The people behind the voices in your cockpit

June 5, 2013

Waiting in the lunch line for a meal, Avidyne Corp. Vice President Steve Jacobson found his first voice.

Jacobson, then developing Avidyne’s DFC90 autopilot and other panel-mounted products, was in the market for a particular accent, and overheard Charlotte Mason chatting with friends in a particularly British tone – think “Mary Poppins,” and you’re spot on.  

The accent is easily understood, and stands out from other cockpit chatter, important qualities when the message is “Terrain, pull up!” or “Overspeed.”

“We have to get your attention,” Jacobson said. He got Mason’s attention with a simple request to record her, and soon the finance and accounting specialist was sitting with a microphone, laying down the first tracks for the new generation of avionics systems.

That is often how it works: Being a cockpit voice is not a job one applies for—those companies that use actual human voices generally work with people close at hand.

Iowa art dealer Craig Campbell is another such example. He had already lent his baritone pipes to various video products for Rockwell Collins, usually produced for in-house or customer training products, when he was tapped to sit down in a recording studio with a similar script. Campbell, in a telephone interview, downplayed the significance of being “famous” among pilots (his voice is heard in Beechcraft King Air and a wide range of larger aircraft, including air transport aircraft using Pro Line series avionics).

“There’s so much work that goes into these,” Campbell said. “The little tiny bit of voice work that I do is almost inconsequential. I work for 45 minutes, and then these guys work for months.”

Like Mason, Campbell is not a pilot, and has never even flown in the kind of aircraft that would use the product he contributed to. Nonetheless, he has given these unusual recording sessions careful attention, working to get the inflection just right in a series of increasingly urgent iterations of “Pull up,” and similar messages.

Geoff Shapiro, a senior systems engineer in Rockwell’s Advanced Technology Center, said the criteria are simple:

“What we’re looking for in a voice is one that stands out and commands attention,” Shapiro said. In Rockwell’s case, that often means a baritone like Campbell’s. While Avidyne is focused on the U.S. market, Rockwell Collins has international customers who request specific qualities—including, in some cases, a male voice, rather than a female voice, for “cultural” reasons.

“I think, generally speaking, it’s best if you can have the accent match the type of people that are flying,” Shapiro said, noting the company has done some research on the topic. “You can never make the system scream at you. That creates panic.”

In that respect, both Shapiro and Jacobson are on the same page.

Garmin takes a different approach: A company spokesman said the voices behind the aural alerts generated by all Garmin products are computer synthesized. Jacobson, whose wife helped recruit British native and Boston-area resident Samantha Hobson, a town planner by trade who uses the same gym as Jacobson’s wife, said there is another reason to use real people rather than machines.

Avidyne Vice President Steve Jacobson“Because we can, and because it’s fun … It’s fun to actually use a real human,” Jacobson said. “And we can get a real human to tweak their voice to achieve some of the characteristics that we’re seeking.”

Rounding out the trio of women whose recorded voices are programmed into Avidyne products, René Bergeron is something of an outlier: She is an American. Bergeron works as a graphic designer, and does professional video voiceover work on the side. Her brother is an Avidyne engineer, and was inspired by listening to her work in that field to introduce her to Jacobson. Bergeron, who also lives in the Boston area, said she got a kick out of the ensuing gig, certainly not your run-of-the-mill voice job. She comes from a family of pilots (her late father hitchhiked to a nearby airport as a teen to work the line in exchange for flight lessons, and learned to fly before he learned to drive) who were tickled by her starring role in instrument panels.

“They always joke about the ‘bitchin’ Betty,’” Bergeron said in a telephone interview with AOPA Live, easily slipping in and out of the “Mary Poppins” accent she had practiced since childhood simply because she likes the sound. “I told my older brother, ‘I’m going to be the new ‘bitchin’ Betty.’ He didn’t stop laughing for 20 minutes.”

Rene Bergeron recorded Avidyne voice alertsLevity aside, all of those who provide the voices agreed it is serious business, saving lives when the time comes, even if some may not always understand the context or true importance of messages like “Overbank.” Bergeron said she imagines herself as a British teacher, someone who can be trusted to give instruction and be quickly understood.

Jacobson said voices play an important role that would not be served by another set of bells, sirens, or beeps: There are so many of those in the cockpit already, he said, that a truly urgent message like “Terrain ahead” needs to be delivered in voice form, or risk having the pilot lose precious fractions of a second trying to process an abstract sound, decide its meaning, and then decide how to act. When the voice says “Pull up,” the solution is obvious.

It is a lesson he learned, in part, as a U.S. Air Force pilot, called on in the 1990s to help refine avionics for the A-10 Thunderbolt II. During a post-test debriefing, then Capt. Jacobson was asked about the new voice programmed into the Lockheed Martin system, and suggested to the senior officers that it might be replaced—it reminded him of fingers screeching across a chalkboard, annoying to say the least. Asked to suggest a replacement, Jacobson fired from the top of his head: “Kathleen Turner.”

Little did he know, one of the senior officers had a contact, and soon the actress famous for various film, television, and stage roles, was lending her husky pipes to the ground attack mission. Jacobson would later recruit her personally for an Avidyne project, though Turner’s voice never made it to the cockpit.

While avionics makers occasionally hear complaints—or praise—from pilots about the voices now in use, they do not take special requests for novelty voices similar to those available for the automotive GPS industry. Don’t expect Darth Vader or President Barack Obama to come booming into your headset any time soon.

“So far we haven’t had too much of a request to do that,” Shaprio said.