A pox on VOX

May 1, 2003

Mark R. Twombly co-owns a Piper Twin Comanche that is sometimes based in Florida.

My son tapped me on the shoulder, signaling that he and his back-seat buddy wanted to be piped into the intercom system again. I didn't know if they wanted to talk or listen. Come to think of it, 14-year-old boys don't listen.

I reached over to flip down the tiny intercom system toggle switch that would change the setting from the Crew position to All, allowing all four of us aboard the Twin Comanche to talk amongst ourselves. But just then the airplane bounced through a vertical gust, and my finger bounced from the intercom switch over to the adjacent Avionics Power switch. Actually, it was more of an over and down movement, down being the Avionics Power switch's Off position.

The panel instantly went dark and silent. This might not be a particularly good thing, seeing as how I was on an IFR flight plan squawking a discrete transponder code and following a heading assigned by the Miami Center air traffic controller with whom I had been communicating.

But hey, these things happen. At least I was in visual meteorological conditions (mostly; we were burrowing through a lumpy field of midday thermaling cums). Besides, it would take just a few seconds for the avionics to power back up. The controller probably wouldn't even notice the momentary disappearance of the data block that was us on his scope.

I flipped the avionics power switch back to the On position, and just as quickly as things had gone dark the panel came back to life again. Various communications, navigation, and engine monitoring displays burst into green and amber brilliance and began cycling through test and booting-up sequences. An electronic tone — the autopilot disconnect warning — beeped insistently until I silenced it with the touch of a button on the control yoke. Needles and dials jumped and jived from the sudden, invigorating flow of electrons. The controller finished the sentence he had begun while we were away (not to us). And I moved my hand slightly to the right and successfully selected the All position on the intercom switch.

"Whoops," I chuckled to my passengers with a tinge of embarrassment. "I accidentally switched the avionics off." I stole a glance at my wife in the right seat next to me. Her deer-in-the-headlights look told me that I had blown it. Not by accidentally turning off the avionics. That was a semi-innocent mistake. No, my big mistake was telling her about it.

I should have known. She is, shall we say, an unenthusiastic passenger. It has nothing to do with our small airplane, nor her personal pilot. She feels just as unenthusiastic about flying the airlines. The problem is her tummy, which does not take kindly to transportation situations in which she is not in the driver's seat.

Concern about not feeling well creates anxiety, which bubbles up long before takeoff. The anxiety in turn stimulates the imagination in an unpleasant way. The glass is not only half-empty, it's cracked and water is leaking out at an alarming rate. When someone is in that frame of mind, it's easy to believe that what can go wrong, will go wrong. Like the avionics ceasing to function.

What I regarded as a momentary and ultimately harmless interruption was seen by her as a frightening problem. Turned the avionics off? What does that mean? How could that possibly happen? Don't they idiot-proof these things? Can the airplane still fly? Can we talk on the radio? How will we find our way home? What about those clouds ahead? How did I get myself into this?

She said none of those things — said nothing, in fact — but I could see she was thinking along those lines.

Intercom systems and headsets are wonderful additions to the light-airplane cockpit. They bring peace and relative quiet to a noisy environment. They lessen the fatigue of a long flight. They allow people to converse and listen to communications or even music.

My wife wears a headset plugged into the intercom system because it's preferable to silence. Silence is a vacuum that an active imagination will rush to fill. Outrageous thoughts grow and prosper in the fertile soil of silence, and an intercom system and a headset are effective control agents. By wearing a headset and listening to the chatter on the air traffic control frequencies, my wife also can monitor the progress of the flight. For an unenthusiastic passenger, knowing what is going on is preferable to imagining what is going on.

I get into trouble with an intercom system because I sometimes talk to myself when flying, especially when something a little out of the ordinary occurs or I'm upset. The problem with a voice-activated (VOX) intercom system is that it puts everyone on a party line. It's an open mic. Karaoke with altitude. If you say it, they will hear.

Later she informed me, in her gentle way, that when flying she hears things differently than I do. I already knew to try to avoid blurting out the two things passengers do not want to hear from their pilot — "Whoops!" and "What was that?" Her list of off-limits comments is much longer. From now on, if I have anything to say to myself, I'll try to keep it to myself.