The sweet sound of silence

December 1, 1999

Like all good, useful inventions, the aviation intercom has its drawbacks. In an ironic twist, the intercom's chief disadvantage also is its primary purpose. When used in combination with noise-attenuating headsets, the intercom allows the pilot to listen to and converse with passengers. So what's the problem? Simply this: If earthly silence is golden, in the air it can attain platinum status.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy a good mile-high conversation, but usually when someone else is flying. When I'm in the left seat, I find that I appreciate the spaces between the words.

I have a suspicion that lots of pilots tend toward this hermit-like behavior when they fly, even though they may not be aware of it. It's not so much a desire to be physically alone in the cockpit as it is a subconscious wish to be left alone with your thoughts.

A cockpit conversation can be especially difficult to sustain if you are flying with someone you work with or for, or someone who works for you. With the possible exception of office gossip, workplace issues are out of place in a small-airplane cockpit. Company strategy, new initiatives, employee and product assessments — these and other boardroom subjects just don't belong in the intimate, four-foot-wide world of the general aviation pilot.

I'm guilty of sitting in the right seat and ambushing a couple of pilot-bosses by asking questions carefully engineered to get a discussion going about work. In every case the conversation has died on the vine. It took several such episodes, but I finally realized that the office is not a pilot's topic of choice.

It's different for professional pilots who fly constantly and with at least one other required crewmember. Talking is expected, even if it's limited to necessary stuff such as reviewing checklists. It goes far beyond that, however. If your office is the cockpit, casual conversation is more fitting and more welcome, especially when the topic is office politics.

Most general aviation pilots fly fewer hours than professional pilots do, and when they fly, they are likely to be alone in the cockpit. If that's what you're used to — if you're comfortable hearing only the sound of your voice as a side tone in the headset when you use the communications transceiver — then carrying on a conversion with someone sitting next to you in the airplane may seem like an intrusion that requires too much concentration.

A passenger might observe that there's little for the pilot to do in an airplane after takeoff and before landing, and therefore there's plenty of free time in which to gab. What the passenger doesn't see — or misinterprets as a sort of bored detachment — is the concentration that the pilot applies to monitoring the flight and staying ahead of the airplane from beginning to end. When there's but one member of the crew, there's but one person responsible for the flight, and that responsibility weighs heavily.

Talking is distracting to the task of flying. It's no different than talking on a cell phone while driving in a car. Most of us do a lot better at the talking part than the driving part. Driving, flying, and talking are mostly mental activities, and we humans don't seem to have enough brain power to adequately handle more than one mental task at a time.

There's another reason why casual conversation doesn't always flow freely at altitude. Despite the concentration required, or maybe because of it, flying feels like a mental and emotional break from everyday life. A long solo cross-country flight is an exhausting experience even though it involves very little physical effort. Flying may be wearying, but it's also energizing and exhilarating. It recharges the batteries. How else do we explain the urge to get back in the airplane after a rest and do it all over again?

Flying has its own runner's high, an extended endorphin rush that leaves us asking for more. And like running, the pleasure of flying is highly personal. Runners love running, but they're not particularly exciting to watch. So it is with flying a light aircraft and riding in one as a passenger.

I'll leave the poetic explanation of what it means to be alone in an airplane to a pilot who once flew for 33 hours, 30 minutes, and 29.8 seconds with no one to talk to but himself. This is what he said:

"I may be flying a complicated airplane, rushing through space, but in this cabin I'm surrounded by simplicity and thoughts set free of time," Charles Lindbergh wrote in The Spirit of St. Louis.

"How detached the intimate things around me seem from the great world down below. How strange is this combination of proximity and separation. That ground — seconds away — thousands of miles away. This air, stirring mildly around me. That air, rushing by with the speed of a tornado, an inch beyond. These minute details in my cockpit. The grandeur of the world outside. The nearness of death. The longness of life."

Now that is a conversation worth having.