There were strange and menacing forces at work in Oklahoma City during 1964.
“An Oklahoma City woman says her furniture is shrinking,” reported the Washington Post. “A man is worried that fish may take to deeper than usual water this spring and affect his favorite sport.”
The supposed culprits behind these weird Oklahoma City happenings 50 years ago weren’t ray guns or the Blob but what was considered at the time the future of aviation—supersonic flight or, more specifically, the 1,200 sonic booms the Federal Aviation Administration, then called the Federal Aviation Agency, subjected the city to from Feb. 3 to July 29, 1964.
The FAA’s activities were part of the first major experiment designed to measure civilian responses to the sonic booms that most aviation experts and government officials expected to become routine with the dawn of commercial supersonic flight. Although the Concorde would later make that dream a limited reality for a time, supersonic flight never really took off and subsonic flight remains standard today. That’s partly due to the inherent limitations of supersonic aircraft and partly because the concerned citizens of Oklahoma City helped spark a movement against a technology advancing faster, and more loudly, than they were willing to tolerate. A half-century later, echoes of their anxieties can be found in the skepticism and fear that have surrounded new technologies like genetically modified foods and cellphone towers.
Just a year before the tests began, the American airline Pan Am had placed an order for six of the Concordes then being developed by British and French engineers. That kind of transaction might not raise eyebrows today. But in the insecure Cold War days of the early 1960s—post-Sputnik and soon after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space—it was a call to battle for supremacy in the skies.
Days later, President Kennedy made a speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy announcing that the government would be sponsoring the development of an American commercial supersonic transport plane, a program that would continue with full federal support so long as three conditions were met: Producing the planes had to be technologically feasible, both production and operation had to be cost-efficient, and engineers had to keep sonic booms from annoying the hell out of people.
Some officials and aviation experts thought the last condition would be the easiest to meet. Sonic booms, which, as NASA explains, occur when the breaking of the sound barrier creates a shock wave and loudly depressurizes air molecules, were already being produced by fast military jets. But for the development of a commercial supersonic transport plane to move forward, the FAA had to determine just how much booming ordinary Americans were willing to take.
If any populace could have been expected to take booms in stride, it would have been the citizens of Oklahoma City, a town with a major Air Force base nearby and where, in 1964, one in every four jobs was in aircraft manufacturing. In fact, when the FAA settled on Oklahoma City as the site of its first tolerance tests—without asking the city’s elected officials and residents—the local Chamber of Commerce threw a celebratory dinner.
That goodwill started eroding quickly. Within the first week of the FAA’s flyovers, which produced eight sonic booms every day, 655 complaints were registered. John Lear, the science editor of the defunct Saturday Review, wrote that the FAA’s spokesman sympathized. “[N]ervous people might have to rely on tranquilizers,” the spokesman told reporters.
As the tests wore on, more and more of the town’s disgruntled residents started voicing their opposition and confusion.
One woman demanded that the FAA stop dropping atomic bombs. Others called in furiously, the Washington Post reported, to complain about “broken chinaware, fallen mirrors and events—by their own timing—[that] occurred long after the booms had ceased for the day.” A resident claimed the booms ruined television reception. Another claimed the booms improved it. Both were wrong.