Ear Protection in Open-Cockpit Airplanes

Posted December 2001

 > Do any of you fly open cockpit (Bipes like the Tiger Moth,
> Stearman, etc) What headsets do you use?? The noise up there is a real
> bugger at times.

Hmmmm...sorry, don't have more than an hour or so in open cockpit biplanes. Been flying open cockpit MONOPLANES for the last fifteen years, though. I've posted my experiences regarding headsets, etc. at various times. .

I experienced my lowest sound levels back in (good ol') Fly Baby N500F, using a set of drug-store earplugs. I started wearing them on my third or fourth flight, when I realized that my ears were positively RINGING after I landed.

The plugs weren't the foam kind, they were the contoured rubber variety. The big pluses were that they did a beautiful job of killing the sounds and were of near-zero bulk...I could wear my standard flying helmet without the Mickey-Mouse look of a pair of headsets.

But, more than likely, you're one of these modern pilot-types that want to listen to radios and whatnot. Now, it gets sporty.

You see, during wintertime back in my NORDO Fly Baby days, I wore a set of standard industrial hearing protectors. Not for noise reasons, just to clamp down the edge of the flying helmet so it doesn't scoop in cold air.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon: The noise level was LOUDER with the hearing protectors. The culprit was the low-frequency prop noise; the pulses of the prop blast slapping the cups of the hearing protectors. When I leaned forward, closer to the windshield, the noise level dropped quite a bit.

So lesson #1: Put a good windshield on your airplane. It makes for a more comfortable environment from a variety of aspects, not just sound.

The experience was duplicated when I bought my own Fly Baby and had to drive a radio while I flew, and hence bought a headset. Over the years, I considered a variety of solutions. I thought about adding some deadening material to the inside of the cups (which a netter thoughtfully provided), and I considered building some sort of windbreaks forward of the cups. But I didn't want to be seen flying with a pair of things continually breaking wind, so I just used a standard set of headphones (~$130).

I borrowed a pair of Lightspeed ANRs at one point (as described on the above web page), but they had problem with the prop blast...they did a good job of canceling the noise, but every time I moved my head it took the ANR circuitry a second or so to catch up...which produced a DUBBB DUBBB DUBBB noise in whichever cup was further forward. So, at the time, I abandoned the ANR idea.

One thing I considered was that my ear-seal "contact patch" wasn't the best. My flying helmet wasn't made for a headset; it just has a couple of little flaps over ~3/4" holes over my hears. The flaps unsnap, but I wondered if I wasn't getting the best headset attenuation because the headset wasn't clamping directly on my noggin.

So I went to the Arlington air show and bought one of those helmets with the big holes, the kind that the headset attaches into rather than over. It let the headset seal directly to my head. Unfortunately, I didn't notice any real difference in noise level. It may be that I'm still not getting the best seal, what with my hair and eyeglass bows. In any case, my current helmet lets me whip off the headset and hide it as I taxi in.

Then, about two years back, I got a bit skittish about hearing loss. I decided to give ANR another try. I went to the local headset emporium, and bought a Flightcom Denali ANR headset. This time, I figured I'd *make* it work...if I got the warble in the ears, I'd work out some sort of cure.

Wonder of wonders, I didn't have to. The Denali doesn't produce that warble effect, and does a marvelous job of reducing the noise. For the first time, I could actually turn the radio volume DOWN off the upper peg. The Denali's control/battery box is perfectly positioned to attach to the landing-wire strap that runs just below the instrument panel of the Fly Baby. I added a bit of velcro, and it's a pretty slick and solid attachment. On long trips, I even pop some foam earplugs in before donning the headsets. NICE quiet flights, then, though I usually reach under and dig them out before entering the traffic pattern.

I don't know why the Flightcoms don't have the same problem as the Lightspeeds. The Lightspeeds are deeper; they may stick out more into the prop blast. But I've never had any problem with motion-produced noises with my Denali ANRs.

I've had a few minor questions...for instance, on long flights, I sometimes get a faint, random clicking sound. It doesn't occur all the time...it almost seems like it's temperature related (does it flying away from the sun, doesn't do it flying into the sun).

The other problem I encountered was short battery life. I seem to get about four or five hours, max. I talked to the tech people at Flightcom, and they said the power draw is greater in a noisy environment.

In short, I'm very happy with my Denali ANRs. And Costco is happy with my regular purchases of 10-packs of 9V batteries.

If I were you, I wouldn't buy a pair of ANR headsets yet. When you get your plane finished, mooch off your friends and borrow various models of ANR-equipped units. Try 'em out, you may find a pair that'll work in your environment.

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja.

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