The Voice of the F-18 Is Female, Southern—and Not a Professional
Tyler Rogoway’s article “The Distinct Voice of the F/A-18 Hornet’s ‘Bitchin’ Betty’ Warning System Is Retiring,” on the Web site Foxtrot Alpha, prompted a lot of discussion among speech scientists and voice user interface designers, much of it along these lines: How could a professional voice not be used for such an important function? The idea that the manufacturer (at that time McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing) would skimp on the voice component for such an important part of a safety system for pilots was surprising. Was it really all about keeping costs down?
According to various articles, the company tried a professional voice talent but did not like the results. Leslie Shook was working as the sound engineer during the recording session and was asked to take on the task. The result was a voice that was eventually heard in jet fighter simulators and cockpits around the globe.
Shook was not a professional voice talent; when you listen to Shook’s NPR interview and watch the videos, you notice that her voice had a definite southern drawl. So what was the manufacturer’s thinking behind using her voice, and how well did it work? After all, that is the final test: Did her voice work, and were the users (the pilots) happy with it?
That said, I was more than willing to join those who were shocked that a company would “go cheap” for such an important function. Why try to lower the cost of such a small part of a multimillion-dollar airplane? To gather intel, I interviewed a pilot, Commander David Shuster, who has served in the Navy for 18 years and flew F-18s for more than a decade. When I texted him to see if he would discuss the voice with me, he said he’d love to, as he “knew her well.”
According to Shuster, the voice was originally referred to as “Trailer Trash Tammy” due to the thick southern drawl. The calmness of her voice, though, along with the accent, resulted in a positive experience. The voice should not be jolting, the commander reminded me; there are “no fast hands in the cockpit.” There is always time to react to a situation by hearing, seeing, and doing.
The voice calmly spoke warning phrases twice and got the pilots’ attention, as it was a unique voice in the male-oriented field of fighter pilots, where most of the radio communication consists of male voices. “Her voice drew attention to an issue,” he says. “Once heard, the pilot reacts by checking the lights in the cockpit and responding to the situation. For example, she may say ‘Engine fire left, Engine fire left.’ The pilot would then see the warning light and start the fire extinguisher system to put the fire out.”
The commander’s only complaint about the voice is that after it was rerecorded, in 2004 or so, the cadence, tone, and pitch were different—the voice was faster and a bit shriller. He says that pilots felt she sounded a bit “obnoxious”; hence, she was renamed “Bitchin’ Betty.”
But Shuster stands by the manufacturer’s decision to go with Shook’s voice; he says he is 100 percent behind any cost savings involved in a voice system like this one. Pilots don’t think about whether the voice was professionally recorded, he says, so long as it gets the point across. “If they used someone that they were already paying, more power to them. Isn’t this the best use of taxpayer money?” Shuster says. “I’d rather they spend the money on weapons or safety systems, not the voice. There are about a thousand things on the airplane that I’d prefer they spent the money on—like the stuff that keeps me safe and the weapons that we use. This is a closed system. Just give me the info, that’s all I need.”
I had to rethink my initial reaction to the idea of “going cheap”; I realized that what we designers and speech scientists think about an overall system may not always be what is in the best interest of the end user. Each situation is unique, and as Shuster notes, the voice of the F-18 was just perfect for what was required. In this case, cutting costs and getting the job done went hand in hand.
Vicki Broman is the manager of the voice user interface (VUI) design team at eLoyalty, part of the Customer Technology Services division at Teletech.
Female and male voices are perceived differently, even when they use the same exact words