Managing Complexity: Exploring the Cockpit of a 1960s F-5 Fighter Jet

The other day, I visited the Western Museum of Flight with my friend, Ed. It’s a tiny, volunteer-run museum next to Zamperini Field in Torrance, California, and it boasts several original prototypes of some iconic fighter jets, which I enjoyed seeing. But the surprising highlight of the visit for me was sitting in the cockpit of an F-5.

I was largely apathetic about the F-5 at first. It’s an older jet (first deployed in the early 1960s), and it was mostly an export and training plane. However, it was the only plane where we got to go into the cockpit, and I had never sat in the cockpit of any fighter jet before.

My first reaction was surprise at how comfortable it was in there. Much better than my office chair! (I need to get a new office chair.)

My second reaction was overwhelm. Take a look at this instrument panel:

Here’s a more dynamic view:

That’s a whole lot of dials and buttons and levers to track, all while flying at the speed of the sound and dogfighting with other fighters. I felt awe and appreciation for the pilots, who somehow were able to monitor all of this complexity in real-time.

After I got over my initial overwhelm, I took a closer look. To my surprise, everything seemed to make sense. Dials and buttons were clearly labeled. Color-coding helped me quickly figure out which buttons I should avoid. The buttons and switches felt good when I pressed and flipped them — not enough resistance to be hard, but enough to feel solid and high-quality. It doesn’t hide the complexity, but it makes it manageable, even enjoyable. Look more closely at the weapons panel on the lower left:

Notice the diagrams and descriptions. Notice the spacing — dense, but comfortable.

When you think about it, of course the inside is well-designed. A jet is a high-performance device, and the pilot’s life literally depends on their ability to process massive amounts of complexity in real-time. Still, I found the design inspiring. I wish all of my dashboards were designed as well.

Here’s a more zoomed out look at what it’s like to sit in the cockpit, along with some additional commentary: