Where can I go to hear a sonic boom?
August 17, 2007 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Where can I go to hear a sonic boom?

Reading this question and the resultant discussion brought back to mind one of the things I've always wanted to experience: a real sonic boom. I've gotten some pretty awesome kicks in the chest from jet flyovers at airshows and I want more! Yes, I know that a whip's crack is a mini sonic boom, and that bullets can travel faster than sound, but I want to hear a real big one, made by a plane.

I know that the Space Shuttle makes a sonic boom upon reentry, but since there's never a real set date, time, and location for those, that's impossible to plan for. Do other countries not have the "no sonic booms over land" restrictions? If so, it seems like that'd something that people could experience at an air show.
posted by zsazsa to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your profile says you're in California, so why not head up to America's Salad Bowl and check out the Salinas Air Show in September? The Blue Angels, who love making sonic booms and setting off car alarms, will be there, and you're also close to Gilroy and Castroville, the garlic and artichoke capitals of the world, respectively!
posted by mdonley at 1:53 PM on August 17, 2007

Or you could wait until the fall, when Fleet Week happens in San Francisco. I don't know if the sounds the jets make are actually sonic booms, though. They're loud enough to scare my cats and make me irrationally angry, but I don't know if that's really a sonic boom.
posted by rtha at 2:08 PM on August 17, 2007

There is usually at least 24 hours notice if a shuttle is going to land at Edwards AFB in CA and the booms cover a very large area, so it's not too difficult to be in the right place at the right time. The shuttle booms I've experienced have been pretty faint compared to the real booms we used to hear all over CA in the late 50s and early 60s when I was a kid.
posted by buggzzee23 at 2:08 PM on August 17, 2007

I once heard a sonic boom while hiking in the Kern River valley in central california. Not sure what the jets where doing there or if its a regular occurrence.
posted by subtle_squid at 2:09 PM on August 17, 2007

The Blue Angels do not intentionally produce sonic booms during their performances. From their Web site FAQ:
"#31. What are the fastest and slowest speeds flown during an air show?
The fastest speed is about 700 mph (just under Mach 1; sneak pass) and the slowest speed is about 120 mph (indicated speed; Section High Alpha), both flown by the solo pilots during the show. "
There's a good reason for that; sonic booms have the potential to knock people off their feet. The Blue Angels would fail in their mission of being goodwill ambassadors of the Navy, if they went about knocking air show audiences off their feet.

The reason the sonic booms produced by the Space Shuttle are faint is that they are designed to happen when the vehicle is at very high altitude (in excess of 100,000 feet), so as to minimize damage on the ground, and aerodynamic stress on the vehicle. Once the Shuttle gets into atmosphere thick enough to efficiently propogate sound waves, it is traveling at sub-sonic speeds, and dropping like a brick with wings, at a sink rate of about 5,000 feet per minute. But the sonic booms it does produce are no less "real" for being comparatively faint.
posted by paulsc at 2:36 PM on August 17, 2007

There are a variety of overland supersonic corridors around where you might hear a boom if you happen to be in the right place at the right time.

If you live in CA, I'd suggest going to somewhere near Edwards and hanging around for a few days.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:58 PM on August 17, 2007

Groom Lake, Nevada? Watch out for weird planes, though. But, seriously, any out of the way air base or test facility may produce them. I heard one up in the Texas/NM area where there was nothing much but ranches and cows.
posted by Jacen at 3:30 PM on August 17, 2007

I realize that this doesn't exactly answer your question, but there are a number of sonic booms to look at and listen to on YouTube. This one and this one are my favorites; in the latter one, the force of the sonic shock wave condenses water out of the air into a sudden cloud.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:37 PM on August 17, 2007

The only times I've ever experienced a real, full-on, end of the world sonic boom were the mini air shows we would stage for family-day cruises on the aircraft carrier. We'd drive out in the ocean a ways, and all the planes would fly around in various formations.

After showing off each type of plane doing what they do, typically they would stage some kind of mock-dogfight to get everyone's attention on one side of the ship, then a lone jet would circle around unnoticed away from the group. The next event would be a plane at max speed doing a flyby from aft to forward, very close aboard. bam! When you feel it, you will know why they can not and will not do that near the unsuspecting general public.

The grand finale would usually be a massive group formation flyby of every type of aircraft in the wing. The bone-rumbling noise of that is impressive, too.

You're going to have to go to some place not near populated areas, like to sea, or the desert. Maybe Edwards AFB has an annual air show, where they could get away with that?
posted by ctmf at 3:41 PM on August 17, 2007

Add sonic booms to the list of things people younger than a certain age have never experienced. Always thought they were cool when I heard them growing up.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:01 PM on August 17, 2007

No answer to your question but as one who often experienced sonic booms during the 1960s, growing up in DC, I must report that although hanging around Edwards might be fruitful this shuttle idea probably won't be. I was in Palmdale once when I knew an early shuttle mission was landing, I was outside during the critical point of the descent and heard nothing. On the other hand, a few missions later I had the same info and went ourside when I was in El Sugundo (which is in LA, south of LAX) where I did hear the shuttle's faint duoble sonic boom -- but as detailed above it was nothing compared to a real, window-rattling boom.

Another place I'd hear booms, in the 1970s, was on the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Sometimes, you wouldn't see or hear the plane. They're probably caused by flyboys from Pax River or Langley practicing, out over the Atlantic.
posted by Rash at 4:16 PM on August 17, 2007

Wow, paulsc and ctmf, I guess I stand corrected. I remember seeing the Blue Angels at an air show, and remember hearing sonic boom-like noises, but I was only 10 years old or so, so I might be mistaken; that would have been in the early 1990s at El Toro MCAS in southern California. Sorry to lead you off course, OP!
posted by mdonley at 4:31 PM on August 17, 2007

Here you go -- California it is. Being former Air Force and working operational support for some of the fighter and bomber squadrons, my experience chalks the area northeast of Edwards up to China Lake for sonic booms. I wouldn't think they're very common though, and I've never really heard of them occurring outside of CA and NV.
posted by rolypolyman at 6:02 PM on August 17, 2007

Also FWIW here is a sad footnote about an American city being the unwilling guinea pig for sonic boom experiments in 1964.
posted by rolypolyman at 6:05 PM on August 17, 2007

Operational area east of Fallon, Nevada. Fallon is home to U. S. Naval Air Station Fallon - home of Top Gun.
posted by KneeDeep at 7:49 PM on August 17, 2007

As I understand it, protocol and air density generally dictate that most planes capable of supersonic flight will not exceed Mach 1 under certain altitudes. I imagine that setting off sonic booms, phenomena easily capable of shattering glass or rupturing ear drums, at low altitude would rapidly earn the ire of anybody in the flight path.

I recommend that you find someplace that a jet manufacturer does military testing and trials. I don't remember names, but I know a number of military bases do testing out in the desert of the Southwest. Which one does aircraft testing, I dunno.

Having located said base, I would recommend researching flight areas by finding no-fly zones for aircraft, reading pilot accounts of flights near there (these may not exist *shrug*), etc. Alternatively, you might try military flight training schools. You want to try this on days with *excellent* weather, as newbie planes and pilots won't fly on days with poor conditions.

Having located the area, stake that shit out. Try not to look like a terrorist. Or a spy. Don't park right on the border of the military land. Taking pictures probably isn't a good idea. Drive out into the desert, bring lots of water, and a picnic lunch. Maybe a pavilion to sit under, since it's going to get mad hot and wicked sunny.

Enjoying your day in the desert is key. This is like fishing. You have absolutely no idea when and if you'll get your boom. I recommend against using lures (flares, decoy aircraft, radar beams), as the bite of the modern military aircraft scrambled to protect the sensitive facility will probably flatten you. Bring your PSP or DS. Bring some friends, have a desert dessert Hope, but do not expect, that you'll hear a sonic boom.
posted by Netzapper at 9:47 PM on August 17, 2007

s/desert dessert/desert dessert party./
posted by Netzapper at 9:50 PM on August 17, 2007

FWIW you feel it more than you hear it!
posted by alby at 4:31 AM on August 18, 2007

Yeah, I don't think there are really many places the typical person can go to hear a sonic boom. They definitely don't do it at air shows. The only time I ever heard one was on September 11th, when some planes took off from the Air Force base 7 or 8 miles away from my school. Even at that distance, the ground shook...we all thought the place got bombed or something.
posted by gueneverey at 12:08 PM on August 18, 2007

FWIW, I live 100 miles south of Edwards AFB, and the last time the shuttle landed there, my house shook like a boulder landed on the roof.
posted by killy willy at 4:50 PM on August 19, 2007

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