-performance military aircraft. In combat or an emergency, the ejection seat system allows for pilots to quickly evacuate the aircraft by having the seat propelled from the cockpit. For the safety of the pilot, the canopy needs to be removed from the path of ejection. As such, many aircraft with an ejection seat will have explosive charges that send the canopy up and backward during an emergency evacuation so that the wind will carry it away. For increased safety, some aircraft will have failsafe systems to ensure that the pilot can be expelled from the aircraft in the case of a canopy malfunction.
In the modern-day, most window canopy assemblies are manufactured with vacuum forming. With a mold of the canopy, acrylic sheets are secured and heated in an oven to increase the pliability of the materials. As air is removed from the mold, the force of the vacuum will draw the acrylic sheet into the desired shape. Before the window canopy is installed onto a frame, it must be trimmed as necessary. While such methods are the most common, other manufacturers may forgo a mold to save time. However, for batch construction, molds are the best method.
To meet the particular performance requirements and capabilities of certain specialized aircraft, manufacturers may choose to create specific designs. For example, the F-16 fighter features a stealth canopy that reflects radar signals with the addition of various metals and materials. The Malcolm Hood is another example of a specialized canopy, and such designs feature a bulged hood that increases the rear view of the pilot.
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