The Air Force in the Jet Age

March 1, 1956
All of the concern about noise has generated from a relatively few number of complaints. Do you realize that of 6,000 airports in the United States, only about 250, or about four percent, are Air Force bases? If we add the airfields of the other services, we can say that five or six percent of all our airfields are military bases. Many of these bases do not have jet operations, and only a handful support supersonic operations.

The trouble we have had is nothing, compared to the trouble we could have, because aviation is tending toward more noise, not less. Long ago we foresaw this problem. We started noise studies, and noise abatement programs. Yet the complaints already received indicate the future magnitude of the problem.

Theoretically, we could move Air Force bases away from cities. Actually, we are trying to do this, but it will never be a complete remedy. We cannot even get enough base money to properly prepare existing bases to accommodate our modern, high-performance aircraft. You can imagine how much it would cost to build all new bases all new bases away from population centers.

Our criteria for future bases requires them to be located at least fifteen miles from the local community.

But this does very little good. Wherever you plunk down a multi-million dollar air base with a several million dollar payroll, local construction and service contracts, and local civilian employment, you will be surrounded by a rapidly growing community, partially before you even get an airplane of the ground. An air base is a big business. It makes the nearby cities bigger and it automatically generates communities where none existed before.

There are unlimited examples of this happening throughout the country. Tinker, for instance, was originally several miles from Oklahoma City. Now Midwest City, a suburb of Oklahoma City, partially surrounds Tinker Field, and they have done a magnificent job in protecting Tinker Field and its surrounding area.

An example closer to home is Andrews. When it was built during World War II, it was comparatively isolated. Now Washington and its suburbs have grown completely out to Andrews.

Even if it were possible to build isolated bases and keep them isolated there would have to be two big exceptions.

Part of our air defense is necessarily based to protect population centers. To provide maximum-range, 360 protection to a metropolitan area, the interceptors must be based close to that city. Any other policy would be like putting the city fire department out in the country.

The second exception is or Reserve and National Guard bases. We could not expect effective Reserve participation, if our Reservists had to use most of their limited time just trying to get to their bases. The major proportion of our Reservists and Air National Guardsmen live in or near populous areas. It is common sense that their bases be located nearby.

I might add that we are under constant pressure to give these Reservist components first-line equipment. We want them to have first-line equipment, because they would be of little use if they did not have it. But as we give these units first-line equipment, the noise of their operation gets louder.

Nevertheless, let me assure everyone that insofar as it is financially possible and tactically sound, we will continue to try to get our bases away from population centers.

There are other measures we can and are taking which offer better immediate and local help. Here are some of them.

You know the technical developments now under way. Several of these are projects initiated by industry. For ground run-ups there have been developed a whole gamut of Rube Goldberg devices to reduce the sound level.

Our Research and Development Command and our aircraft industries are spending lots of time and money to develop silencers or mufflers for jet engines. Unfortunately, many of the gadgets developed so far degrades performance. These are unacceptable since our margin of security depends on ever-increasing performance of combat aircraft. In flight, we have adopted time-consuming, fuel-wasting, and tactical inefficient traffic patterns both for take-offs and landings.

Community relations efforts to explain and keep the people informed really pay off. They do not reduce noise, but they at least make the reason for noise a little more understandable.

Our commanders, for instance have had much success with what we call pre-conditioning communities. Before a combat wing moves into a new area, we explain to the local people what to expect and why our air operations are necessary.

The way these communities have reacted and accepted the minor inconveniences of better defense is a tribute to the understanding of the American people.

All of our present difficulties have been generated by the noise of jet engines of four to eight thousand pounds thrust. The noise of these comparatively small engines have already become a nuisance in some localities.

Now, let’s look at the future.

Questions like these face all of us:

  • What will the effect be of jet noise from engines of twelve, sixteen, twenty, twenty-five thousand pounds of thrust, which are not too far off?
  • What will be the effect of hundreds of jet airliners operating in and out of population centers?
  • What will be the effect when increasing numbers of light planes become jets?

As civil airplanes become jet-propelled, military aviation will no linger receive sole blame for jet noise. But that is no consolation, even to us. This noise problem will become one the whole nation will face—and I think you civil operators will find your choices of action even more limited than we are finding them in the Air Force.

For one thing, airliners will find it more difficult to play with traffic patterns. Air Force planes, even bombers, can and do execute sharp turns, steep pull-ups and so on, to avoid flying over communities near bases. I do not know what would happen if you put a load of paying customers through even a mild two-G turn, but I’ll bet the outery would drown out the jet noise.

Also, airliners operate on tight cost margins. You will not want to fly large, time-consuming, money-consuming traffic patterns.

Even more important—your business is carrying people and cargo. You can’t find many customers in isolated areas. Your business takes you and your noise to the cities. For passenger convenience, the closer you are to the city the better.

So what is the solution?

This is becoming a national problem. Military and civil aviation must work together to do everything possible consistent with security and progress.

We should expend every effort to reduce disturbance to communities by routing, flying techniques, and mechanical silencers.

But I am afraid that these solutions will not be enough.

The big job is to get our nation to recognize this as a largely unavoidable consequence of progress. Gill Robb Wilson had pointed out that every technological advance has had undesirable side effects—and opponents of those side effects always try to stop our progress. Their efforts to halt progress always succeed in slowing it down, but they have never succeeded in stopping progress.

Noise is just something we are going to have to live with. The American people will eventually understand this. We must do all we can to speed this understanding.

In fifty years we have learned to live with the stench, noise, expense, death, and destruction of the automobile. I doubt that noise will cause the destruction in a hundred years that the automobile does in one.

While there is a threatening death toll on the highways, there is not a one of us who does not value the automobile. We have not like its by-products, but we have learned to live with them.

I foresee the same acceptance of the undesirable side effects of flying. It is conceivable that the airplane will affect our way of life just as has the automobile. Homes may be designed sound-proof—boom-proof. Communities may grow away from centers of air activity.

Now, as far as the Air Force is concerned, let us look a little further into the future. We are getting into the field of short take-off and landing planes. We are developing zero launchers to get aircraft airborne, and mats and barriers for landing. We are getting boundary layer control and reverse thrust. The vertical take-off aircraft is coming. All of these will alleviate the noise problem because they will get us up and down faster, and make it easier to stay away from communities. Like all new developments, they will probably bring on new problems we haven’t even imagined yet.

Looking even further into the future—we are getting more and more into the missile business. Eventually, a great proportion of our defense and offense will be in place, poised—ready-to-fire—missiles. Let me add, parenthetically, that this won’t happen until missiles are as dependable and effective as pilots. This time is coming, but it’s not here yet. Now, these missiles won’t make a bit of noise until we need them—and at that time we’ll have other things to worry about.

To sum up my remarks on noise—it’s a growing problem. It will be handled partially by our noise-suppressing measures. The end answer is acceptance. We must not only pre-condition communities, we must pre-condition the nation.

I just wish our jet noise were our only problem. To me the echoes of Communist H-bomb tests obliterate the noise that comes from building defenses against them.

So far the public has objected to noise primarily because it is a nuisance, not a hazard. I believe we will be able to keep it from being considered hazardous.

Other Jet Age problems will be the result of public concern over danger. There are several of these. Problem areas include air traffic control, congestion at and near airports, and heavy landing and take-off traffic over populated areas with the increased potential for tragic accidents.

Most of these are problems shared by civil and military aviation. One, however, is peculiar to military aviation. I speak of the weapons carried on aircraft.

It is only common sense that whatever weapons our Air Force uses must be readily available. Instant readiness means survival.

The Air Force has been in the nuclear bomb business for over ten years now and you may be sure that full attention has been given to every detail of design and methods of handling required to eliminate the possibility of an accidental nuclear detonation of weapon, either in the aircraft or on the ground. You may readily appreciate that an aircraft crew would be hesitant to fly a vehicle unless the hazard to them of an accidental detonation was essentially non-existent. With this built-in safety, the worst condition to be expected would be the hazard associated with conventional high-explosive weapons. These safety features have been, and will continue to be, tested realistically, to assure that the chance of an accidental nuclear detonation is so remote as to be incalculable.

Even though our weapons have an extremely high degree of built-in safety, our handling of any kind of weapon is super cautious. Machine guns, for instance, are not charged until the aircraft is in an area where they can be safely fired.

External rocket connections are not hooked up until the aircraft is in take-off position—pointed away from all populated areas. It is standard procedure for aircraft carrying any kind of ordnance, even small practice bombs, to fly many miles out of their way to five a wide berth to all towns or villages.

The point is that handling and carrying ordnance, from bullets to A-bombs, is potentially less dangerous than many other operations. It is not, and will not be a major problem, to conduct these actions in safety.

The last topic I wish to include in my discussion of future operations is the nuclear-powered aircraft. I want to allay any fears there may be about hazards in operating this new plane. A nuclear engine will be merely a new form of propulsive power. Our sister service, the Navy, has been operating a nuclear power plant in its submarine, the Nautilus, with safety and dependability. The controls built into a nuclear engine will make it no more dangerous than any other engine.

By no means let anyone be confused. Nuclear weapons and nuclear airplanes are not synonymous.

Actually, our hopes for peace and progress rest, to a large extent, on this big difference between a nuclear bomb and a nuclear reactor. The bomb could, in many ways, darken the world. The reactor could eventually light the world.

The nuclear-powered aircraft will not be solely an instrument of war. It would be developed even if the threat of war were buried forever. It is a step of profess that is as inevitable as the nuclear power plants that generate electricity, or nuclear-powered ships.

There will, of course, be new problems associated with the operation of nuclear power plants. A great deal of our research in developing nuclear power plants is devoted to finding out what these problems will be.

You have read of the airborne nuclear reactor now being tested in an Air Force B-36 based in Texas. These are the first flights of an actually operating reactor. The reactor presently provides no propulsive power. It is running simply so we can test its effects upon the components of aircraft in flight.

This is one of the means by which we are determining the potential problems of nuclear flight in order to be able to whip them before they ever become real problems.

These flights will also enable us to design safety procedures for nuclear flights.

Actually, there are many ways in which nuclear flight could be much safer and even less hazardous than conventional flight. Theoretically, nuclear engines can be the most dependable engines ever made. Engine failure in flight and during take-off or landing should be almost non-existent.

Even a greater safety advantage is the nuclear plane’s boundless range and flying time. These days, bad weather combines with definite limitations on aircraft range and endurance to become a major cause of accidents. Imagine the day when a pilot can have an unlimited choice of alternate airfields, or an unlimited time to circle and wait for the weather to improve.

The same qualities will help to solve another problem that is being discussed in this conference. This is air traffic control. Everyone agrees that the high speed and high fuel consumption of jet airplanes is completely incompatible with our present air traffic control system. Planes with unlimited range and endurance will certainly be welcome in any system of control and will never be a problem.

Our main problem overshadows all the difficulties I have discussed here today. Our biggest problem of the future will be the same as it is now. That is, to keep American airpower able to do its job. Solving the difficulties we are discussing here will certainly enable us to do our job better.

I think the Air Force Association is to be congratulated for its foresightedness in organizing conferences like this. These meetings of civil and military aviation leaders will certainly point the way to keeping our airpower superior.

Gen. Nathan F. Twining—General Twining became USAF Chief of Staff in 1953. He received AFA’s highest award, the H. H. Arnold Trophy naming him, “Aviation’s Man of the Year,” in 1955. Born in Wisconsin in 1897, General Twining was graduated from West Point in 1918 and won his wings in ’24. In World War II, he had tactical command of all AFs in the South Pacific, later heading the 15th AF in Italy and the Mediterranean Allied Strategic AFs. In 1947 he took over command of our forces in Alaska. He became AF Vice Chief of Staff in 1950.