Music to My Ears

Save the technobabble and give me a comfortable headset that cuts down on noise!

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||| |---|---| | | | According to the Pilot Communications Company, the PA 17-79 DNC XL is a pretty special unit. It offers 18-22 dB DNC and a maximum ambient noise level of 120 dB SPL at 100 Hz, in a bi-directional polar pattern, in addition to an EVI circuit with a 2-4 dB gain at 500-1000 MHz-with only an 8-16 VDC requirement.

I have no idea exactly what that all means, of course, but I think it's supposed to impress me. At least the folks at Pilot headsets must have thought it would, or they wouldn't have displayed all that technoscrabble so prominently throughout the PA 17-79's brochure.

I actually have several of these high-tech headset brochures scattered across my office floor at the moment. I had tried out a few different headsets recently, and I was trying to form an intelligent, informed opinion about their various merits and problems. I diligently poured over dB levels of active noise reduction, frequency modulation ranges, power requirements, pressure ports and other whiz-bang qualities that were supposed to set the different designs apart until I got a headache worse than any headset itself ever gave me.

I finally tossed all the pages on the floor and walked out to get an aspirin, muttering some rather discouraging words about my interest in dBs, SPLs, EVIs or any other techo-alphabet details. I was halfway to the medicine cabinet before the significance of my words sunk in. I went back into my office, took another look at the fact sheets strewn across my floor and came to the profound and stirring revelation that while the headset manufacturers of America may know a lot about designing ear protection, they don't know the first thing about marketing it.

I remember my first headset purchase, you see. And it had nothing to do with decibel levels or hearing protection. It had to do with saving my relationship with my copilot.

It was back in 1987, and my friend Jim was trying to teach me how to fly the Cessna 120 taildragger we had just bought together. I was a brand-new pilot with 80 whole hours in my logbook, most of which had been accumulated in a very forgiving nosewheel Cherokee Warrior. Jim was a seasoned tailwheel pilot who was convinced he could teach anyone to fly something as simple as a Cessna 120. Even the woman he was dating.

"Nah," he replied confidently, in response to my questions about headsets and intercoms. "We don't need anything like that. We won't really be talking to controllers, anyway." Well, he did have a point. In the rural skies of Indiana, you could go a long way before having to talk to anyone. And the $5,000 we had paid for the Cessna had already left a pretty big dent in both of our meager bank accounts. So I reluctantly acquiesced.

Rule Number One: Never...and I mean NEVER...attempt to teach your girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse or significant other how to operate ANY piece of machinery, let alone a tailwheel airplane.

Rule Number Two: If you are so foolish as to ignore Rule Number One, do NOT, under any circumstances, attempt to do so without the use of a headset.

Jim and I would circle around in the pattern as he tried to instruct and I tried to ask questions over the reverberating, aluminum-amplified noise of the Cessna's Continental C-85 engine. Unfortunately, that task required a vocal force just under what you might use to be heard over a rivet gun in an aluminum hangar.

"Don't yell at me!" I'd yell at him after he'd critiqued my last landing in loud, measured tones.

"I'm not yelling!" he'd yell back.

"YES, YOU ARE!"

And so it went. From bad, to worse, and downhill from there. We'd fly for an hour and not speak to each other for two or more after that.

Just when I'd almost decided that our relationship was unalterably doomed, a couple in a pretty little black-and-white Cessna 150 flew into our airport one day. A woman climbed out of the left seat, which was an unusual enough occurrence around those parts that I decided to go over and introduce myself to her. Her name was Pat, and we chatted for a few minutes before she introduced me to her husband. As I complimented them on the appearance of their airplane, I peeked inside the window and saw a pair of headsets resting neatly on the seats.

"You have headsets!" I exclaimed, my curiosity piqued. "What do you think of them?"

Pat gave me long, measured look before answering.

"Well I'll tell you," she said. "It was either that or a divorce, and we figured the headsets were cheaper."

That day began my search for a headset and intercom system for the 120. The Sigtronics set we finally bought was the greatest thing since sliced bread, as far as I was concerned. Not because it had greater dBs of noise cancellation than other brands, but because it was affordable, had an intercom system that didn't have to be mounted in the plane's panel and, most important of all, made it possible for me to get along with my copilot in the air. Those headsets made such a difference, in fact, that a working intercom became a go/no-go item on the preflight checklist, and we always carried a spare 9-volt battery to prevent the true emergency of losing the intercom in mid-flight.

Indeed, the fact that I now make sure I have headsets for my passengers has very little to do with hearing protection and everything to do with the emotional and mental comfort of those who fly with me. More than once, I have thought back guiltily to the first airplane ride I ever gave, to my all-too-trusting buddy and running partner Kirk in Louisville, Kentucky. I had borrowed a headset for myself, but I couldn't get a working headset for him to use. I didn't really think it was a problem, however...until I banked into the pattern and he grabbed frantically for the up-wing door. It took me a little while to realize that the most important communication in the cockpit has nothing to do with air traffic controllers. And headsets are an invaluable tool in that process, no matter what their frequency modulation ranges are.

Of course, with all the advances of modern audio equipment, most headsets can now offer other important advantages, as well. These days, since my Cheetah's intercom is also wired for a CD-player sound system, I now have theme music to accompany my various and sundry solo journeys.

On my way across the country last summer, I sang along with the Eagles over Winslow, Arizona, Lyle Lovett over Texas, Lynyrd Skynyrd above Alabama, Jimmy Buffett across the waters of the Florida Keys, and even got the Ramones to help keep me awake across the mind-numbing bleakness of the California deserts. Now, in addition to other important preflight checklist items like "drain fuel," "inspect control surfaces" and "check fuel levels," I have the critical task of selecting appropriate tunes. Is it an Eric Clapton kind of day? Or would I rather sing along with the Indigo Girls?

One worthwhile note regarding any singing along, though. The great thing about headset music systems is that they mute the music any time you or controllers are trying to talk. But that does kind of impact karaoke in the cockpit. It was an embarrassingly long time before I figured out why Joey, Jimmy, Lyle and company kept going away every time I joined in. So. An important user tip on that singing along with the stars bit...move the mic away from your mouth, first.

As for decibel levels, frequency modulation ranges, and other items sure to interest only the most technical of audiophiles...I'm sure that they're all great and wonderful things. But my headset choice, I'm afraid, will still come down to more basic concerns. Give me a headset that cuts down the noise and lets me fly comfortably even with sunglasses and earrings on, and I'm a happy lady.

One day, perhaps, the headset manufacturers will catch on. And instead of dB levels of technicality, we will see headset advertisements that get to the heart of the matter. I'd be willing to wager that headset companies whose ads focused on happy, smiling passengers instead of hardware and featured headlines like "Buy Our Headset, Save Your Marriage," might just find themselves hard-pressed to meet their newfound customer demand.

I, for one, am extremely happy with the lightweight David Clark H10-13.4 headsets I finally bought to go with the Cheetah. Unlike many of the other models I've tried, they don't have any fancy noise canceling or frequency modulation talents. But you know, they do a pretty fair job at cutting down the noise, allow me to communicate with my copilots and passengers in a civilized manner and are lightweight and comfortable enough that I can wear them for four hours-even with earrings and sunglasses on-and still not get a headache.

All that and Lyle Lovett in the cockpit with me, to boot. Now that's what I call a selling point.