Aug 182010

Yesterday I was talking on the telephone when I heard them; two sonic booms. The sound was loud enough to rattle the windows of my house, though not disruptive enough to change the conversation I was having about sandblasting media…

I knew they were sonic booms because I’m 47 and I used to hear them periodically when I was a child growing up in Missoula, Montana. A sonic boom has a very characteristic sound, unlike a firecracker or a gunshot, in that it’s a double noise. This is caused by the dual pressure waves emanating from the nose of the aircraft and the tail. I remember learning this as a child, because my mother allowed me to buy a book at the Missoula Mercantile entitled something like “SST” which stood, of course, for Super Sonic Transport.

At the time, there was a great debate as to whether commercial supersonic aircraft should be allowed to fly over the United States, and this book was a timely and informative source of popular information on the subject.

After I got off the phone yesterday I drove down and bought my bag of abrasives, returned home, then got on the Internet to look for news. Indeed, two fighter jets had scrambled due to a small passenger plane having violated the temporary no fly zone around Boeing Field.

The last time I was in Missoula, I spent quite a bit of time going through the microfilm morgues of both the Mansfield and the Missoula Public Libraries. I was looking for something else, but chanced across the following news story from page five of the Missoulian, dated July 13, 1985. The text within the image is essentially illegible, so here is a transcription. Please forgive me for not including the human interest story of one Karen Simons who “likes the sound caused by military planes flying at speeds of more than 2,000 mph at altitudes in excess of 80,000 feet.”

Reconnaissance aircraft pegged as noisemakers

Supersonic, high-altitude, photo-reconnaissance aircraft out of California’s Beale Air Force Base apparently are responsible for recent sonic booms that have jarred windows and shaken walls in the Missoula area.

Staff Sgt. Cliff Davis of Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls said Friday that Air Force SR-71 “Blackbird” aircraft of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing have been flying over U.S. air space on training missions and refueling exercises.

Built by Lockheed and classified as top secret, the 107-foot–long planes fly at more than 2,000 mph at altitudes in excess of 80,000 feet, said Davis, who called them “the world’s most advanced strategic reconnaissance aircraft.”

Davis, who has been handling sonic boom complaints from Missoula and neighboring towns, said Thursday that the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command in Nebraska has been helping with complaints. Friday, however he said complaints are being processed by Beale AFB.

Davis said the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration try to choose flight corridors that avoid highly populated areas. He said Beale officials have been notified of the Montana complaints and that they’re going to try to work out the problem.

What’s interesting to me about this story is that it became news because it happened in 1985. My memory is that sonic booms were more or less gone by the early 1970’s. There’s clearly a bit of unintended irony as well, because if the story is being reported in the newspaper, with a photograph of the airplane included, it really can’t be “top secret.”

What’s disturbing about the two sonic booms over Seattle yesterday is that it caused massive telephone call overloads to the 911 emergency systems in the area. First off, it’s a testament to how lame, ignorant and fearful so many people are who would call 911 for such a thing. More disturbingly, it demonstrates to terrorists or potential terrorists how easily the 911 system can be overloaded and brought to its knees. What better way to initiate an attack than to disable the fundamental emergency reporting network?

In a less dour vein, it reminds me of a simpler time, when there were separate phone numbers for police, fire and other services. When people would see a UFO, they would often call the police, which makes me to wonder what the police were supposed to do about it; arrest the UFO?

 Posted by on 08/18/2010 Growing Up In Montana, Science

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