At first, I wasn’t certain I had heard it. It was a faraway voice, not quite a whisper, and my headset killed the engine noise just enough that I could tell it was there. Had I imagined it? Was I actually hearing it, or was my own mind talking to me and making it sound as if it was coming through my headset?
As I rocketed around the pattern with a student, I heard the voice occasionally, but it increased steadily until it was a very subtle background noise. The first few times, it was so faint that I just ignored it. Then, as the hour wore on and the voice kept whispering in the background, I decided it must be frequency bleed: Someone was talking on another frequency and it was bleeding over to this one. Just great! Now the radio had to go in and get checked.
Finally, as the power was reduced on the downwind for landing, I pushed the David Clarks tight to my head in an attempt at understanding what was being said on the other frequency.
“ Okay, okay, hold it…center the ball, left rudder. Damnit! He said 90…slow it down. Turn. Watch the nose attitude…feel your butt, dummy…easy…..easy…be gentle.”
Mystery solved. It was my student talking to himself.
At first, I was amazed. He was muttering quietly, yet even amidst the cacophony that’s my airplane’s cockpit, the new intercom I had just installed was sensitive enough to pick it up. Then, I was amused: He was beating himself up much worse than I’d have. Now, I began to worry: I was afraid the intensity of his effort would begin to work against him, which is often the case—try too hard, slip downhill.
The little voice was my constant companion during the hours I flew with this student and I became aware that it gave me a rare glimpse inside a student’s head while learning was in progress. I remember a high-school science class, where my teacher explained the way scientists initially learned how the stomach worked. While treating a wound during some ancient war, a physician fashioned a skin flap over a portal to a soldier’s stomach and periodically peeked in to see what was going on. That’s what was happening to me—I had a little periscope poked inside this student’s thought processes, courtesy of his vocalizing every thought.
Initially, there was guilt attached to my eavesdropping. I’m not certain we’re supposed to know that much about how another person thinks. After all, if our own thoughts aren’t sacrosanct, where do the limits of privacy lie?
I was in the midst of this internal argument about the ethics of eavesdropping when I took over the controls to demonstrate something on a landing. Almost immediately, for reasons known only to the great gods of flight instructing, I began to screw up. The line wasn’t perfect and I was having a terrible time putting the airplane where I wanted it. Damnit, Budd. What the hell are you doing? You’re better than this. How is the student going to learn if you can’t even do it? Now, get back on line and stop goofing off.
I was wrestling the airplane back into position when the student said, this time in a clear voice, “Hey, Budd, don’t be so hard on yourself. No one is perfect!”
I replied, “What do you mean?”
He said, “Well, you were really swearing at yourself back there.”
I laughed, even though I was a little embarrassed. The voice I had thought was in my head chastising me wasn’t in my head. I had said it all out loud, apparently in a very frustrated, angry voice. Perfect! I wondered how long I had been talking out loud and how many students had heard my own private thoughts spilling out over the intercom. We had arrived at a point where our inadvertent eavesdropping on each other had become some sort of telepathic connection, except it was done out loud and we really didn’t mean for it to happen.
After that incident, I began to notice that I talk to myself a lot. I’ll be working in the office and I’ll hear my own voice say, “That was really dumb,” or one that I seem to say a lot, “And now for my next stupid people trick.”
Then Marlene pointed out that I seldom sing in the shower anymore (traditionally, it had been a regular concert hall). Instead, I hold these long-winded debates with myself about what I’ve done right or wrong, or the merits of a new idea.
Now, I’m getting worried. I used to spend a lot of time in New York City and I’d always see this one old guy standing on a street corner pontificating to no one in particular. He was determined to make a point, even though no one was listening.
A few years from now, are people going to be talking about the old CFI seen pushing a shopping cart full of thumb-worn AIMs and av-mags around the airport while he blathers on about keeping the ball centered and watching the nose attitude? I hope not. But if it comes to that, just pat me on the head and make sure I know where the restroom is. And ask me to sign your logbook from time to time to complete the image.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.AirBum.com.