Content - Customer Story

Over the time since Pierre first discovered invisity 15 years ago at an exhibition in Montreux, the system has become ubiquitous for AMP Visual’s productions – the company uses around 40 invisity Flex systems across its operations. According to Pierre, the small and wire-free in-ear prompting receiver is in high demand by producers wanting a clean and uncluttered appearance from their on-camera talent.

“The biggest advantage, is there is no wire between the ear and other equipment. It’s requested by producers for this reason – they don’t like any wires from the ear. In all cases, for the producer, it’s for the look. No-one wants to see a wire,” explains Pierre.

As well as keeping producers happy, invisity is also great for hosts and presenters. invisity’s small size and hassle-free operation makes communication between hosts and production staff very smooth, and allows producers to stay in touch with their colleagues in front of the camera.

“It always remains connected! It almost seems as if the producer was directing the host,” says Pierre.

In the past, AMP Visual has used alternative technologies, such as induction loops or fully wired earpieces. But it has stopped using induction loops entirely because of interference issues, and only uses wired earpieces in particular situations.

“A few years ago, we also used induction loops, but it’s not possible on TV sets – there is too much interference. We haven’t used this type of equipment in some time,” Pierre says.

According to him, AMP Visual does fall back onto wired earpieces for some shoots, particularly those with a live audience: “Sometimes we have some problems during applause. The audio bandwidth is too small for comprehension when using invisity during loud applause or in a loud ambience.”

This being the case, better background noise suppression is at the top of Pierre’s wish-list for improvements to invisity – as this would allow its use across even more of AMP Visual’s productions. As it stands, though, invisity is already head and shoulders above the competition thanks to its unique wireless operation.

“invisity is the only earpiece which has no wire. It’s the only one we know with this feature,” says Pierre.

Pierre Barbier is Audio Operations Manager at AMP Visual TV. He started his career at SFP in the 1980s as Assistant Operations Engineer. In the 1990s he became Sound Engineer for BCF, a TV facilities provider. Later on he moved to AMP Visual, and became head of the firm’s audio department.

AMP Visual TV specializes in outside broadcast productions, and has worked at the last three FIFA World Cup tournaments and the last two Olympic Games, along with shows including Salut les terriens for Canal+ and Medias, le magazine for France 5.

With over 30 years of on-set motion picture experience, Arthur Rochester has been the Production Sound Mixer on numerous Hollywood movies including The Witches of Eastwick, Something’s Gotta Give, About Schmidt and The Truman Show.

FM transition

In the last few years sound professionals like Arthur have increasingly made the transition from using inductive loop technology to transmit directions and script cues to on-set actors, over to FM-based in-ear receivers.

Arthur explains the reasons for this migration: “From the sound mixer’s point of view it’s largely about convenience. In the past with induction technology, we had to deal with amplifiers and induction cables, which for a vehicle scene say, would have to be installed inside the car. Or else you would have to use an induction receiver on a loop around the actor’s neck, and then a receiver in the ear. That is obviously far from ideal as actors really don’t want to be bothered with extra equipment in a scene; they already have hair and makeup staff constantly working on and around them.”

It was in 2002, in the run up to filming Something’s Gotta Give with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, that Arthur first had the opportunity to try what’s now his standard in-ear receiver of choice. Following a conversation with Ann Reische from Swiss hearing and communications manufacturer Phonak, he trailed Phonak's 4-channel wireless receiver, invisity, which is based on frequency modulation (FM) technology.

"Of course I am always looking to improve my sound equipment and make things as fool-proof as possible, so I tried it out,” Arthur explains. “In this line of work you don’t get the chance to experiment on the job, so it’s important to be sure that everything in the sound recording package is compatible and free of bugs. I found invisity much easier to use than induction equipment. There’s less hardware involved, and I liked the idea of being able to tune my wireless earpieces to different frequencies. It’s simply a great receiver in a small size, so I decided to use it on Something’s Gotta Give and I’ve used it, to some degree or another, on every movie since, usually paired with a Comtek ESP25 transmitter.”

Using invisity

In terms of how invisity is employed on-set, Arthur says this usage usually revolves around script prompting, however there are some interesting exceptions.

“This receiver is typically used for actor script cues of course, but its use can also be very specific to an actor or to a certain situation. For example, in one film I worked on, the female lead had some very sensitive scenes in which she needed to reach a certain emotional point. The music she chose to hear in her ear, via the invisity, helped her achieve that,” he says.

By contrast, in the thriller Cellular with Chris Evans, William H. Macy and Kim Basinger, Arthur's invisity receivers played a key role in reducing the number of road scene takes. “Cellular was easily the most intensive filming in terms of my invisity use, as we employed in-ear receivers in all the moving vehicle scenes that featured dialogue. We would use invisity for the off-screen dialogue, via an actress sat in the command van, and also for the director’s cues to the actor (Chris Evans), who was driving the car. The receiver was much more reliable than using a cell phone headset for this job.”

The Cellular team also produced a short film, ‘Dialing Up 'Cellular'’, on the making of the feature, in which Arthur explains further how he used his invisity receivers to aid scenes.

As for the ease of adoption of in-ear receivers by the on-screen talent and film crew, Arthur claims the most important feedback is really only that of the director, in that anything that helps save time and reduce the number of takes is a very real benefit.

“It’s all about the director really and how he wants to cue the talent in front of the camera; actors are in a sense, just grist to the mill. If the director can get ‘into the head’ of the actor while they are acting then this is really to his advantage. As such, directors really love earpieces like invisity so Production Sound Mixers today are expected to carry these sorts of prompt receivers in their standard kits.”


About Arthur Rochester

A Production Sound Mixer with over 30 years of on-set motion picture experience, Arthur Rochester has worked on numerous Hollywood movies, including Something’s Gotta Give, Cellular, About Schmidt, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Arthur has received Oscar nominations and BAFTA, CAS and Saturn awards for his work. He has owned and run DigiTrax® Sound since 1992.

Hollywood sound mixer Arthur uses Phonak's invisity in-ear prompt receiver

Arthur Rochester, Oscar-nominated sound mixer and Phonak invisity user.

“The daily work in TV broadcasting is a big event! You have always something new and not expected,” says Wladi, who has worked as an audio engineer and electronic technician at RSI since 1986, and won a Grammy in 2010 for a live broadcast from Estival Jazz.

Fortunately, he can rely on Phonak’s invisity in-ear prompting headsets to help keep everyone up to speed. RSI uses invisity to maintain communication between television hosts, moderators and actors, and the team of producers and audio specialists behind the camera.

“invisity helps us on a daily basis, from the news to entertainment to drama,” explains Wladi, who has been using invisity since 1996. “The director, the producer, the sound operator and script prompter always have a connection to talk to the moderator, mainly for scripting and communications.”

invisity’s small size, light weight and wireless operation make it invaluable in RSI’s broadcast operations. According to Wladi, the lack of wires or cables gives invisity a big advantage in this situation, as it is easier to set up and use, without being seen by viewers.

“For directors, it’s a direct connection with no delay and invisible from the cameras, to give their suggestions and communications to the actor or moderator,” he says. “It’s the only thing that we can use now. When we have a daily broadcast with a moderator, they don’t want to have a system with something big on the ear, they don’t want to have a wire. You want to have the facility to put it in and take it out very easily. To date, it’s the only solution.”

Wladi says RSI’s on-screen personnel are also committed invisity users, adamant once they have used the system that they want to be “no more without it!” He says RSI trialled an alternative prompting headset system for a one-month period, but the moderators clearly preferred invisity.

He explains: “We did a test with the different system, with the electronics mounted outside, behind the ear – and this was the problem. We checked with the moderator, and she said: ‘It’s not possible!’ It was like a hearing aid. So it was not possible to use it in this situation.”

“It’s the same as being on stage – you want something very small, smooth, matching the colour of the ear, so you don’t see it,” he added, revealing why RSI returned to using invisity.

Wladi Turkewitsch is a Senior Sound Engineer at RSI, Radiotelevisione svizzera di lingua italiana in Lugano, Switzerland. He began work about 30 years ago as electronic technician for a private audio/video service company, covering news, sport and music productions around the world. As a keyboard player he was also involved in bands from his youth onwards.

In 1986 he started work at RSI. In 2010 he received a Grammy award for a live music production with “Joe Zawinul Syndicate” performing at the Estival Jazz in Lugano. His hobbies include mountain biking and audio mastering.

Crystal Clear Sound in the Cockpit of a Ju-52

Kurt Waldmeier is passionate about flying and it’s a real pleasure talking to him about it. He has flown halfway round the world in his trusty 1939 Junkers Ju-52. As the CEO of Ju-Air, he offers flights to other classic plane enthusiasts and there is no shortage of them! Flights sell out over a year in advance – by November of the year before. Waldmeier has nothing but good things to say about FreeCom 7100, the aviation headset from Phonak that he relies on in the cockpit. Kurt Waldmeier is a huge fan of old school flying. “Flying is an adventure in the Ju-52. There are no automated

processes, you control everything by hand. And landing is a challenge every time,” he says. No wonder: the Ju-52 has fairly weak brakes, since it was designed for landing into the wind on a circular grass runway. Of course, there is no guarantee of a headwind on a landing strip. These craft, which

were saved from the scrapyard over thirty years ago, continue to symbolize the true adventure of flying and the feeling of freedom experienced by aviation pioneers.

Halfway round the world

The plane certainly proved worth saving. In recent years, Kurt Waldmeier has flown his Ju-Air across Greenland to the USA, to the North Cape and the Moroccan desert. He had to call off a circumnavigation of the entire globe halfway through his journey, but only because he didn’t have all the necessary landing papers. With a maximum range of 1,300 kilometres and the many stopovers that this entails, every extended journey in the Ju-52 is an unforgettable experience for everyone involved.

Loud in the cockpit

“It’s loud in the cockpit of a Ju-52, it can’t be compared to a modern airliner,” explains Waldmeier. Headphones are indispensable, since exterior noise makes any communication between the pilots and with the ground crew impossible. Then there’s the FreeCom 7100. Kurt Waldmeier is very frank about it: “I was skeptical at first. After all, I had been satisfied with my headphones for years. When

I had to get the ear imprints made, I found it all a bit unusual.”

Won over by the FreeCom 7100

The pilot has since been won over: “The device fits perfectly in my ear and works flawlessly even in the difficult environment of a Ju-52 – especially when it comes to managing exterior noise and communication volume.” Waldmeier even uses the FreeCom 7100 in the Bücker, a biplane where the pilot sits out in the open air. “It’s also practical since I have my own personal headset now that only I use. There’s no more hassle with cleaning a headset before each use.” So the FreeCom 7100 has many advantages, and not just technological ones either.

Hi Daniel, tell us a little bit about your professional career so far

Well I’ve been fascinated with technology since the cradle and I used to pester my parents with countless questions, so it was not surprising that I finished my schooling at ETH Zurich as a process engineer. I quickly found my home in the pharmaceutical industry and now work for an international group which develops business processes for investment projects in the Basel region.

When did you start flying?

When I was 18 I was one of the lucky youngsters who got to take the Swiss Army’s two pre-flight training (FVS) courses. There I learned all about flying. After that it wasn’t an insurmountable hurdle to acquire my Private Pilot License (PPL). However I still had to complete the whole PPL theory, which I did via self-study.

What aircraft do you currently fly?

For several years I chartered aircraft from Birrfeld Flight School here in Switzerland, which I highly recommend. When I am with friends or family around the Alps, I fly a TDI-engined Piper Warrior or Cadet, because these have a higher output in the thinner mountain air. For two people,  you can have lots of fun in the air with Katana planes. For aerobatics there’s a Slingsby available, which is ideal.

Why do you like to fly aerobatics?

Firstly because it is challenging and fun. Second, it helps increase your safety, in that when you can pilot the plane acrobatically these skills can again be re-used during ‘normal’ flights. Think of this as being like when you practice your car going into a spin, for example at a driving school. You learn how the vehicle behaves in critical situations so that you can control it, which of course has a beneficial effect on your driving style.

What do you require from a pilot headset?

A headset must function primarily as part of the communication chain, be this between pilot and tower, between pilot and pilot, or as an intercom between the pilot and the passengers on the plane. If communication with the tower or other pilots is unclear, this can quickly lead to dangerous situations.

Secondly, an aviation headset must be comfortable, so that you are not annoyed by it. And during aerobatic maneuvers it should not slip.

Additionally a headset must reduce the cockpit noise in the ear so that this recreational activity does not lead to long-term hearing damage. (As a musician, I possibly demand even higher standards than other customers in this respect.)

How well does Phonak’s FreeCom 7000 headset meet these requirements?

FreeCom does what it was designed to do well and virtually unnoticed. Its sound quality is impressive; due to its excellent noise-reduction in loud ambient noise I can communicate well with the tower, my colleagues and the passengers on my plane. The latter is very important during leisure flights as I’m not only a pilot but a tour guide too ("And on the right you will see the Aletsch Glacier etc.”).

With FreeCom you soon forget you are wearing it. There are no pressure points, especially when worn with sunglasses, which makes flying a peaceful experience. And your freedom of movement is guaranteed in full, which is very important for aerobatic flying.

Can you explain what the FreeCom 7000’s ‘dynamic’ hearing protection sounds and feels like?

That’s a tough question. You hear everything clearly and precisely but your ears are never exposed to high noise levels. In addition, the level of ambient (surrounding) noise can be customized. But the radio signal is always first priority, whatever level of ambient noise I choose.

How does FreeCom compare to other headsets you’ve used?

When I think about my first flight training, with a radio microphone in hand and squawking speakers in the plane, the technological advances seem almost unbelievable – and my age is below 40! They really are worlds apart. With FreeCom the key difference is that you have a ‘clear head’. After a while you don’t even notice you are wearing a headset. In addition, FreeCom is lightweight and can be worn with sunglasses - pure freedom! In the past I’ve used both passive and active noise protection systems with increasing levels of comfort but FreeCom is clearly top of its league.

FreeCom is a custom-molded product. How did find the ear shell molding process?

The FreeCom pages of the Phonak Communications website pointed me to a hearing care professional in my area, who made my personalized ear molds. That was a very quick process and didn’t hurt a bit.

Thanks for your time Daniel.

You’re welcome!

"FreeCom is lightweight and can be worn with sunglasses - pure freedom!" says Daniel.

Swiss Air Glaciers helicopter pilot Jean-Louis Locher was in danger of losing his career to hearing loss before he discovered Phonak’s Serenity DP hearing protection system.

Swiss ex-ice-hockey player Jean-Louis Locher spent several years and over one hundred thousands Swiss francs (US $90,000+) following his dream of becoming a helicopter pilot. He began flying full-time for Swiss aviation and rescue company Air Glaciers, based in the Swiss Alpine region of Sion, in 1985.

“In the beginning I flew for our client Gaznat, the Swiss gas supplier, verifying its pipelines across the Southern half of Switzerland. I then became Air Glaciers’ agricultural pilot, treating vineyards such as Chardogne and Blonay,” Locher explains. “Since then my work has being very varied. I’ve flown every type of helicopter flight, from winter ski accident pick-ups and summer canyon rescues to transporting construction materials and tourist flights”.

Hearing a problem

Between 1985 and 2008 Jean-Louis clocked up 11,100 flying hours and over 7000 landings, but like a great many pilots in his position he didn’t employ any form of adapted hearing protection.

“I wore my usual helmet, but I didn’t use any specific in-ear product,” Locher says. “This seemed the normal approach and I didn’t really think twice about it.”

In recent years however he began to notice a deterioration in his hearing. It started with the onset of tinnitus – a frustrating ringing in the ears - which he began noticing most of the time. A subsequent audiogram test with an audiologist then confirmed the beginnings of a hearing loss.

“I would see a bird outside but not be able to hear it,” he says, “and with the ringing too, I knew something was seriously wrong.”

It was Jean-Louis’ insurer that issued him with the starkest of warnings. With the Swiss aviation authority requiring each pilot to pass a regular physical exam to retain his flying license (an exam that includes a hearing check), the situation was clear: if his hearing loss continued to develop he would lose his license to fly within just a couple of years.

At 52 years of age and looking to fly through to retirement at 65, Locher wasn’t about to risk that: “I simply don’t know what I’d do if I lost my license. This job is my life.”

Choosing the right protection

Conscious of the urgent need to find high quality hearing protection, he enlisted the help of local supplier Sigmacom to find the right system.

This protection needed to be: truly ergonomic, for comfortable all-day use; able to reliably attenuate (or dampen) dangerous loud noises such as the roar of a helicopter’s engine; easy to connect to in-flight NATO communications systems and, ideally, able to provide full ambient awareness - allowing normal communications and speech without Jean-Louis needing to remove his protection and further endanger his hearing.

"Locher tried traditional ear plugs first, but these simply cut out all the noise, which was far from ideal," reports Air Glaciers' Safety Officer, Patrick Fauchère.

A subsequent conversation with telecommunications specialist Olivier Amoos however put Locher in touch with Phonak. Phonak’s hearing protection sales manager, Aline Kurth, explains: “We talked to Jean-Louis and he visited our Murten headquarters to discuss his requirements in-depth. He needed an intelligent, adaptable, reliable system that would protect him comfortably for hours at a time, so we soon realized that our Serenity DP level-dependent hearing protection system would be the perfect fit.”

Serenity DP (Dynamic Protection) features custom-molded ear shaped shells (eShells), which fit comfortably in the user’s ear. Inside these eShells sit Phonak’s proprietary earJacks, which connect to a compact neck-worn control unit.

“Serenity DP is a so-called 'dynamic' system because it provides the exact protection the user requires,” Kurth explains. “It uses tiny microphones to ‘hear’ and measure the surrounding noise, and adapts its attenuation instantly to this. So in quieter environments, such as on the airfield between takeoffs, Jean-Louis has full ambient awareness and can communicate normally with his colleagues, but whenever the surrounding noise level rises above 85 decibels, Serenity DP immediately reduces the sound Locher is exposed to down to a safe level.”

Once Locher had been supplied with his custom-molded nylon eShells (via a quick five-minute fitting process), Phonak’s technical team fitted a different connector to the main DP control unit in order to connect this to Air Glaciers’ helicopters’ communications system. The team also further fine-tuned Serenity to reduce the incoming volume level of the helicopter’s radio communications to an appropriately safe level. Thereafter Jean-Louis was able to hear radio communications through his Serenity eShell loudspeakers, while speaking back to flight controllers using his crash helmet’s usual boom microphone.

Trial experience

Jean-Louis then trialed Serenity DP during his vineyard flights in early 2008.

“It was just fantastic,” he says. “The system was easy-to-use, comfortable, and it protected me both inside the cabin and outside the helicopter. I wore it regularly for six hours or more; no noises sounded too loud and I could communicate normally.”

As a result of his trial’s success, in May 2008 he began using Phonak’s solution full-time, flying 150 hours over vineyards alone with Serenity DP.

“I now have exceptional hearing when I’m flying. It’s like flying in cotton wool, and it’s comfortable too so I’m less tired in the evenings,” Locher adds.

Having seen the benefits the Serenity system offers, Fauchère has subsequently signed up his nine other helicopter pilots for similar protection.

“By providing these pilots with Serenity DP, we’re not only safeguarding their hearing and potentially extending their careers, but we’re also improving our company’s performance,” Fauchère explains. “During a rescue for instance, if the pilot needs to hover over the scene with the aircraft’s door open, he can now speak with people inside the aircraft and hear them normally over the noise. He can also hear tower communications, flight assistants and in-flight doctors more clearly. These improvements are of great benefit to us. We've basically increased the communication level, and communication is safety."

For Jean-Louis Locher, Serenity DP has prolonged what could well have been a career cut short, enabling him to keep doing the work he loves.

“My one regret,” he concludes, “is that I didn’t know about this product before I suffered my hearing loss.”

Swiss Air Glaciers helicopter pilot Jean-Louis Locher

As construction projects go, they do not come much bigger than Switzerland’s Gotthard Tunnel. Initiated in 1993 but not due to be completed until 2017, this 57km tunnel through the Swiss Alps will cut an hour off the travel time between Zurich and Milan, meaning business people, holiday makers and cargo firms will be able to make the trip in under three hours.

The key to this reduction is travellers being able to drive their cars and trucks onto trains that travel through the tunnel at speeds of up to 250kph (155mph), which is notably more efficient than navigating along twisting mountain roads.

The project

Several companies were originally contracted by the AlpTransit Gotthard AG  to build the tunnel, one of which is Strabag Schweiz. The Swiss arm of global construction giant Strabag SE, one of its specialities in mechanical tunnelling. The company’s remit? Construct two 20km-long sections of the tunnel between 2002 and February 2012. Such a huge project comprises a myriad of individual processes, with several of these posing a danger to worker hearing.

Strabag Tunneling Schweiz’s safety manager, Daniel Schäublin, explains: “The project’s main tunnel boring machine, “Gabi”, is very loud. Her noise output can easily reach 90 decibels and above,” he explains. “Once the tunnel has been excavated, and a thin layer of concrete has been sprayed on the walls and insulation added, we use another machine to create the concrete tunnel lining. This process produces a wall that is 30 – 60cm thick concrete wall (depending on the quality of the rock) and is also very loud. Lastly, our teams use various other power tools at different times, such as pneumatic drills that can reach 100 decibels on their own, so it’s really essential that our staff have access to trustable, quality hearing protection.”

Prior to enlisting the help of Phonak, Strabag’s project teams already owned and used industrial hearing protection systems from a range of providers. These ranged from simple foam plugs to custom-molded solutions. Schäublin himself employed custom-molded protection from a Phonak competitor.

As he explains however, he didn’t regard the systems on offer as being quite perfect for their needs. “We were looking for a new solution that could protect our hearing but also really enable better communication. That was key,” he says.

The solution

After meeting Phonak’s protection team for the first time, Schäublin began running a limited on-site trial of the Serenity SPC system. This custom-molded protection system offers the user a static level of passive or ‘static’ protection; a level that can be increased or reduced simply by swapping the system’s attenuation (dampening) filter. This particular Serenity model can also be connected to the user’s 2-way radio, allowing him to communicate over the airwaves without having to remove his in-ear protection and therefore risk hearing loss.

Schäublin’s appraisal of Serenity SPC was positive from the very beginning. “What I liked is that it not only protects yours ears but it really helps you communicate safely with colleagues, which is crucial for us,” he reports.

“Our foreman and safety staff, who use radios throughout the day, can easily connect Serenity to their 2-way radios,” Schäublin adds. “They just plug a short little cable between their jacket’s speakermic unit and the Serenity system. Then for our non-radio users, who use Serenity SP without communication, its filters mean it still makes a difference, helping them talk normally with nearby colleagues. This means that we don’t have to take out our protection and risk our hearing.”

Since offering Serenity industrial hearing protection to his entire team of over 400 staff, Schäublin has found that colleagues tend to agree with his conclusion. 

As tunnel worker Milorad Ristic comments, “I don’t actually wear Serenity SP all the time, but only when I’m working in loud noise situations. When there is noise like this I can easily wear it for eight and a half hours a day. It really helps being able to communicate safely with other colleagues.”

Site train operator Dominic Gruber meanwhile uses SPC to communicate over his 2-way radio throughout the day and comments, “I’m very happy with the protection it offers. With Serenity I can communicate very well, via radio or to colleagues around me. I wear it for eight hours a day, every day, and I even regularly clean it in my washing machine.”

Marcus Koplenig used Serenity SP while working on Gabi, the project’s main boring machine, and found that the custom-molded ear shell approach works well for him. “I use it the whole day long and I quickly got used to using custom-molded ear shells.”

With one full year of Strabag work at Gotthard remaining, the most important thing for Schäublin is that his teams can choose a hearing protection system that he has complete confidence in. “If every single one of our guys finishes the job with their hearing intact, I’ll have done my job well,” he concludes.

Safety Manager of Strabag Tunneling Switzerland, Daniel Schäublin.

Q: First Mr. Kuhn, can you tell us a little about the company you fly for?

We have four planes in total that we fly. One aircraft is based in the US and we have three here in Europe, along with two Eurocopters for short flights.

We started the company in 2001 with just a single plane and we’ve grown significantly from there so our total workforce now includes 11 pilots along with additional technical and administrative staff. We operate as a subsidiary of our parent company and we fly the Chairman of the board and the company’s other board members. We don’t do any charters, freight or renting out of the airplane.

The destinations we fly to depend on the airplane in question. Our smallest, the Falcon 900, mainly does European trips with its range of about nine hours. So it goes mainly to the UK, France, Germany and now Russia too. The two larger planes fly to the East and West coasts of the US as well as to destinations in Asia. Our trips are usually scheduled far in advance.

Q: Tell us about yourself and your flying history

On April 1, 2012 I will have been with the company for ten years. I started here at the beginning, just after the company received its first two or three planes. I started off my flying however in 1999 with Swiss Air, when it still existed. I did my training with them in Zurich and Florida, and I ended up working on their small Airbus fleet for a year until the grounding hit at the end of 2001. That’s when I got the job here.

Q: How many pilots do you usually fly with in your job?

There are always two. This is a requirement to operate the types of airplane that we have. Sometimes if we fly really long haul routes, we might take an additional person, or make a crew change somewhere. The helicopters are different. They can operate with one pilot, but we normally have two on-board for safety reasons.

Q: How important is the technology you use to fly?

We’re very lucky that we always have the latest technology supplied for our jets, basically because our Chairman is really enthusiastic and flies one of the helicopters himself. If we ask him about the latest technology for any of the airplanes, it’s never an issue. We always get the latest.

Q: How have the requirements for technology changed over the years in terms of safety and regulations?

They change dramatically and there are new regulations coming out all the time in terms of safety and how planes are equipped to talk to each other. You have to have the latest terrain database too for example, to help airplanes avoid flying into hills etc.

The most important part however is the training of the crews itself. The crews are still the biggest accident risk.

Q: In terms of communicate devices like headsets, what regulations apply there?

We have to wear headsets for takeoff and landing, and when descending through 10,000 feet and climbing. Personally I like to wear mine all the time because of noise issues.

Q: What are the key features you like to see in an aviation headset?

A headset should have very clear audio, superior sound quality and you really shouldn’t feel it in your ears. It shouldn’t have any effect on your comfort. You already have to deal with tiredness, darkness and noise anyway, so if you can get rid of extra pressure on your ears too that’s a big advantage.

Q: How would you describe your experience with the Phonak FreeCom headset?

They are very comfortable to wear and the flying experience is so much quieter.

The previous headset models we used, such as the Telex 750’s that are  supplied with the planes, feature ear pads; not large ear-sealing ear muffs as such, but they still sit on the ear rather than in it. I found these put too much pressure on the ears after a while. They would make my ears hurt and give me headaches, but that’s certainly not the case with the in-ear shells of the FreeCom.

What I also like about the FreeCom is that the boom microphone is already attached. It’s no hassle either when you have to leave the plane at the end of your journey, for instance our Captains leave the cockpit and the plane before unloading the executives’ bags. In the past I would always have to keep some kind of noise guarding system like plugs in my pocket for this part, because the power unit at the back of the plane is so loud that it really hurts your ears. Now with FreeCom I just unclick the cable from the cockpit, leaving the other end plugged into the airplane, and go straight out with my ear shells still in. It’s perfect noise cancellation.

Q: How did you find the ear shell (eShell) fitting process?

This was very quick, very accurate. The shells arrived very soon after the fitting and they were very easy to use. I didn’t need lots of instructions, it was all pretty self-explanatory.

Thanks for your time Florian.

No problem, you’re welcome.

"A headset should have very clear audio, superior sound quality and you really shouldn’t feel it in your ears," says Mr. Kuhn.


Q: Tell us first a little about Birrfeld airfield where we are today

Some of the planes here belong to flying clubs, like Birrfeld Flugschule (flying school), some belong to private clubs, and there are glider and aerobatics clubs here too. A small club may have one or two small airplanes, and its members pay a yearly subscription. You can also take lessons and learn to fly here as a beginner.

Q: Tell us about yourself and your flying history…

I started as a sixteen-year old flying small planes for the military. They paid for my education, although I learned to fly at a private flying school, not at a military airfield. First I flew gliders, then small motored planes and I was also a technician on Pilatus aircraft. Then I left the military pilot program when we were down to the last 20 guys. To be honest my motivation wasn’t there any more, as when you are a military pilot you only really get to fly about 100 hours per year. That’s not a lot and I really like to fly.

I then had the possibility of joining Swiss as a commercial passenger jet pilot, which I started at the age of 24. Compared to the 100 hours per year the military offers, I probably fly around 15 hours a week now across my job with Swiss, as PIC (Pilot in Command) of an Antonov 2, and my private aerobatic flying. As a commercial pilot in Switzerland, you cannot fly more than 900 hours per year; that’s the legal limit.

Q: When did you start aerobatic flying?

I started around two years ago in 2009. It was always a dream of mine. The flying is actually a little like flying military aircraft because the planes have such good performance and agility.

Two years ago then I started my aerobatic training. This takes place, obviously, in a different plane. When training this is a two-seater. Most of this training I did here at Birrfeld, but I also did part of it in the States, at Vero Beach in Florida, where it is a little cheaper. Then I went ahead and started flying by myself.

Q: What specific planes do you use for aerobatic flying?

The planes I fly are made here in Switzerland by Max Vogelsang under the MSW brand. Max uses an experimental design and designs and tests the aircraft himself. The two-seater plane I take passengers in for example is called the MSW Votec 322; the number stands for 320 horsepower with two seats.

This type of plane is a little different to a standard flat aircraft, in that instead of having the nose gear in the front and the main gear behind the center of gravity, the Votec has a small wheel in the rear and the gear in front of the center of gravity. That gives you a tricky nose-up position for ground operations like taxiing, take-off and landing, so you need skill and experience to be a ‘taildragger’ kind of pilot, so you can fly this kind of plane that carries itself higher at the front, rather than being level.

Q: Do you usually fly from Birrfeld or from other airfields too?

We normally start from here and try to find an airspace that is free. Or we might sometimes go to another nearby airport and meet some friends there. In Switzerland, like in America, there are a lot of small airports that are nice to fly around. This means that you can fly and be at another airport in just 10 or 15 minutes, where you can meet friends and fly together. We also sometimes fly in formation.

Q: Do you take part in events like air shows too?

MSW Aviation does yes. This year there will be such an event here in Birrfeld called the Pistenfest or the ‘Runway Party’. That’s going to be one of the biggest. Last year there was the Sion Air Show in Southern Switzerland. There are lots of nice airshows, especially for aerobatic pilots, over in Germany too. These are all usually solo displays where MSW’s founder Max Vogelsang or his son Urs use the smoke and set the display to music. I am currently training for the next Swiss Aerobatic Championship.

Q: How does aerobatic flying in such small planes differ to that of your day job flying passenger jets?

In life as a commercial pilot your job is simply flying from point A to point B. You have autopilot and a lot of procedures, and coffees, so most of the time it is not too exciting. The most interesting parts are takeoff and landing, especially the landing. This for me is the best and most challenging part, as obviously you have to stick to the runway and fully concentrate to get the plane down safely. It’s always a challenge to make a smooth landing.

With aerobatic flying however you are really flying. It’s also a physical challenge during long G-force figures and maneuvers such as loops, steep turns and snap rolls. When you’re doing a loop, you have a lot of pressure on the body; for four seconds you might get up to six, seven, even eight G’s of pressure. That’s the hardest part. If you do smaller figures, like a snap roll, you might have one second of very hard pressure, but you don’t feel that so much.

Q: How much technology do you have to help you fly in an aerobatics plane?

It’s really like a Formula 1 car. You have a carbon fiber cockpit that includes only the most important instruments. There is no autopilot for example. The whole machine is built to be very light. That’s the big advantage of such an aircraft. You don’t use an artificial horizon, because you look outside 100% of the time. With the airline’s aircraft, you use IFR (Instrument Flight Rules), which means using instruments so 90% of your view is of the inside of the cockpit, where you observe all the instruments. For the other 10%, for takeoff and landing, you look directly outside through the windows. This is the biggest difference in how you fly.

Q: When it comes to communicating in and from the cockpit, with this type of small plane, who are you communicating with and what equipment do you use to do this?

When flying with the airline most of your communication, probably half, is with the air traffic controller in the tower. The other half is with your colleague in the cockpit, via the internal intercom. By contrast, when flying light aerobatic aircraft like the Votec, if you fly solo you will only talk to the controller - for takeoff and landing - and maybe to cross some particular airspaces.

If you are in a two-seater, like the one I use for aerobatic passenger flights, then you regularly use the intercom as you need to inform your passenger what maneuvers are coming up. You might say for example, “Next we’ll be doing a loop, just stay relaxed”. This type of communication is really important as in most cases a passenger has never flown in such a plane and it’s really important to announce what you will do before you do it.

Q: What do you look for in a pilot headset?

Durability and long-life quality are really important. When flying aerobatically it is crucial that the headset stays where it should be. This is not always the case with some models. When you make a loop and you are inverted, heading downwards, you have to check the airspace ahead of you, which means looking upwards. At this point a headset can often move towards the back of the head, slipping off the ears. In the past when I wore an ear-seal or ear-muff style headset, I would fly with my right hand while using my left to hold my headset on my head. Now with the Phonak FreeCom 7000 I use, I don’t need to think about my headset at all.

Durability is also important during commercial airline flights too because radio headsets are usually used by many different pilots. They stay with the plane so as with most public things people don’t treat them as carefully as they would their own personal products.

Q: Did you experience any other problems with traditional pilot headsets?

Yes. During a long flight or after a day of several shorter flights, my ears would hurt from the pressure of the ear muffs pushing down on them.

Q: When you first used the Phonak FreeCom headset, what difference did you notice?

I tried the FreeCom in aerobatic aircraft and it’s there that I really saw the big advantage of this type of custom-molded in-ear headset. It’s perfect for that kind of flying – it’s really light, it’s comfortable and it just doesn’t move. There is nothing like it.

Q: What about from a noise point of view? How well does the FreeCom protect you against loud noise when you fly?

Its ear shells fit my ears perfectly so I hear the sound of the engine but only in the background and not too loud. The system seems to have a very good filter to filter loud noises out, so my radio communication with the control tower is excellent; I hear very well. From a radio transmission standpoint I have had cockpit colleagues and passengers tell me they can hear me much more clearly with FreeCom than when I am using a standard headset. So the benefit is not just for me, my headset choice also benefits others.

Q: The FreeCom system features custom-molded in-ear shells. How did you find this customization process?

The fitting process was easy. A Phonak representative came and spent maybe five minutes taking my ear impressions by inserting some safe foam inside the ears, which then goes hard to make a mold. The shells I then got back from Phonak should last ten years, and I can swap these between different FreeCom systems if I want.

Thanks very much for your time today Michael.

You’re welcome!

To book an aerobatic flight experience with Michael, click here.

"When flying acrobatically it is crucial that the headset stays where it should be. This is not always the case with some models," says Sigrist.

Q: Why don’t you start by telling us a little about Fuchs Helikopter where you work…

Fuchs Helikopter is basically divided into two flying divisions. We have a helicopter flight school, which is one of the biggest in Switzerland. The second part of our business is devoted to aerial filming, which we do for Swiss television such as the series Dok, or sports events like the Lauberhorn ski race and cycle races such as the Tour de Suisse and Tour de Romandie. We also carry out power line inspections,  as well as photo flights and taxi flights too.

Q: What kind of students learn to fly with you?

All types of people learn to fly here. Their ages really vary, from 18 or 20 right up to 60 and above. Some of our younger students are looking to become professional pilots, but then you might have a student who is 45 years old or more, has worked a lot, saved money and is now looking to do something just for pleasure. So they start learning to fly purely for fun. Our number of students varies a lot, but it might average around 25-30 at any one time.

Q: What are the helicopter qualifications that people can take here in Switzerland?

The first qualification you have to do is the Private Pilot License, the PPL. After that, specific types of training such as night or mountain training may follow. After a certain number of hours you can begin your Commercial Pilot License (CPL). After someone has qualified with their PPL, they can come here and pay to fly just like you would rent a car. Every flight is priced on the number of minutes flown and depending on the size of the helicopter.

Q: What about your personal flying history? How did you get started?

I was about four years old when I started saying I wanted to become a helicopter pilot. I guess this is a normal thing for a little boy – they usually want to be a pilot, a fire fighter or a train driver. Of course I wanted to be a pilot then, but not a fixed wing pilot. I never had any interest in that, I only wanted to be a helicopter pilot. I had taken my first flight even before then in a private helicopter, at one year of age, because my father worked for Rega (emergency medical assistance by air) here in Switzerland where he was a doctor. So I would spend a lot of weekends with him there at the Rega base in Bern.

I started flying during breaks from my military service. In July 2000 I started with my first lesson in Bern. After I had finished my PPL, I went to Los Angeles in the United States where I did my CPL and instrument rating. Finally I came back to Switzerland and converted my US CPL license to the Swiss CPL license.

I then had a great opportunity to fly with somebody also flying from Bern who had bought a helicopter to start a small flying business out of Grenchen, close to Solothurn. He asked me if I would like to fly for his new company, so I said “Sure”. This was my first commercial flying position and later on, I also started my flight instructor work there too. I was there until the end of 2008 before I heard about a job at Fuchs Helikopter.

Q: What aircraft does the team have here at Fuchs?

We have the McDonnell-Douglas series helicopters here at Fuchs, which means the MD500 for example, the larger MD600, and the twin-engine MD900, which is often used by the Police and rescue services around the world, as well as the MD 520 Notar. Then we have the Schweizer 300, which is the aircraft most pilots learn to fly in. We also have the Schweizer 333, which is a little larger than the Schweizer 300 and fitted with a turbine. The number of aircraft we have on-site here varies a lot, up to eight or nine helicopters at any time, as we also sell McDonnell-Douglas helicopters from here. On the pilot side, we have four permanent pilots here with a varying number of freelancers.

Q: How important is technology in your job?

It’s really important. Pilots are always looking for new parts and new gadgets. It’s like cycling or hobbies like that where you’re always interested in such new things.

Q: For a pilot personally, what technology does he or she get to choose themselves?

Certainly one of the most-used devices is the headset, and then second for us would be navigation aids such as an smartphones or computer tablets. For us, when we get in the helicopter, the headset is the first thing we use after putting on the harness.

Q: What do you require from such a headset product?

One thing a headset must be is comfortable to use. There shouldn’t be too much pressure on the head and the product should not move around.

Q: How do you feel FreeCom by Phonak measures up to these requirements?

What’s really nice about FreeCom is that you have nothing on your head, only in your ears. It’s light, it’s small, and you have no problems turning your head.

One thing for us is that when we are wearing sunglasses with a normal headset that puts pressure on the ear, when you turn into shadow and need to remove your sunglasses you have a problem trying to take them off and put them back on. With the FreeCom only in your ear, you have no problem using these products around it.

We also use helmets for safety when we fly. With FreeCom you can fly with or without your helmet, whereas when you use a normal helmet with built-in communication, if you remove your helmet for any reason you lose your communication. And when I’m teaching a student, when we’ve landed I often get out of the helicopter with the student still in the aircraft.  Normally you leave the helmet in the helicopter but this means you get all the noise of the engine in your ears. With the FreeCom 7000 it’s easy; you can disconnect it in one of two places and your ears remain protected, while you can still hear what’s going on around you. You can talk to each other but your ears are still protected.

Q: Could you describe how the system’s ‘dynamic’ hearing protection feels or sounds?

It’s hard to explain. Basically, when you use a standard over-the-ear muff-style headset, this covers your ears and that way your ears are protected. These systems’ Active Noise Reduction often filters lots of the environmental sounds too though, and this means you cannot hear the exact RPM’s and the engine sounds any more. It’s nice and quiet, but sometimes it’s kind of scary too because you can’t hear the turbine very well, and when you fly all day you become very sensitive to its sounds; you can hear small sound changes and therefore you know whether you have a problem or not. You might hear the RPM being slow or too high even before you see this on your gauge. What’s nice with the Phonak is that you can change the sound or level of the environmental noise around you. When I use this feature, I can hear the engine as normal, the RPM and everything, but my ears are protected from too many decibels.

When you first start the helicopter, a lot of pilots don’t use their helmet or headset because they want to hear better what the engine is doing. Then you go from zero noise to the engine’s maximum output and that’s pretty bad for the ears. With FreeCom this process is no problem – you have the ear shells in and you hear everything, but at a certain number of decibels the noise in your ears will not increase any further. That’s great.

Q: How would you describe the FreeCom’s radio communications? 

My first impression, and now my second and third impression too, was that its sound quality is very clear. That’s important so that you understand each other well in the cockpit or when you talk with the tower. There is a big difference between good headsets and bad headsets, which give you some noise in the headset or it’s not really clear what you hear. With the Phonak it’s really good.

Q: What types of headsets did you use in the past?

First I had a Sennheiser headset with ear muffs and built-in ANR. That’s pretty much the industry standard. Then I changed quite soon afterwards to an in-helmet headset.

Q: How would you compare the performance of these previous systems to the Phonak headset you use today?

When you use the Phonak, you have nothing on your head. It’s small, it’s lightweight, you can use a helmet (or not), wear sunglasses, none of it’s a problem. Only the first time you wear the FreeCom, after wearing ear muffs before, you feel quite naked really!

Q: How did you find the FreeCom customization process?

That was no problem at all, it didn’t even take half an hour to take my ear impressions. There was no pain, nothing. And now that I have the ear shells, if I want to use a different Phonak system, I can just click my ear shells out and put them into a new system. 

Alex, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today.

You’re very welcome!

"There is a big difference between good headsets and bad headsets, which give you some noise in the headset or it’s not really clear what you hear. The Phonak is really good," says Alex Itin of Fuchs Helikopter.

Mr. Fook Sing, can you begin by telling us about your organization: what products do you distribute, to what types of client, and what are your particular focus areas?

Kuan Fook Sing, Managing Director of Omni Integer Pte Ltd.: “We distribute surveillance and security products, largely to government departments, in Singapore and surrounding countries such as Indonesia. We also serve as a regional support center, providing maintenance services and equipment training.

“Originally we only distributed audio and video surveillance systems, but we found clients were using many types of communication systems too and that they needed quality accessories for these.

“I first met the Phonak team at an exhibition back in 2007 and after seeing the company’s products I made a special effort to target them and work with them. We have distributed their solutions across Singapore and the wider region ever since.”

Which specific Phonak solutions to you distribute?

Kuan Fook Sing: “We sell the company’s entire law enforcement product range, meaning all its covert earpieces (such as Profilo Nano and its Phonito family of inductive receivers), its radio headsets (Primero, ComCom etc.), its Primero DPC+ and Serenity hearing protection systems and the full-duplex small team radio system Condor. We also recently began carrying FreeCom pilot headsets.”

What are your views, and those of your clients, on the various Phonak products you carry?

Kuan Fook Sing: “If we start with Phonak’s covert earpiece systems, our customers who have tried Profilo Nano, which has zero electro-magnetic interference, never want to go back to inductive earpiece systems. They love it because it is really the one interference-free covert earpiece on the market.

“The Primero DPC+ hearing protection system always excels in terms of user comfort and the quality of protection itself. Customers also like that it comes with lots of options such as custom-molded and generic ear shells that users can change depending on the situation. What also gives our customers confidence is that Phonak has certified the protection this product offers.”

What effect do Phonak systems have on your customers’ working lives?

Kuan Fook Sing: “Customers that use the Profilo covert earpiece say that their previous inductive earpieces, which would suffer from interference, would give them a headache. Primero DPC+ users meanwhile say that in the past the competitor products they wore were uncomfortable and had worse audio clarity than this system gives them now.”

Learn more about Omni Integer.

L-R: Phonak Communications' Head of Sales for Asia, Gelek Tashi, with Angelia Tan, Sales Manager at Omni Integer and Kuan Fook Sing, the Managing Director of Omni Integer Pte Ltd.

Daniel is an aviation man through and through. He first worked as an air traffic controller and now flies for Swiss regional carrier SkyWork Airline, piloting single- and multi-engine piston planes, a Dornier 328 airliner and a Robinson R22 helicopter.

He made the move from traditional aviation headsets to FreeCom 7000 to better meet his desire for an adaptive system that was as comfortable to use as it was intelligent.

“It’s perfect if you can have just a headset that adapts to different circumstances, requirements and noise levels,” he says. “And one that can be used equally in a calm airliner cockpit and a louder, vibrating helicopter cockpit. You don’t want any pressure spots around your ears, or your ears to hurt after 10 hours of operation. And for me, the headset should not reduce the freedom of movement of my head either. The FreeCom 7000 meets these requirements very, very well.

“Every visual flight rules or sports pilot knows that looking out of the aircraft is very important and, in the most serious sense, essential for survival. This means you are always turning and pitching your head, so whether you do this every day with hundreds of grams of weight on your head or just a few really makes a difference," he adds. “It fits perfectly in the ears and it’s very light. Once you’re used to it you don’t feel it at all. In fact the only time I realize I’m wearing it is when I take my meal in the airliner and I have to bend its microphone down to get to my mouth! There’s no more removing it to put my sunglasses on or off , so no time off the radio. There’s no more sweating in summer, and no more weight on the head. FreeCom means complete freedom.”

“Above all else though it is the comfort FreeCom brings” - Daniel Schwerzmann.

The Customer

The technical procurement department of a national Asian police force.

The Challenge

Several of the force’s divisions regularly conduct undercover operations. In Fall 2012 a small proportion of these staff were using, and continue to use, the original Profilo earpiece by Phonak.

The client approached our in-country sales partner having decided to upgrade its diverse mix of mainly analogue two-way radios to the latest digital Hytera model. As part of this procurement process it asked three suppliers to propose 'Hytera + Covert Earpiece' systems that would provide its non-Profilo-wearing staff with excellent speech intelligibility and full operational discretion.

The Solution

The Phonak solution our partner proposed to work alongside the police’s Hytera radios was Profilo Nano. This earpiece was to be evaluated alongside competing products from QDC and Savox.

Profilo Nano is Phonak’s premium covert radio earpiece. Its ergonomic form factor ensures it is comfortable to wear for many hours at a time and thanks to its proprietary transductive technology it is 100% immune to electromagnetic interference (EMI).

The client ran technical evaluations of all three earpiece systems over a period of several weeks, using each earpiece with its pre-specified Hytera two-ways.

The Results

The staff feedback from the Phonak trial was highly positive. Officers found Profilo Nano very comfortable in the ear, invisible to bystanders, and they were impressed by the clarity of its incoming speech sounds. Most importantly, they noted that this audio was never disrupted by EMI, for example when passing nearby circuits such as cars or alarms.

As a result, the client purchased more than 1,000 units of Profilo Nano for use alongside its new Hytera kit. Today every one of the force’s officers uses a Phonak earpiece during their covert operations.

Read more about the Profilo Nano covert earpiece.

Find a dealer.

Contact us about Profilo Nano direct.

"I’ve been a referee in the English Premier League for 20 years. I’m also certified to referee international matches, and in 2011 I had the chance to officiate four EUFA soccer matches.

"In the past we used cheap white headset systems, but these simply didn’t perform. They needed taping to the face, and then retaping due to sweating, otherwise they would fall out of the ear. Then I tried the Phonak ComCom headset after my referee gear supplier suggested it.

"Unlike generic earpieces, ComCom’s ear shell is molded to the shape of my ear, so it sits perfectly in there. I don’t even feel it after a few minutes. It always stays in position and its audio quality is fantastic. It never causes itching, or ear pressure, or hurts in any way.

"I use ComCom with my Vokkero intercom system for instant, clear communication with Assistant Referees and other members of the refereeing team – which is really important in stressful situations. It just provides perfect communication.

"When I talk to colleagues, everyone wants this system. And those who have it will never go back to their earlier headsets. I often recommend ComCom, and I know colleagues who use it in soccer, ice hockey, American football, lacrosse, handball, water polo, basketball, polo and field hockey."

“Unlike generic earpieces, ComCom’s ear shell is molded to the shape of my ear, so it sits perfectly in there. I don’t even feel it after a few minutes. It always stays in position and its audio quality is fantastic. It just provides perfect communication.” - JM, English Premier League/international soccer referee.

Geneva International Airport’s aviation firefighters employed Phonak's Serenity DP custom hearing protection to safeguard their careers and improve team communication.

Firefighters have a dangerous, challenging job, but airport fire fighters have to contend with an additional pressure – the issue of dangerous surrounding noise.

Operating and training every day close to taxiing and departing jet airplanes - and therefore experiencing the continual roar of jet engines - firefighters’ hearing is put at real risk as noise levels regularly reach beyond the accepted safe level of 85 decibels (dB).

A taxiing Airbus A320 50 metres away for example emits 93 dB of sound, which experienced over prolonged periods can cumulatively damage a person’s hearing. A jet aircraft taking off 25 metres away meanwhile creates much greater sounds, of up to 140 dB; a level that can immediately and irreparably damage the inner ear.

“We work in an environment in which our hearing is always being challenged,” explains Commandant Amiguet, who is in charge of Geneva International Airport’s Safety Division, comprising 180 fire, medical, nurses and surveillance service staff.

“Our own vehicles’ sirens are very loud and while direct interventions don’t usually present a hearing problem, the jet engines around us definitely do,” he adds. “There’s a joke in this industry that if you ask an airport fireman of 20 years a question, his first response will be, “What?” There’s a reason this joke exists.”
In the past, like a great many professionals who work in dangerously loud environments, the firefighting team had access to traditional foam ear plugs to protect their hearing. However these products were rarely used.

“Initially the team didn’t have professional molded hearing protection, they only had access to disposable ear plugs,” explains Martial Hofer, Geneva airport’s Security, Quality and Health at Work Coordinator. “However staff couldn’t communicate with each other wearing these plugs – which is obviously crucial for such a close-working team – meaning they simply didn’t wear them.”

Decision time

What specifically led Commandant Amiguet and Hofer to look into intelligent molded hearing protection? According to the Commandant, there were two key drivers.The first was a performance analysis the team ran at Teesside fire training centre in England.

“This facility creates real-life airplane fires of the kind that are crucial to our team’s ongoing development, particularly because we are not able to run such extensive fire tests in Geneva, nor have we ever had a serious airplane fire there. In these tests, the noise of the plane’s engines and the fire itself meant our team struggled to communicate as we would like, even though they have radio loudspeakers and bond conduction radio transmission built into their helmets. They simply couldn’t hear what other colleagues were saying well enough, and therefore they struggled to accurately understand what actions were required.”

"The second reason was that two of the Commandant’s fire fighters had already been diagnosed with a hearing loss. “Our doctors warned us that if these guys didn’t get protected, this hearing loss would get worse and could eventually lead to them losing their driving licenses and their jobs,” the Commandant explains.

On the team’s return from Teesside, the Commandant and Hofer reflected further on how they could ensure their team’s hearing was fully protected, without diminishing their ability to communicate. A subsequent thorough search of intelligent protection providers led Hofer to Switzerland’s Phonak Communications.

“The fire fighters needed protection, yes, but this shouldn’t and couldn’t be a barrier to communication,” Hofer recalls. “Ideally any protection had to allow them to hear sounds selectively – in other words hear only the necessary, important sounds - not the sound of the airplane engines but the voices of colleagues and passengers.”

A second Teesside training exercise was observed by Phonak’s hearing protection specialist, during which the Commandant’s fire fighters trialled the company’s Serenity DP dynamic (or 'active') protection system.
Comprising custom molded hearing protection shells (Phonak's eShells), which slot comfortably into the ear, and a neck-worn control box, Serenity DP was worn under each fire fighter’s protective clothing.

Using miniature binaural ear microphones, this system ‘hears’ and measures surrounding noise levels, then dampens excessive noise to 82 dB, while localizing important signals such as voice commands and warnings (meaning these can be heard as normal). In short, Serenity DP provided Hofer and the team with the ‘selective’ hearing capability they had been looking for.

“The difference in performance was immediate,” says Commandant Amiguet, “and what’s extraordinary is that we didn’t hear any of the annoying surrounding noises we used to hear. This custom hearing protection reduced the background noise but improved our perception of sound signals and in turn improved the safety of the team.”

Career benefits

The 70 Serenity DP systems Geneva’s aviation fire fighters subsequently purchased not only improved their communication but should extend their careers - including those of the two firefighters mentioned - by ensuring that any potential hearing losses are eliminated and staff meet the medical standards required by the country’s aviation authority.

Hofer explains: “All of our fire fighters undergo regular medical checks as demanded by Switzerland’s Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA). These checks are once every two years for those under the age of 40 and every year for those above that age, and a full hearing test is part of these exams.”

These days Geneva’s aviation fire fighters wear their protection as standard, slotting in their eShells each time they suit up to leave the station.

“For our people the system has become just another part of our professional equipment, like our protective trousers or gloves,” Commandant Amiguet explains. “Nobody even discusses hearing protection now as it’s as logical as protecting our hands. We just do it.”

Learn more about Serenity DP hearing protection or visit Geneva International Airport's website.

Hans Wenger, the President of the Swiss Clay Shooting Federation and of Fédération Internationale de Tire aux Armes Sportives de Chasse's 'Sporting Commission', traditionally chose large ear muffs as his ear protection for shooting. Until he discovered that Phonak's Serenity DP system offers a more effective and natural approach.

An ex-soldier and avid shooter all his adult life, Hans Wenger is a man who knows about guns and how dangerously loud their shots can be. An accident during his Army years, which saw a 35mm machine gun was unloaded just two meters away from his ear, led to hearing loss and the subsequent onset of tinnitus. Since then, Hans has been strongly motivated to employ ear protection when shooting, in order to avoid further exacerbating these problems.

For years he employed traditional large ‘over-the-ear’ muffs. “At the time there was nothing else,” Wenger explains. “In winter these were more or less comfortable, however as soon as it became hotter, like when I was shooting in South Africa and it was 40 degrees Celsius, these muffs were very hot. You sweat under them and it’s not a nice feeling.”

The other issue Hans noted was that with muffs, while the protection was total, the convenience was not. “In my shop or at the range I would have to explain things to customers, and with muff protection that’s not really possible without taking them off,” he explains.

It was an early developmental trial of Phonak’s passive hearing protection system, Serenity SP, that led Wenger to become a fan of the custom-molded approach.

“I used a prototype static Phonak protection system, with a fixed level of sound dampening. Once Phonak’s technician had taken my ear impression and supplied the system, I used it for around one month and it was really the best I’d ever used,” Wenger says. “I wore it almost every day; not only at my gun shop in Bern but also practicing at the Jagdschützen Bern shooting range. I found the molded in-ear shells very comfortable, as they fill the ear, and I’ve never had any pain or discomfort using them because they’re made according to the shape of your own ears.”

Going ‘active’

The following winter Wenger upgraded to Phonak’s Serenity DP product, an active or ‘dynamic’ system that electronically measures and responds to the surrounding noise levels, adding extra sound dampening (attenuation) for example when noise levels reach harmful levels, while amplifying useful sounds such as speech when it is quiet.

“I’ve since used my DP system for many different shoots – in Russia, in Portugal, at the Swiss Compact Sporting Championships in Neuchatel, Switzerland, and recently at another competition near Geneva. It works perfectly for me; for practice, for competition, and also when taking shooting courses. I can talk normally to clients when I’m stood behind or beside them. As soon as a shot is fired, the system stops sound coming in, to protect my ears, then immediately opens again. This means that I don’t have to ever take off the protection, for example to speak.”

This type of responsive and intelligent hearing protection device also benefits Wenger in relation to his hearing loss, allowing him to shoot without the uncomfortable hassle of wearing hearing aids under large ear muffs.

“What’s good about the protection is this:” he says, “when I don’t shoot I wear hearing aids and when I shoot I wear Serenity, which I can make louder using its volume control. So in a way this system replaces my hearing aids; it’s effect is the same in terms of amplifying speech when it’s quiet, only it also protects me from shots. This is, for me, better than wearing ear muffs over the top of hearing aids, because usually when you take off the muffs the hearing aids come off too.”

Naturally hearing nature

In terms of its use to date, Wenger has largely used his ear protection for shooting events, and in and around shooting ranges, however he predicts that in future it could well play a role during his hunting too.

“I’ve tried wearing the system when walking in the forest and it is really valuable, particularly because my hearing is damaged, so I can better hear animals and the sounds they make,” Wenger says. “Even if you don’t see the animal, because the sound it makes is slightly amplified you automatically hear which direction it’s coming from, even before you see it. In Portugal during a recent shoot, I even heard bees - I haven’t heard sounds like these for 30 years!”

Wenger adds that for this reason, such active systems could well be a beneficial tool for big game hunters. “I think this type of hearing protection, for hunters, will be very useful. In forested areas for example, you will hear the animals walking more clearly but avoid your ears being exposed to the sound of a rifle shot, which is much heavier than that of a shotgun and really hurts.”

With his intelligent, active protection, Wenger is however still in the minority of European shooters, a situation that, having seen the benefits active protection can bring, he hopes will gradually change.

“Most of the shooters I meet are still using passive ear muffs,” he observes, “although recently in Portugal I saw some guys who were using electronic ear protection for shooting, and here in Switzerland I’ve seen four or five shooters with similar level-dependent systems. But then that’s because I know these guys. After they saw and heard me talk about my system, they got it for themselves!”


About Hans Wenger

Hans Wenger has shot and hunted since 1968. Previously a member of the Swiss National Shooting Team, he is currently President of the Swiss Clay Shooting Federation and President of the Fédération Internationale de Tire aux Armes Sportives de Chasse's 'Sporting Commission'. Mr. Wenger ran gun stores in the Biel and Bern regions of Switzerland for over 30 years, and still regularly organizes shoots across Europe.

Hans Wenger, President of the Swiss Clay Shooting Federation and ‘Fédération Internationale de Tire aux Armes Sportives de Chasse’ (FITASC).

Tibor Rakoczy is an experienced big game hunter and President of the Swiss Club For Austrian Bracken ('Schweizer Klub Für Österreichische Bracken'), a breed of Austrian hunting dog. We asked him a few questions about his hearing protection story.

What type of hunting do you specialize in?

In September I hunt red deer and chamois (a species of European mountain goat/antelope) in the mountains. Then from October to February I hunt roe deer, fox and wild boar in forested areas.

Where do you usually go hunting?

Usually in the cantons of Bern, Valais and Solothurn in Switzerland, and also sometimes in Hungary.

How often do you hunt?

I tend to hunt for two straight weeks in September, and then a minimum of once or twice a week from October through February.

How many Austrian bracken (dogs) do you use?

Whether I use dogs at all really depends on type of hunting. Deer stalking and hunting that involves lying in one spot, prone on the ground, is done alone. In a group, you can have up to 20 hunters and I have two of my own dogs, though these can number up to ten.

Which guns do you shoot?

During September when I hunt chamois and red deer I use a 7mm Blaser K95, or a 30.06 caliber Blaser R93. When hunting foxes with dogs however, I choose a Rottweil caliber 12/70.

How many shots might you discharge on a typical day?

Between one and four shots, but these are not always successful of course.

What hearing protection did you use originally?

I used my simple military ear muffs that I had from doing my national military service.

Why did you decide to change your protection and why did you choose Phonak?

My protection, the muffs, was only passive protection, giving me a set level of protection. It wasn’t sound level-dependent.

My Serenity DP system is the first hearing protection I’ve bought and owned, and it gives me the protection I need based on the surrounding noise.

Phonak as a brand is very well known and trusted here in Switzerland, because of the company’s many years’ experience in hearing technology.

How did you choose Serenity DP?

I used it over a trial period; first at the shooting range and then after that during some hunts.

I was surprised by the quality of the attenuation (damping) and how well I could hear other atmospheric sounds. When hunting for instance I could really hear the animals very well. I could hear them running and even changing direction.

Best of all, I have stopped having the usual ringing in my ears after shooting.

What is the best thing about Serenity for you?

Quite simply, my ears are protected now, which should mean I have less chance of hearing loss when I’m older (this is when hunters usually notice hearing problems). And the main benefit is being able to hear the animals instead of all sounds being dampened. That’s a great advantage.

hearing protection for hunters

Big game hunter Tibor Rakoczy.

“We chose Phonak’s ear prompter for a ballet production called ‘Black Project’, an Anthony Hamilton choreography performed in June 2010 at Les Subsistances in Lyon,” explains the Opera’s audiovisual manager Christophe Martel.

Martel’s team used 25 invisity Flex receivers and one Phonak wide-area TX 300V transmitter. Dancers were equipped with one invisity earpiece each, which allowed them to tune in to the rhythm of the choreography by playing a ‘click track’ audio signal in their ear.

“The spectators heard the soundtrack of the show itself, while the dancers heard the audio signal transmitted by the Phonak system,” says Martel. “We chose the invisity system because this offered a transmission advantage, in that it has no wires, and also because of its ease of use for the dancers, because of invisity fitting the ear so well."

The result? Highly satisfactory in-ear performance, Martel concludes. “We will definitely remember this experience for future productions that require the transmission of a high-frequency audio signal and a compact, ergonomic in-ear receiver.”

Visit Lyon Opera.

Visit Antony Hamilton Projects.

Black Project by Anthony Hamilton.

Jean-Louis Locher von Air Glaciers