Think back to literally any time you've sat on a plane as you travel for the holidays. Each time, you've been greeted by an all-too-familiar voice. The PA system hisses to life and you hear, "ladies and gentlemen, ehhh, good morning. Welcome aboard. This is, ehh, your, uhhh, captain speaking..." before the rest of the relevant travel information is droningly rattled off.
It doesn't matter who the pilot is, where you're taking off from, or what the country of destination is — every single one of the 850,000 plus pilots out there take on the exact same speech pattern and pseudo-West Virginian accent.
That's all thanks to one man.
Civilian pilots and co-pilots follow a very thorough script before each flight. This rehearsed speech checks every required box and lets passengers know what to do in any given situation. It's a speech we're all used to hearing by now and, honestly, if we didn't, it'd feel a little weird.
As we all know, plane passengers come from all walks of life — and the airlines must do their best to accommodate everyone. So, pilots are instructed to speak as clearly (and consistently) as possible. Contrary to popular belief, there's no such thing as speaking "without an accent," so pilots do the next best thing, which is to adapt the most "neutral" accent: the Rust Belt or the Upper Midwestern accent.
Not only is this neutral accent easy to understand, it's also comforting. A 2018 study showed that over 50 percent of all passengers have more confidence in a pilot with an Upper Midwestern, Southern Californian, or Great Lakes accents (all notably neutral accents). Passengers have the least amount of confidence in a pilot that speaks with a Texan, New Yorker, or Central Canadian accent (all notably thick accents).
I don't know about you guys but, personally, I'd feel perfectly comfortable if a Texan pilot got on the intercom saying, "a'right y'all. Buckle yer asses in. This gon' be fun."
(Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Daniel Butterfield)
But that accent doesn't explain the slightly staggered speech pattern that pilots use to tell us about the weather conditions waiting for us at our destination. Many recognize that as a nod to the aviation world's biggest badass: Brigadier General Chuck Yeager.
The story of Chuck Yeager reads almost like a comic book superhero. A young aircraft mechanic became one of the first to fly the P-51 Mustang, earned a Bronze Star for saving his navigator after being shot down and captured, was put back in the sky by a direct action from Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Eisenhower, and then went on to achieve "ace-in-a-day" status in the first victory over a jet fighter... And that's all before he became an officer and test pilot and the first man to break the sound barrier.
In addition to his laundry list of notable accomplishments, Chuck Yeager also holds the distinction of being one of the coolest and most admired pilots in history.
There's no denying Yeager was one of the coolest troops ever. The man was taking officially sponsored and Air Force-approved glamour shots in his jets and signing autographs for crying out loud.
(U.S. Air Force Photo)
And there's no denying that Chuck Yeager's middle-of-nowhere, West Virginia accent is stoic and calming. When he speaks, everyone listens. Other military pilots have been imitating his twangy voice ever he was a test pilot and, as his legend grew, more and more pilots took on his accent.
When the 1983 film, The Right Stuff, was released, moviegoers were pulled into his life's story. Audiences watched as he was denied the chance to go into space despite overwhelming qualifications because of a lack of a college degree. Sam Shepard's portrayal of Yeager was so spot-on and captivating that he stole the show, even if Chuck wasn't the main character. Since then, nearly every single aspiring pilot has, consciously or otherwise, started adapting his accent.
But while we're here: let's set the record straight. The long, drawn-out pauses aren't necessarily a "Chuck Yeager" thing. Like all imitations, the characteristics of his speech have been greatly exaggerated over time, but Yeager is undeniably the origin.
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