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Pursuing Our Profession Silently

John L. Petersen

Some years ago, I went down the hall in the E-ring in the Pentagon to see the then 3-star admiral friend of mine who ran all of naval aviation. At one point I got around to asking him what his biggest problem was at that time. I was surprised at his answer: neighborhood encroachment at his naval air stations. What he was telling me was that as civilians built houses closer to his airfields the noise from the aircraft were causing a problem with the homeowners and they were raising a ruckus with their politician friends-and that was causing a significant issue for the Navy all over the world.

It reminded me of when I was a nugget junior officer living on base at the Alameda Naval Air Station in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Every time the repair facility would do an engine test on the J57 engines for the A-3 aircraft that I then flew, even though they had the test stand sticking as far out in the bay as they could, it rattled the windows in the bachelor officer quarters such that all conversation would stop for the 3-5 minutes while they ran the engine through it's high-power run-up test.

I was young then and didn’t think much about it.  If I had, I may have had the bumper sticker opinion that all that noise was just the “sound of freedom” as I’ve heard some old soldiers referring the disruption produced by helicopter operations near residential areas. Maybe it’s just my problem, but I’ve never equated patriotism with pollution, although I guess some people do.

It’s interesting that we in the GA business have such a low sensitivity to the noise that our machines produce.  What other job can you think of where a goodly number of the profession puts on a coat and tie and goes to work in an environment where the ambient noise level is so loud that they have to use headphones to muffle the outside noise and amplify the normal speaking voice of the folks that they are communicating with – some just a couple of feet away.  Ours is not a steel mill or an aircraft carrier deck.  We’re not stamping metal with giant presses that shake the ground.  Think about it, we’ve got engines the size of those in every car and truck in the country, but ours make far more noise.

In my profession of looking at future trends it is clear that people all over the world are becoming increasingly concerned about their environment.  It’s certainly the case with smoking in public places, tail pipe pollution pumped into the air, industrial and agricultural run-off finding its way into streams and rivers, and sound levels in neighborhoods.  There have had mini-revolts in the spiffy suburbs around Hollywood generated by the disruption produced by weedeaters and leaf blowers wielded by foreign workers who were impervious to the noise because they were wearing Mickey Mouse ears (that’s what we called noise suppression devices in the Navy).

Of course, the AOPA has full-time people fighting the neighbors all around the country who want to close local airports.  San Jose, San Mateo, Naples, and any of a number of other places where GA flies close to the people. Why?  Mostly because of the noise.  Can you imagine what the problem might be if there wasn’t any noise – or if it was the level of an automobile or a pickup?  I don’t think there would be a problem.  People aren’t concerned about low flying aircraft – they don’t want to be disrupted.

The GA industry has been treating noise like the automobile industry has been reacting to calls for better fuel economy.  Even though it is reported that every automobile sold in China must get at least 35 miles per gallon in fuel economy, major American manufacturers launch all of their lobbyists on Congress every time the hill wants to raise the average CAFÉ standards to something like 28 miles per gallon . . . by 2025!  They say they can’t do it and it would cost jobs, etc., etc.  Can you believe that if American and Japanese and German engineers suddenly were required to build more fuel efficient engines they couldn’t equal the efforts of Chinese engineers?  (Well, the fact probably is that some of those cars manufactured in China are engineered by GM engineers and other folks a little closer to home, so maybe it’s not just an engineering issue after all.)

The same certainly is the case with engine and propeller noise in aircraft.  If we wanted to do it, we could certainly find solutions.  We just don’t think that it is important.  I once suggested to an AOPA VP that aircraft noise had the potential to be a major issue threatening the future of GA and got not much more than a shrug in response.  Regardless of the reality, the public already thinks that we’re a bunch of rich guys who either own or operate airplanes.  Why do you think they’ll cut us some slack downstream when they finally get really mad about all of this when most every other polluting industry is working on eliminating their effluent and we’re not.

Once it seemed that it might just be possible to convince my wife that flying an ultralight out of one of the fields of our farm in West Virginia would be a reasonable idea.  So, I went to Oshkosh and checked it out -- but I didn’t want to hassle the neighbors with the noise from the Rotaxes that they all use.  Remember, people like the country in part because it is quiet.  The manufacturer’s rep said that there was nothing they could do to make the engines quieter (something about them being 2-cycle, or something), but I knew friends who were doing exotic aircraft design for spooky government agencies who were producing little lawn chair construction aircraft (and helicopters, for that matter) for sneaking into dangerous places around the world that made almost no noise . . . so I knew it is possible.  The incentives are just not in place. Commercial aircraft have certainly gotten much quieter.  Why can’t we?

Airplanes are not just noisy, they’re more expensive to operate because they’re noisy.  We have to burn gas to make that noise.  It costs more and doesn’t do anything for us.  It’s like waste heat, or sulphur dioxide coming out of the stack of a coal-fired power plant. If engine and prop manufacturers put their heads to it , they could produce more fuel efficiency and less noise at the same time.  That’s a particularly good idea in the face of an almost certain global decrease in the production of petroleum in the coming years (which is another piece of this puzzle).

So every time you look up with interest to the sky (as I always do) when I hear an aircraft two or three miles away, think about the future of aviation, the pollution of the environment, citizens who want to live in peace, the cost to operate an aircraft, and the decreasing availability (and therefore increasing cost) of fuel. Just think about quality of life.  That might convince you that it’s high time that we in the aviation business began to seriously work on silently pursuing our wonderful profession.


John Petersen is a retired naval aviator, private pilot, and a director of the Lindbergh Foundation.

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