Here Comes Superplane


Yet the S.S.T. seems to have its own momentum, and Mr. Nixon is not the only President to be scooped up in its path. Lyndon Johnson also ignored the report of his own study group, which advised that “there is absolutely no justification for building this plane.” Since Mr. Nixon’s inexplicable decision, the outcry against the S.S.T. has grown in volume. “The administration talks about saving money,” said Senator J. W. Fulbright of Arkansas, “and then decides to allocate huge sums for this plane.” Representative Bertram Podell of Brooklyn wondered publicly how the administration could “torpedo” the proposed urban mass-transit trust fund, yet subsidize a vehicle that will “allow us to cross the ocean in two hours so we may be stuck in traffic jams for three.” But perhaps the most telling commentary to date was delivered by a Stanford University law professor, William F. Baxter, who observed in a recent issue of the Stanford Law Review:

Present governmental generosity toward the SST program is a discouraging comment on our sense of national priorities: It may soon be possible to fly from Watts to Harlem in two hours and to disrupt the lives of everyone in between.

Superplane enthusiasts discount the latter possibility. John Volpe, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, has pledged that there will be no overland flights by S.S.T.’s until the sonic boom has been brought within “acceptable limits.” But at this writing Volpe has yet to define what he means by acceptable limits. Moreover, there is no foreseeable technological solution to the sonic-boom problem. A National Academy of Sciences committee reported after two years of study that “prospects for dramatic reduction in the intensities of sonic boom … are not readily apparent.” It is the inevitable result of propelling a heavy object through the air at such a speed (faster than the typical air molecule travels) that the air in front of the object is thrust aside in a few millionths of a second instead of flowing around the plane in the usual manner. The result is a sudden shock wave, a hurtling wall of compressed air, and there seems no way to avoid it.

The second fallacy of the pro-S.S.T. argument is that supersonic flights will necessarily be restricted to over-water routes. Who, including Mr. Volpe, will enforce such a restriction when (and there is only a negligible “if”) the carriers begin to complain that they are losing not only their shirts, but the taxpayers’ as well? Many observers believe the superplane will be incapable of turning a profit unless it flies over land. And finally, there is the curious assumption that people on ships at sea, or on islands, will somehow suffer less from the boom simply because there are fewer of them. An S.S.T. flight across the North Atlantic would “boom” some four thousand persons, which, of course, in terms of numbers would be preferable to the ten million Americans who might expect to be boomed by a coast-to-coast flight.

A sampling of past sonic-boom incidents suggests what may be expected when the superplane begins upholding the nation’s aeronautical superiority:

May, 1968: Fifty thousand dollars’ worth of windows shattered—appropriately enough during graduation exercises at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Injured: fifteen persons. The culprit: an F-105 flying at an altitude of five hundred feet.

August, 1967: Three persons killed in the collapse of a barn in Mauran, France. The culprit: a sonic boom of unknown origin.

August, 1966: In Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, eighty tons of rock loosened on ancient Indian cliff dwellings; many caves damaged irreparably. More damage recorded in the time since then. The culprit: Strategic Air Command supersonic bombers.

January, 1965: Gordon Bains, then director of the S.S.T. program, is at White Sands Missile Range explaining to reporters that persons who claimed their property was damaged by sonic booms often were victims of their own imaginations. “I believe,” he is saying, “that there’s a great deal of psychology in this.” Suddenly, five hundred feet overhead, an F-104 punctures the sound barrier. Two plate-glass windows blow out, cancelling Bains’s banter.

But Professor Baxter of Stanford may have come even closer to the representative situation when he observed:

All the cracked $5 windowpanes, all the dinner dishes dropped on kitchen floors as a consequence of startled reactions, all the millions of hours of sleep lost while comforting frightened children, the razor-nicked chins, the interrupted concerts, the hammered thumbs, the crest-fallen cakes and omelets— all these will produce not litigation but at most a silent curse at the industry, at the FAA, or at a society that seems to many to have confused technology with civilization.

By some accounts the damage claims against the industry may run to two million dollars a day in the United States alone. And there will also be the as yet immeasurable, unlitigable effects upon man himself, be he ever so adaptable.