Think back to the last time you were on an airplane — can you remember your pilot’s voice? Chances are your stock of memories when it comes to in-flight announcements builds a picture of a uniform tone from the cockpit. But that standard, recognisable pilot voice isn’t an accident, and it’s reciting the announcement script with that classic intonation on purpose.
Most theories about the tone of pilots’ voices attribute that uniformity to one man: a twangy pilot from the Appalachian region of the United States, in the West Virginian mountains, named Chuck Yeager.
Flashback to 1947, and after serving as a fighter ace in World War II, Yeager transitioned to test piloting for the United States Air Force.
Yeager joined the jet age in its earliest stages, and was responsible for leading Air Force fighter squadrons on test missions over countries like Korea and Vietnam.
Yeager’s most famous accomplishment took place on October 14, 1947, when he was the first pilot to officially break the sound barrier.
His flight speed accomplishment will be forever remembered in the jet industry. Breaking the sound barrier for the first time created a sonic boom that no one had ever experienced before, and opened the door to a whole new world of flight innovation.
(For the record, Yaeger did it with a few broken ribs.)
Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel The Right Stuff examines Yeager’s status as one of the best pilots of the age, and pairs his successes alongside the pioneering pilots who were eventually selected for NASA’s Project Mercury astronaut program.
Wolfe wrote specifically of “the voice of the airline pilot“ in his book, saying Yeager’s speech pattern was emulated by individual pilots without any explicit instruction to do so. The cool, collected, twangy speech pattern that was Yeager’s trademark became a subconscious if institutionalised part of pilot communications as a tribute to the great man.
With a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself… Military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.
For many American air travellers and those who fly often across the United States, this particular standard of communication from the cockpit is an important, subconscious part of in-flight psychology. The familiarity and relaxed, in-charge tone of a pilot who is unconcerned by turbulence that might otherwise terrify is crucial in keeping passengers calm and in their seats.
Yeager never made it to space, but The Right Stuff was made into a movie in 1983 and Yeager received his own nods of acknowledgment. Many who considered it a miracle Yeager had survived breaking the sound barrier were also surprised and disappointed he wasn’t selected as a NASA astronaut.