Plane & Pilot
Sunday, February 1, 2004


The tiny voice in our head sometimes isn’t in our head

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.


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