Sonic Boom Tests Terrified Oklahoma City Residents 50 Years Ago

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July 29 2014 10:02 AM

Boom and Bust

A half-century ago, sonic boom tests terrified Oklahoma City residents.

(Continued from Page 1)

By May, thousands of payment demands for broken windows and other small but real damages had been filed, and multiple efforts to stop the tests through the courts had failed. All Oklahoma City residents could do, as Lear wrote in a remarkable paragraph that June, was wait for the FAA to process their myriad claims.

Even if it were assumed that all the claims were valid—that the seeing eye dog of a sightless vendor at the capitol was too frightened to perform its customary guiding function, that human victims of heart disease and muscular spasm were detrimentally stimulated, that older people had suffered falls and other accidents, that a schoolroom ceiling lamp had dropped and knocked a boy out of class for an hour … that wild birds had been driven from feeding stations in backyard gardens, that flocks of chickens had been crazed into erratic flight with considerable loss of egg yield and some loss of life—[Judge Stephen Chandler of the U.S. District Court] said the only redress was to wait for processing of damage claims, only 132 of which have been paid to date: a total reimbursement of $7,239 compared to a single claim of $15,000 entered by a chicken grower.

By test’s end, that single claim had been dwarfed by a $1 billion lawsuit against President Lyndon Johnson put forth by a local man and his daughter seeking redress, according to the Los Angeles Times, for “mental, physical, and nervous damage.” The case did not move forward.

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The FAA ultimately only paid $8,608 in damages to residents and argued that the tests had actually proved most could get used to sonic booms occurring on a regular basis. According to data collected by the National Opinion Research Center in 1964, 73 percent of respondents to a survey at the end of the tests said that they could learn to live with eight booms a day. About 40 percent of those who complained felt that they could eventually get used to them.

Nevertheless, the bad publicity surrounding the tests helped move public opinion against supersonic flight, and subsequent years saw concerned scientists, economists, and environmentalists mount a campaign to end the program to develop an American supersonic transport plane. Their concerns about the effects of sonic booms, aircraft pollution in the ozone layer, and the emerging cost efficiency problems hobbling the government’s chosen model, the Boeing 2707, ultimately led to the program’s abandonment and, in 1973, the banning of civil supersonic flights over land.

Since the Concorde was retired due to financial pressures in 2003, a number of efforts to bring back supersonic flight with planes that produce quieter booms have been launched. If the booms produced by planes like the Spike S-512 are less disruptive than the ones that are produced by the Concorde and that would have been produced by the Boeing 2707, we could resurrect the possibility of three- or four-hour coast-to-coast and trans-Atlantic flights within a decade or so. To that end NASA just this year presented research on a potential civil standard for the intensity of sonic booms—a universal goal that engineers and aircraft designers can work toward.

When prototypes finally fly out for testing, the FAA had better give fair warning to the towns below.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Osita Nwanevu is a Slate intern.

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