May 4, 2014

Sounds from the Sky

When I was growing up there were very few sounds from the sky, and when there was a sound, it was so unusual that most everyone looked up to see what it was. Usually it was a DC3 passenger plane, droning on and on, taking forever to cross the sky. Or, by comparison, an air force jet streaking across – the kids watching and waiting to see if it would break the sound barrier, as it often did, and then, KA-BOOM! The sound would rattle the windows in the house. Once in a great while a little single engine plane, buzzing like an insect. Never a helicopter. And a few times a year, the Goodyear blimp slowly hummed by on some mission, (not involving television), and everyone ran outside to see its fat silver shape (with no advertising).
Things began to change. More and more passenger planes, and soon, jet engines roared across the sky. Jets made a completely different sound, more like a roar, and crossed the sky much faster. Sometimes twin engine helicopters made a noisy appearance, maybe on a military mission. More and more little single engine private planes, owned by God knows who, usually flying so low you could read the numbers printed on the bottom of the wings. The air force jets were flying much higher than they used to and made a unique sound like they were tearing the air, and I suppose they actually were.
More and more passenger planes, some still had propellers. You could easily tell the difference between a single engine, double engine and a four engine plane just by the sound. Air traffic was becoming so common that hardly anyone looked up any more when a plane flew over. Starting to see some small, single engine helicopters with a raucous, clanky sound. Blimps still appeared, like a surprise, and still sounded the same, with a slow, deep humming.
Private jets entered the sky, owned by princes or rich executives. They made a different sound, loud and important, such a screaming and efficient-sounding engine, different from other jets. The police were beginning to use their one helicopter to monitor crime below. Helicopter engines had improved over the years and now produced an efficient-running, yet very loud, clapping sound. Of course all these different machines were flying at very different altitudes, which produced still different sounds.
Sheriffs began using helicopters for search and rescue in the mountains, and hospitals began building a heliport on site to handle incoming patients. Soon they would have their own helicopters, and they all sounded different.  Rescue helicopters have a distinctive sound similar to army choppers. Television stations, at first, used single engine planes to monitor the traffic congestion below, but later moved to their own helicopters. The largest networks had the biggest ones, generating a smooth and commanding sound as they hovered like an angel of death over accidents and catastrophes. Fire departments started using amphibious water scooping tankers for water drops on wildfires in the mountains. These twin engine beauties usually fly in pairs, low and reverberating, you can’t miss them.
Back in the 1980’s there was a fruit fly infestation in Los Angeles County, and the Agricultural Department determined the only solution was to drop Malathion poison from the air on everything and everyone below. For several weeks the squadron of five helicopters flew slowly all over the area at night and dropped their chemicals. We were reassured that the toxicity level would not hurt us, but small children were encouraged to rush indoors when they heard the helicopters approaching. Five helicopters with wild searchlights dropping poison from the sky sounded like an invasion of giant dragon flies – were we doomed?
Even more passenger planes up there, only jets now. And more helicopters. More, and still more, all moving in their own flight pattern - all making their own distinctive sounds. These days we are accustomed to these different sounds from the sky, and the amazing thing is, we can usually tell what type of aircraft is flying at what altitude, just by the sound produced. No, we are more than just accustomed to these sounds - we are sound experts.
There is a normal montage of sound that we expect to hear as background noise during the day and night. But one morning I went outside, and something was different. I was hearing a new sound from the sky. It was a far-away jet sound, very powerful, first faint, then loud, then faint. I could just barely hear it, but it was there. In ten minutes or so the whole series happened again: faint, loud, faint. Very powerful, far away. Was I hearing things? It happened again, and again in the same pattern. I called around and found the answer:  a U.S. Air Force jet fighter is constantly circling in a wide radius wherever the president of the United States happens to be. Sure enough, the president was in town that day.
“How we live in that village!”
Some day, if and when you’re able to get away from these sounds, away from the flight paths and crime, away from the fires and rescue, away from the hectic travelers, there is a silence waiting for you. You will know it when you hear it.

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