Side Stick or Yoke. Which one is Better?

Before the A320 series was introduced, the cockpit of every aircraft had a central yoke. The yoke was the main device used by pilots to operate to maneuver the aircraft through flight. The yoke was the industry standard for a very long period and was used on many types of aircraft, including piston, turboprops and 747s.

The Side Stick is Born

But in 1985, Airbus made the decision to transform commercial aviation by switching the A320's central yoke out for a side stick. Up until that point, fighter planes were the only ones with side sticks. Along with the new "fly-by-wire" system, which replaced manual with computer-based controls, Airbus decided to add the side stick to all A320’s in production.

The change was also made for business purposes. Airbus was looking for a strategy to undermine the 737's dominance of the narrowbody market. Airbus was able to set itself apart from the competition by giving airlines the A320, which needed to be fundamentally different from the 737.

As a result of pilot adoption for this new style, Airbus started using the side stick on all of their future aircraft.   You can see this design today on almost all Airbus aircraft in the sky. Airbus used the extra room created by the removal of the bigger yoke to design a new cockpit centered on computers and screens. Recently, the company has taken steps to implement a touchscreen cockpit, completely eliminating the need for manual switches.

The Yoke is no Joke.

The truth is, Boeing actually explored adopting a side stick as early as 1967 with the first 737 airplane. Due to design factors and worries that the change would be too radical for current pilots, it decided against adopting it into future production.

Boeing did not abandon the classic yoke, even though Airbus did. All Boeing airplanes still have a central yoke and many other cutting-edge technological features. This is due to a few factors.

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Yoke from 737 NG

Given the popularity of the 737 and 747, it only made sense for Boeing to stick with the same cockpit layout. This is not to say that Boeing has not used the more recent "fly-by-wire" technology. Boeing first used the “fly-by-wire” technology on the 777 and it was improved upon in the 787 and 747-8. Because of this, perhaps Boeing does not feel the need to depart from the yoke. As long as Boeing continues to keep developing new technologies, the question is not which control input is the best; rather, what combination of technology will reduce pilot workload and ensure safety. For example, the 777x, Boeing’s newest aircraft, keeps the yoke but added a cutting-edge touchscreen flight deck.

Due to its design for requiring little conversion training, the 777x combat deck is quite comparable to the 777 and 787. The prominent characteristics include conventional heads-up display and completely customizable dual pilot displays. One of the bigger changes can be seen with the wingtip controls that are controlled by a switch. This feature, which resembles a wingtip, is located on the top panel.

Which one is Better?

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Boeing Cockpit

While reading this, your initial thought could be, "Which of these systems is better?" Both Airbus and Boeing provide convincing justifications for why their solutions are superior. But the response is convoluted (and differs depending on who you ask).

The side that supports Airbus is adamant that the side stick gives pilots a considerably more comfortable flying experience and guarantees that they stay within safe limits. With greater room and a free hand, the side stick also makes operating the variety of computers and systems much simpler. The side stick also symbolizes the subsequent advancement in flying technology, paving the way for more improvements.

The yoke, which enables an override in emergency situations, is a crucial instrument, according to the pro-Boeing side, for controlling the aircraft in emergencies. Additionally, the side maintains that the yoke design preserves cooperation between the pilot and co-pilot as well as more general flying abilities. Finally, since technology can allow Boeing to implement controls attached to the yoke therefore, there is no incentive to modify this aspect of flying history.

The same opinion is expressed while chatting with pilots. Depending on the aircraft, some claim the yoke provides superior control while others claim the side stick's comfort is unmatched.

As a pilot and someone who has flown both systems on smaller aircraft, I can say that there are advantages to both. I learned on a yoke but eventually started to fly a more modern aircraft with a side stick. The side stick felt more intuitive, and I felt like there wasn’t something in the way when I would be flying. It seemed also easier to get into the pilot seat.

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Cessna TTX Cockpit

After a couple of years, I upgraded to a larger plane that had a yoke. Initially, I thought that I was not going to enjoy flying something with a yoke again. My fears however were unfounded as I found that the yoke worked just as well as the side still and was very comfortable too. It is natural to have the yoke at the position it is, and it allows the pilot to use his/her right hand if needing to pull a breaker or operate something on the left side of the plane.

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Pilatus PC 12 Cockpit

Which is better is a difficult topic to answer because Airbus and Boeing have different design philosophies.

Does the Yoke vs. Side Stick have any responsibility for accidents?

It's critical to consider how side sticks and yokes perform in practical situations when analyzing these technologies. Even though aviation is at its safest point ever, both of these technologies have occasionally come under fire.

After Air France Flight 447 crashed, the side stick technology was carefully examined. After the flight crew struggled with the side stick and lost control of the autopilot, the Airbus A330 crashed into the Atlantic. The plane entered a stall as both pilots attempted to use the side stick simultaneously, canceling out each other's movements.

Many people criticized the side stick design following the crash because it failed to take the opposing pilot's actions into consideration. While in a yoke configuration, the movements of one pilot are also replicated on the other yoke. Others, however, attribute the occurrence to the flight crew's response rather than a flaw in the system.

Critics of the yoke design use the 737 MAX as an example. The 737 family's older architecture means that it lacks many of the modern features seen on more recent aircraft. For instance, the majority of the principal controls on the 737 MAX do not employ the "fly-by-wire" system. Newer flight deck features were omitted in Boeing's first effort to build the aircraft similarly to the 737 NG in order to avoid requiring pilot retraining. This may not be a complaint about the yoke per se, but it does give the impression that it is an antiquated piece of equipment.

The flight deck configuration of the 737 MAX 10 is substantially the same as the rest of the MAX family. The 737 MAX 10's primary distinction is an additional display for flight/airport maps, which is now undergoing testing.

Ultimately, the degree of automation in the flight deck is a separate approach taken by both Boeing and Airbus. This then corresponds to the amount of flight experience the pilots have in the aircraft, which has both benefits and drawbacks. Airbus is unlikely to ever return to the yoke, but will Boeing change course? I am sure within the following few decades, we'll learn more.