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Retired Boeing Employee Stays On In Fighter Jet Command Voice


If fighter pilots are headed for trouble in an F/A-18 Super Hornet, they'll hear woman's voice sharply warning them to take action.


LESLIE SHOOK: Pull up, pull up. Roll right, roll right.

BLOCK: For 20 years, the recorded voice of Leslie Shook has been helping fighter pilots avoid disaster. The longtime Boeing Company employee recently retired, but her voice lives on in the Boeing jets. Ms. Shook got the gig by accident. She was working in video production at McDonnell Douglas, which was later bought by Boeing. She had heard lots of voice command recordings over the years, and so she knew the drill. One evening, she was trying to explain to a voice actor how the commands should sound.

SHOOK: So I did the call for - altitude, altitude to try to teach them how the cadence and the snap of the voice works. It was a easy thing for me to try to coach them along. And I also had hopes - this was about 6:30 at night - and I had great hopes of getting home in time for dinner at some point that evening.

BLOCK: (Laughter) So you wanted it done.


BLOCK: Well, what do you think it was in your voice that was so perfect for this job?

SHOOK: I think it was just familiarity. I had spent hundreds of hours around the simulators at that time. I had heard the original Betty calls many, many times. I mean, it was real easy to me as far as that goes. What was difficult was getting rid of my accent as much as possible.

BLOCK: You mentioned Betty calls. And we should have you explain what a Betty call is.

SHOOK: Oh, OK. The voice in the airplane - the voice in all fighter jets has traditionally been female. The original reasoning was that it was an all-male world, so when you got that female voice, it cut through all the other radio noise in conversation quickly.

BLOCK: Oh, it would get your attention right away.

SHOOK: Right.

BLOCK: And Betty?

SHOOK: And they have always called her - always called her, not just me, but everybody has called her [expletive] Betty because Betty nags at you.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

SHOOK: Betty is there to help you with your housekeeping chores. When Betty says pull up, pull up, she means for you to do it this instant because you are so close to the ground there is a problem and you need to pay attention. And yet, when you get a call like bingo, bingo - that means your fuel is half-gone. So you either need to go home or know you're going forward to the right spot. So that's just what I think of as a housekeeping call.

BLOCK: Got it.

For all the times that your voice has been up in these F/A-18s, I wonder if you have ever gotten the chance to go up in one of these fighter jets with pilots.



SHOOK: No. And I'd go tomorrow if I got a chance.

BLOCK: Oh, man.

SHOOK: Yeah, yeah. There's something about insurance that they can't quite do that so easily. And I get motion sick, so I'm pretty well guaranteed of what the end result of that would be.

BLOCK: (Laughter) But you'd go anyway.

SHOOK: But I'd go anyway. Oh, yeah, I'd just grab my little barf bag and go anyway.

BLOCK: Ms. Shook, have you ever heard from a pilot, maybe, who had averted disaster by listening to your voice - to one of your recordings in the plane?

SHOOK: I have. I had one gentleman who just bowled me over. And it was a pilot, an aircrew, who had been doing night training operations out in the Sea of Japan. And I suspect, from the way he talked, that they had been out there quite a while. So it's exciting. There's adrenaline, and he suddenly and abruptly got the call to roll right, roll right - and that's ground avoidance. So that means he was right down on the water. And he said if he had not rolled right exactly when the voice called to him, he would have gone in. And he was firmly convinced he would've died that night, and he wanted to meet the voice that saved him.

BLOCK: And what was that like for you?

SHOOK: It was overwhelming. It still - even now when I recount it, it sends chills. It makes me quiver a little bit because it was - I know what that voice is supposed to do. I have been around airplanes for 35 years. I have loved this aircraft for 35 years, so I know what it's supposed to do. I know what these people do for their country and for their living. It's still overwhelming to this day.

BLOCK: That's Leslie Shook, the voice of the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet. She's recently retired from the Boeing Company.

Ms. Shook, thanks so much for talking with us. It's been a pleasure.

SHOOK: It was wonderful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.