Do bluetooth aviation headsets and/or music negatively affect safety?

Brian Wheeler
  • Do bluetooth aviation headsets and/or music negatively affect safety? Brian Wheeler

    I'm in the process of getting my private pilot's license, and I've come to the point where it's probably time to think about buying a headset.

    As I understand it there are a few options ranging from a standard mic and speakers, to passive noise cancellation, active noise cancellation, and even bluetooth for use with iPhones/MP3 players, which I think is awesome, however I'm concerned about distraction while flying.

    Has listening to music and/or noise cancellation been at all shown to increase pilot error?

    My main concerns are

    1. What if I have a noise cancelling headset on, and the engine undergoes detonation, or what if the aircraft does something I should be alarmed about based on auditory cues that I can't hear?

    2. Same situations as above, but even worse because I'm rocking out to some sweet tunes, is there the possibility that having music will exacerbate the aforementioned issues, or what if ATC comes on, and I hear them, but I don't register what they say because I was jamming to some Kenny Loggins?

    Additionally, are commercial pilots permitted to use bluetooth headsets for phone calls? For music? Do crash statistics indicate that music and flying leads to more pilot-error? It certainly can't help...

  • Let me share some of my experiences with my active noise cancelling headset when flying piston aeroplanes. First, if you fly multi-engine and the props are not synchronizing automatically everyone without active noise cancelling on board will definitely hate you - you really don't hear that horrible sound which is really comfortable especially while practicing engine failures. Beside of this you are still able to hear everything whats going on. It there are abrupt noises or warning horns you'll be able to hear them. Active noise cancelling can really help you to be concentrated and allows you to hear ATC much clearer than before. This is especially valuable on crowded frequencies or while getting an ATIS, but also being under radar control/services.

    Listening to music while flying is a different story. It can be distracting and I'm still cautious using this great feature. On long x- countries it's really amazing to have it while I would for sure turn it off approaching a busy airport. It can definitely influence your ability to focus on the flight, but sometimes I think even on a positive way keeping you in a good mood.

    The best you can do is to try it, because everyone is different. Find the best settings for your self and make your own experiences. There are aviation shops which will give you a headset to try it, otherwise you can ask friends who may have one, or order via the internet and if you don't really feel comfortable with the one you ordered you can return it during a specified period of time.

    One last and really important point: If you tested it and decided to spend some extra money on a high-end headset look for special offers. There are a bunch of websites where you can safe a lot of money. I would always check if you still have the original guarantee.

  • To my knowledge there are no studies correlating ANR (or good quality passive) headsets with an increase in pilot error, but a several have been done on noise fatigue. There's even an old FAA advisory circular on the subject which basically boils down to "Multi-hour flights listening to the engines drone on and on will make the pilot cranky and error-prone" - so from that perspective any good-quality headset is a safety enhancement.

    As far as missing auditory cues because of ANR (things like the stall warning, funny engine noises, etc.) it's generally not a concern: ANR headsets are good, but they're not THAT good. Because of the way ANR works sudden sounds will cut through. You'll miss "long-term noise" (like the beat frequencies Falk mentioned from unsynchronized propellers), but you're not likely to miss anything safety-critical.
    (One notable exception: ANR headsets are good at cutting out wind noise, so if you have a partially unlatched door you won't hear that.)

    What you will notice with ANR headsets is that when the battery dies things get loud - sometimes louder than cheap passive headsets. Carrying extra batteries is a must with ANR headsets since having your noise reduction go away in the middle of a flight would be somewhat unpleasant.


    As far as music, that's a mixed bag. Much like having a CD playing in your car, I don't believe it's a significant safety impact unless you're being irresponsible with it (blasting it at a volume that drowns out everything around you, or rocking out when you should be watching for traffic).

    Additionally, all the intercoms and headsets I've seen give the com radio priority, and will either cut out or substantially mute the music input when there's radio traffic. This makes you less likely to miss radio calls, but it also makes listening to music in the plane an absolutely DREADFUL experience (in the northeast where I am there's always somebody talking on the frequency - if you hear half of the song between the radio cutting in it's a good day).

    I personally find the distraction from the music muting/unmuting to be more of an issue than boredom from not having music in the first place (if you're that bored you can always look out the window, or tune a local CTAF frequency and listen to the antics), but your experience may vary substantially if you're in an area where the radio is quieter.


    Policies for commercial pilots would vary depending on the operation, but for airline pilots using your personal cell phone is forbidden, and before it was forbidden by the FAA it was usually prohibited by the airline.

    Part 91 operations (a ferry flight, or a crop duster spraying the local fields) wouldn't be subject to that restriction though, and making a phone call or listening to music would be permissible under the FARs. With all the studies on the negative safety effects of using a cell phone while driving I wouldn't recommend the phone call, but I imagine crop dusting is more fun if you have some music to listen to…

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