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Here Comes the Boom

SST and Sonic Boom Handbook, by William A. Shurcliffe (Citizens League Against the Sonic Boom), privately distributed by the League.

By James M. Fallows

EVER SINCE people began to realize that cars, factories, and the other fruits of modern technology often cause as many problems as they solve, Fighting Progress has been an honorable American pasttime. One of the most active current crusaders on this front is William A. Shurcliffe, whose role at Harvard is senior research assistant at the Cambridge Electron Accelerator, but whom Congressmen and airplane builders know better as the muckraking director of the Citizens League Against the Sonic Boom.

Shurcliffe began his official crusade in early 1967, when he founded the League. Since then, as the League's director, he has spent much of his time trying to convince Americans that they don't really want planes whooshing through their skies at supersonic speeds. More specifically, Shurcliffe wants to convince Congressmen. Since the federal government is being asked to shell out, bit-by-bit, most of the $1 billion it will take to get the first supersonic transports (SSTs) into the air, the League feels that turning off the federal financial tap will effectively ground the SSTs.

The latest weapon in the campaign is this handbook, published late last December. The book makes no pretensions of literary sparkle or cohesion; guessing that politicians and journalists would rather develop their own cases against the planes, Shurcliffe merely presents a barrage of facts in 30 short chapters. But the facts, of course, cannot be neutral, and what emerges from the handbook is an impressive condemnation of the whole SST project.

The most obvious objection to SSTs is that they cause sonic booms. The problem, as Boeing engineers and the Air Force know so well, is inherent: since the SSTs' only virtue is their ability to go faster than subsonic planes, and since the increased speed inevitably means creation of a boom, there's no way to get rid of the problem while keeping the SSTs' benefits. After pointing this out (in a chapter puckishly called "Is there a cure for the boom?"), Shurcliffe tells why booms from the sky are bad.

FIRST, he says, there is the psychological effect. The Air Force has run a series of tests purporting to prove that people don't really mind being boomed from above, but Shurcliffe says that the tests don't really prove that. The test booms were only 60 per cent as strong as real SST booms would be, he claims, and people in the test cities knew the booms would be coming at regular intervals--somewhat like a clock striking the hour. Even so, Shurcliffe says, people in the test areas weren't happy with booms.

Shurcliffe then moves on to paint a grim picture of what the real sonic boom would be like. The chapters on "Annoyance and Injury to People" conjures up visions of light sleepers being rousted from their beds by sudden booms and surgeons making tragic blunders when boomed at the operating table. There are statements from newspapers telling about deaths from sonic booms, and even psychologists' analyses of the "irritation and frustration, as well as dramatic declines in work efficiency" that chronic booming would produce.

Along with the detailed medical (increased heart rate, possible deafening) and philosophical (destruction of the placid environment) arguments, Shurcliffe sometimes brings in some rather baroque objections. For example, conductors will not want their concerts ruined; and American citizens will be subject to a "Chinese water torture" of continually repeated booms.

And then there is the physical damage sonic booms may cause. The "Disasters caused by sonic booms" tells of some of the famous boom catastrophes. Shurcliffe has a knack for the cute story, and his most picturesque tale here is of the Air Force official whose speech minimizing sonic boom problems was interrupted by a sonic boom that blew out windows all around him.

Shurcliffe then moves into calculated prophecy. Working from probable SST flight paths, he predicts that some $3,000,000 worth of buildings, windows, and furniture would be bomed out of existence on every day of full national SST operations. And in addition to this house-shattering, Shurcliffe says that chickens will suffocate in boom panics, cattle will stampede, and fish will flee from boomed water areas.

BUT FOR ALL the effective horror Shurcliffe is able to create, the most important part of his book is its attack on the SSTs' ability to fulfill their main goal: moving people more rapidly. As a greater and greater percentage of travel time is used up by getting to and from the airport, Shurcliffe says that the difference that SSTs will make in transcontinental travel time will be worthless. Decreased reliability of the new planes may mean that more are held up at the airports; and probable limits on SST travel over major urban centers might make the SSTs as practical as Indianapolis racers on Mass Ave.

Probably the most disturbing evidence Shurcliffe brings in is the data suggesting that SSTs would be substantially more dangerous than conventional commercial planes. Shurcliffe's documentation in his chapter on "Dangers in SST flight" is impressive, and he uses it to show two kinds of hazards:

* General dangers of high speed flight--including metal strain, lack of maneuverability, and increased chance of crash landings; and

* Specific problems of commercial SSTs--including fire danger from the vast fuel load, vulnerability to poor weather conditions, and the limited number of emergency airports that could handle the big SSTs.

If these dangers don't scare passengers away, there may be enough other annoyances so that SSTs will become commercial flops. The zooming acceleration will be too fast for the standard passenger's taste, Shurcliffe says, and the peep-hole windows will make for an unpicturesque flight. The speed advantage could conceivably overcome these annoyances, but Shurcliffe suggests a more compelling limitation. Since the needle-shaped SSTs will hold fewer passengers but cost more to run than conventional jumbo jets, fares will be much higher for SST trips. And so, Shurcliffe suggests, airlines that had stocked up on fleets of SSTs might find them losing propositions.

But there is a sense of urgency--and semi-futility -- behind Shurcliffe's mammoth attack. As his League knows, the U.S. push to build the SST is a self-perpetuating process: each year, more and more money has been poured into the project, and thrifty legislators are less and less willing to give up the whole idea. So what Shurcliffe now has to do is convince Congress that it's better to give up what's been invested than to throw away any more. To that end, he spends many pages trying to prove that the SST will be obsolete before it is built. His argument here probably got a boost when the Russians unveiled their prototype SST late last fall; but even that has caused a semi-backlash, as a few Congressmen have urged the U.S. to step up its race to beat the Russians to the boom.

Shurcliffe winds up his book with a nearly-superfluous "Editorial comment," urging the U.S. to keep aviation from becoming "man's scourge." The plea has convinced the League's members and some 20 anti-boom groups across the country: the real question is whether it can convince Congress.

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