Bitching Betty is the slang term some pilots and crew (mainly North American) use when referring to the voice warnings used by some aircraft systems.
The name "Betty" is a generic popular traditional name from the American culture, and is not derived from more recent uses of the word to describe an attractive female (in reference to Betty Rubble of The Flintstones).
Today, at least in some aircraft systems, the annunciation voice may be either male or female. In some cases, this may be selected according to pilot preference. If the voice is female it may be referred to as Bitching Betty; if the voice is male it may be referred to as Barking Bob, a male voice is used in the BAE Hawk. The female voice is most heard on military aircraft like the F-16 and MiG-29. The male voice is most heard on Boeing commercial airliner aircraft.
In the UK the term Nagging Norah is sometimes used, and in New Zealand the term used is Hank the Yank on Boeing aircraft. The voice warning system used on London Underground trains, which also uses a female voice, is known to some staff as Sonya as it gets "on ya nerves".
There are two notable systems which today are normally found in most commercial and military aircraft, the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) and TAWS/EGPWS (Terrain Avoidance Warning System / Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System) which provide warnings and spoken (verbal) resolution instructions.
The auditory warnings produced by these systems usually include a warning attention sound followed by verbal command(s) to the pilot/crew. Probably most familiar to the average person is the "Pull up! Pull up!" command encountered in many video games and a few movies.
Other common spoken warnings are "Caution Terrain", "Windshear! Windshear!", or "Traffic Traffic" followed by short directions on what actions the pilot should take to resolve the situation. The TCAS and TAWS/EGPWS are usually integrated to prevent conflicting advice, e.g. telling them to "Descend! Descend!" to avoid another aircraft when the aircraft is already close to the ground.
Modern Boeing and Airbus airliners both typically feature a male voice, which calls out height above terrain on approach to land, and other related warnings. Airbus aircraft usually feature a distinctive British RP accent (heard on recent builds of the A320 and all Airbus aircraft since the A330 and A340) or French accent (heard on ECAM-equipped A300s, A310s and early A320s).
A female voice was incorporated into McDonnell Douglas DC-9, MD-80/90, MD-11 and Boeing 717 (inherited from McDonnell Douglas after the merger with Boeing) series aircraft in the Central Aural Warning System (CAWS). This system provided a voice for most warnings, including fire, altitude, cabin altitude, stall, overspeed, autopilot disconnect and so on.
In more advanced cockpits on newer aircraft, there may be many other voice warnings managed by from ICAS such as "Gear up. Gear up." These may be warnings or simply declarative statements which augment the pilot's situation awareness.
Early human factors research in aircraft and other domains indicated that female voices were more authoritative to male pilots and crew members and were more likely to get their attention. Much of this research was based on pilot experiences, particularly in combat situations, where the pilots were being guided by female air traffic controllers. They reported being able to most easily pick out the female voice from amid the flurry of radio chatter.
More recent research, however, carried out since more females have begun working in aviation as pilots and air traffic controllers, indicates that the previous hypothesis may be unreliable. General human factors wisdom now indicates largely that, either due to current culture or changing attitudes, an automated female voice is no more or less effective than the male voice.
Edworthy et al. (2003) at the University of Plymouth, UK, for example, found that both acoustic and non-acoustic differences between male and female speakers were negligible. Therefore, they recommended, the choice of speaker should depend on the overlap of noise and speech spectra. Female voices did, however, appear to have an advantage in that they could portray a greater range of urgencies because of their usually higher pitch and pitch range. They reported an experiment showing that knowledge about the sex of a speaker has no effect on judgments of perceived urgency, with acoustic variables accounting for such differences.
But Arrabito (2009) has found that with simulated cockpit background radio traffic, a male voice rather than a female voice, in a monotone or urgent annunciaton style, resulted in the largest proportion of correct and fastest identification response times to verbal warnings, regardless of the gender of the listener.
There have been several "Bitching Bettys", over the years, for various commercial and military aircraft, including:
- Kim Crow - Crow's was the first voice ever to be digitized. Pilots and astronauts know her as the original "Bitchin' Betty".
- Erica Lane - her voice can be heard in the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and Boeing AH-64 Apache
Voice warning systems included in automobiles of the late 1970s to early 1980s, such as the Datsun Z-Car series, found in the 280ZX, were also known as Bitching Betty. The Datsun system issued commands such as "lights are on," or "Left door is open." Datsun's original name for the feature was "Talking Lady."
- "The Tube: Episode 1" at bbc.co.uk, broadcast 20 February 2012
- Edworthy, J., Hellier, E. and Rivers, J. “The use of male or female voices in warnings systems: A question of acoustics”, Noise and Health, Vol 6, Iss 21, 2003, pp. 39-50
- Arrabito, G. Robert, "Effects of Talker Sex and Voice Style of Verbal Cockpit Warnings on Performance", Human Factors, Vol 51, No. 1, 2009, pp.3-20
- Kim Crow
- Erica Lane
- Stanton, N.A., and Edworthy, J., "Human Factors in Auditory Warnings", Ashgate, Aldershot, UK, 1999, ISBN 0-291-39849-9