Sound & Fury
“What the hell was that?” I asked. Several years ago, we were climbing out of 8000 feet in my V35B Bonanza returning from a vacation trip to South Texas when there was a loud bang from the rear of the aircraft. A quick look at the panel showed nothing amiss and there was no change to the flight characteristics. I kept waiting for any further indications of problems while my wife, Judy investigated. She quickly solved the mystery when she discovered the ruptured bag of potato chips that had suffered an explosive decompression as the ambient air pressure decreased with altitude. As you might imagine, it took a bit for my heartrate to return to normal. This was not my first encounter with unexpected noises.
We tend to associate particular sights with memorable aviation events, but to me, the sounds that accompany these are often richer and more deeply rooted in the recollection.
Many years ago, I had landed a job as a Part 135 charter pilot flying a Piper Commanche from our small airport. On one of my first flights with a paying passenger onboard, I took off and began climbing towards my cruising altitude. Immediately after rotation, there was a very loud banging sound from the side of the airplane. Convinced something terrible was wrong, I levelled off and called back the airport office. I’m sure my voice reflected the stress level I was feeling as I reported the problem. “There’s something wrong with the airplane. It is making a loud slamming sound and I don’t know what might be causing it. I’m returning to land.” There was a pregnant pause before the old guy who ran the operation, replied with exasperation dripping from his voice, “Check your seatbelts.” Sure enough, I had left the tag end of one of the belts outside the door which resulted in a series of enthusiastic bangs against the side of the fuselage. Suitably humbled, I sucked up the belt as tight as possible and completed the flight.
More recently, a similar sound signaled a more serious problem. This time, I was flying a Cessna 182 Amphibian on my way to Alaska. On climb out from Medford Oregon, another “bang” got my immediate attention. It seemed to come from up front and this time, I noticed an increase in engine roughness and a decrease in power. The JPI engine monitor showed no power being produced from cylinder number 5 which explained the loss of performance. I reversed course, called Medford Approach and announced I was returning with an engine problem. Thankfully this put me over lower terrain as I followed Interstate 5 back towards the airport. I declared an emergency and requested a straight-in approach. The controller moved a couple of airplanes out of the pattern, and I landed without further problems. Taxiing to the FBO, I shut down and climbed out of the big Cessna to find the belly coated with oil. The Lycoming engine had suffered a stuck exhaust valve which bent the pushrod and allowed the oil to escape. The dipstick showed around 4 quarts remaining so it would not have run much longer.
Just last month, on another flight with a new Bonanza owner, we were on an IFR flight plan in cruise on our way to Midland, Texas for his first volunteer effort for Angel Flight. The first indication that something was wrong came when the intercom stopped working. Unable to hear each other, I tried unplugging and inserting the headset plugs without any change. Next, the pilot/owner tried to contact Houston Center and could not get a reply. We could barely hear them calling us, but they were not receiving our transmission. Nothing seemed out of order with the radios, so we tried the number 2 comm. Again, we could not get it to transmit. Still able to hear ATC but unable to respond, my former student suggested squawking 7600. I agreed and this got an immediate response. “N636RP, I see your 7600 Code. If you can hear this transmission, IDENT.” This established that we could receive (barely), but not transmit. After a bit of discussion, we decided that continuing was not prudent, so we reversed course. ATC observed this and figured out we were returning to our departure point. “You are cleared to Llano direct, maintain 6000.” We were going to need an instrument approach due to a cloud layer, so we were discussing going to the initial approach fix rather than to the airport. The controller came up with a suggestion. “I can give you a phone number if you want to try calling Houston on your cell phone.” I hit the IDENT button to acknowledge. The controller passed along the phone number and John was able to connect via his headset. He explained our situation and copied the clearance. We descended, intercepted the approach, and landed without further difficulties. As we were approaching the airport, the radios seemed to start working again. “Hmmm, what’s going on?” I wondered. After shutdown, John mentioned that he had spilled some water onto the center console. That happened to be where the pilot headset jacks were located. It turned out that this had caused the weird problems. Apparently, these don’t like being doused with ice water. Once everything dried out, the radios worked normally and John now has a new rule, “No liquids anywhere near the console.”
Now before you get to thinking this is all about sounds that accompany problems, let me share a few of the other kind.
There is the sibilant curl of water from the chines leading to a quiet lapping of the waves against the floats as we coast to a gentle stop on the beach at a wilderness cabin. Almost the only sound to be heard. A silence so deep it is a bit unnerving but magical.
Then there is the “tink-tink” of the engine cooling down after a difficult flight as I push the airplane into its hangar. Time for a bit of reflection on the amazing privilege of flight as we unload the gear and put the airplane to bed. With the work done, there is time now to relax and unwind from the day.
If you are ever near a floatplane dock as the row of radial powered Beavers and Otters are cranked and left to warm up, take a couple of minutes to simply listen. It is some of aviation’s finest music. Same with airshows and warbirds.
And did you know that you can hear wingtip vortices? I was standing in a parking lot watching the Southwest 737s on approach to Houston’s Hobby airport on a cloudy, windy day. The ceilings were low so there was a mighty roar of engines as each flight emerged from the overcast. As the sound from the engines faded, there was a small window of silence. Then, I could hear an eerie “ripping” sound as the vortices swirled overhead. If you ever hear it, you will probably think twice before following too close behind an airliner. “Spooky” only barely describes the invisible menace.
And it’s not just airplanes….
If you ever have the opportunity to fly in a hot air balloon, there is that wonderful roar from the burner as it heats the air in the envelope. Then, the crashing silence when it shuts off, allows quiet conversations with people passing by underneath as you float by.
Another poignant memory… I had completed a Private Pilot Practical Test for a young man who had sacrificed a great deal to reach this milestone. As I worked to complete the paperwork, Clint was joyously reliving the checkride. Suddenly, I noticed he had stopped talking. Instead, he was standing there, quietly sobbing. I asked, “Hey Clint, are you okay?” He gathered himself and said “My wife and family have been so supportive of my journey. They have sacrificed so much so I can be here today. I can’t believe this is finally done. This has been a dream for so long, and today, the dream is realized. I can’t believe it is really done.” I saw the tears, the immense joy of this singular accomplishment. I can promise you, Clint wasn’t the only one choking up.
Now, I’m sure you could add to my list of sounds that resonate in our collective memories. But, I’ll leave you with one other example of memorable sounds.
On a descent into the Houston area, many years ago, I was listening to the Houston Astros baseball game through the ADF when we had such things. Judy was dozing in the right seat of the Bonanza. She often doesn’t like to wear a headset so she could not hear any of the ballgame. The Astros were one run behind in the bottom of the ninth inning with two runners on base and one out. The pitcher delivered a very hittable ball and the Astros batter promptly hit it to the shortstop for a double-play, ending the game.
I slapped my leg and loudly exclaimed “Holy Crap!”
Judy bolted upright, convinced something awful had just occurred with the airplane. If looks could… well, you know the rest. Actually, things were pretty quiet on the ride home after that.