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Air pressure changes, combined with just the right humidity levels, result in a condensation cloud as this F/A-18 passes through the sound barrier. (John Gay/U.S.Navy)

The Boom Stops Here

Hush, hush, sweet SST. Engineers are inventing a supersonic airplane that won't bust windows.

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Dennis Shoffner has heard it all. “I want to make a formal complaint about what these sonic booms are doing to my physical body,” declared one irate caller. “I moved to Barstow over a year ago, and I wasn’t obese back then.” She went on to claim that the sonic booms to which she had been subjected in the past 12 months were making her fat. Shoffner listened politely, held in his laughter, and referred the call to the claims department. “A half-hour later, they chased me down the hall for sending them that phone call,” he remembers.

 

Shoffner is the chief of community relations at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Since 1998, he’s been fielding aircraft noise and sonic boom complaint calls from residents in the surrounding counties. Under his guidance, the complaint line has morphed into a “query” hotline because, believe it or not, not all the calls are negative. Sometimes people just want to know what kind of airplane just went boom over their house. Shoffner spends much of his time visiting nearby communities, attending meetings, and giving out his work phone number to everyone he meets. “What I found out when I went to talk to people is that they felt barraged with noise and ignored by us [at Edwards],” says Shoffner. “There’s a science to dealing with the calls. These people are in the mood to talk, not to listen.

“During their initial call, I try to capture exactly what it is they want to say, and that requires a lot of work,” continues Shoffner. “When people are upset, they aren’t good at accurately communicating their message. I try to slow them down by reading back what they told me, and I tell them I understand—because I do.”

After Shoffner takes down the complaint—on an official “Complex Noise Worksheet”—he determines which aircraft created the disturbance (it isn’t always a sonic boom that generates phone calls), then sends the information to the unit commanding officer. “The first issue is, Were they breaking the rules when they created the sonic boom?” he says. “I forward the reports, but I don’t get to hear about what happens to the pilots—if there’s any disciplinary action taken.”

Shoffner moved to the town of Lancaster, near Edwards, at the age of nine, in 1956. Back then, Century series fighters were booming the area continually.

“When they were flight testing in those years, the same rules didn’t apply,” he says. “One day, our teachers called us out into the schoolyard to watch a B-52 and some chase planes fly over. That’s when a pod dropped from the B-52. We actually got to see the X-15 launch.” Some years later, when he had a job driving a delivery truck in the same region, a B-52 flew so low over his truck that he had to pull over to catch his breath from the shock.

These days, there are two supersonic “corridors” in the area—one high-level and another for low- and medium-level flight. “We would rather test over water, but we can’t always do that in the winter,” Shoffner says. “When it’s cold and wet out, the percussion of the boom feels stronger and the noise travels better.” In the past five years, the F/A-22 test program was responsible for many of the complaints. “People always ask me why we can’t do our testing elsewhere,” says Shoffner. “But the reality is that all of the available airspace has been carved up and taken. And then you also have more people living in areas that didn’t used to be populated.”

That includes Inyo County, to the north of the base, which comprises both the lowest (Death Valley) and highest (Mount Whitney) elevations in the lower 48 states. “Seventy percent of our noise complaints were coming from Inyo—one of the least populated counties in the region,” says Shoffner. “When I asked [the community at a local meeting] if anyone ever heard any jet noise, the room just exploded.” It wasn’t just Edwards’ jets that were booming over Inyo, it was airplanes and helicopters from naval air stations in nearby Lemoore, Fallon, and Point Mugu, as well as other National Guard and Air Force installations. Again, Shoffner used his skills in public relations to smooth the ruffled feathers of Inyo County residents. “Less than five percent of Inyo County belongs to private owners—the rest is government and public land, so there’s a lot of training going on,” he says. With a little bit of finesse, and some calls to the higher-ups at the surrounding military bases, Shoffner was able to help redirect some of the training flights and ensure a little more peace and quiet for residents. “My workday is between 7:30 in the morning and 4:30 in the afternoon, but people can leave me messages if they need to, and I try to get back to them right away,” says Shoffner. “I get a lot of weird calls around the full moon—especially about strange lights and aliens.” Neither of which is generated by booming airplanes, but then again, according to conventional wisdom, neither is obesity.

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