The boom sonic heard over Washington as fighter jets chase an unresponsive Cessna is a rare sound with a rich history

Nofolk, Virginia – People who live in and around the nation’s capital have witnessed a rare, if startling, sound: a sonic penetrating boom.

The boom was heard Sunday after the US military sent six fighter jets to intercept an unresponsive business jet flying over restricted airspace.

The Air Force gave the F-16s permission to fly faster than the speed of sound—something civilian aircraft rarely do—as the planes scrambled to catch up with the Cessna Citation. The result was a resounding boom that reverberated through a metropolitan area of ​​more than six million people.

The business jet eventually crashes in rural Virginia, killing the pilot and three passengers.

What follows is an explanation of what sonic booms are, their history in the United States, and their possible future.

What is a sonic boom?

You hear sonic booms on the ground when planes fly overhead at supersonic speeds. This speed is typically about 760 mph near sea level, but can vary depending on temperature, altitude, and other conditions, according to the Congressional Research Service.

As the plane accelerates through the air, the particles are pushed aside with great force, “and this forms a shock wave, like a boat creating a wake in the water,” according to NASA.

“When this line of shock wave passes through, listeners on the ground hear a very loud noise,” according to an explanation from the Australian University of New South Wales.

Anthony Brickhouse, an associate professor of applied aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said the F-16s flying over Washington Sunday were “most likely trying to go as fast as they can catch up” with the wayward Cessna.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon can fly at 1,500 mph or twice the speed of sound, known as Mach 2, according to the Air Force.

What is the history of ultrasonic travel — and boom?

In 1947, test pilot Charles “Chuck Yeager” became the first person to fly supersonic in an orange Bell X-1 rocket plane. His exploits are recounted in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff” and in the 1983 movie Inspired.

In the movie, someone on Earth asks, “What is that sound?” As Yeager flies over the Mojave Desert, breaking the sound barrier.

Interest in supersonic flight initially focused on military aircraft, according to the Congressional Research Service. But it grew to include civilian supersonic aircraft in the 1960s.

For example, the Soviet Union became the first country in 1968 to fly a supersonic passenger plane, the Tupolev TU-144. But a fatal crash at the 1973 Paris Air Show ended that ambition.

In 1963, the US government announced a major program to develop supersonic passenger aircraft. But serious problems soon arose, including massive development costs and doubts about financial viability. The program ended in 1971.

During the 1960s, NASA was tasked with helping develop commercial supersonic aircraft and researching the effects of sonic booms. It found that people who experienced it were not happy with the loud sounds, describing them as “annoying”, “annoying” and “startling”.

In 1973, the FAA banned supersonic flights over Earth, “based on the expectation that such flights would result in sonic booms reaching Earth,” the Congressional Research Service wrote.

The Anglo-French supersonic Concorde was a success for several years after it made its first commercial flights in 1976. However, its sonic boom annoyed people on the ground and led to restrictions on where the plane could fly.

In the United States, the plane mainly flew over the Atlantic Ocean to New York and Washington. It can fly at twice the speed of sound. It promised to revolutionize long-distance travel by cutting flying time from the east coast of the United States to Europe from eight hours to three and a half hours.

Concorde did not become widespread. The aircraft’s economics were difficult, and its sonic booms led to it being banned on many overland routes. Only 20 were built. 14 of them were used for passenger service.

In 2003, both British Airways and Air France discontinued service to Concorde.

The sounds of sonic booms are still heard in the United States from the country’s military aircraft. In 2021, a sonic boom from F-15 fighter jets causes widespread concern of an earthquake on the Oregon coast.

What is the future of passenger hypersonic travel – and sonic booms?

In 2018, the Congressional Research Service noted a revival of interest in supersonic aircraft, as startups hope new technology will make them quieter and more profitable.

Since then, American Airlines and United have purchased supersonic aircraft from manufacturer Boom Supersonic. The plane is still on the drawing board and years away from flying — not all industry observers believe it will be profitable.

Meanwhile, NASA’s X-59 is designed to fly faster than sound — but with dramatically reduced noise — over Earth, according to an April blog post from the agency.

“People below would hear sonic ‘beats’ rather than a bang, if they heard anything at all,” NASA wrote.

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