This past weekend I got to experience a thrill. It was a rarely seen sight – three fighter planes flying in formation over my little corner of the midwestern suburbs. That these three fighter planes were of the kind that would have last seen action in the 1940s was what made the scene such a treat. But more than the sight was the sound.
I am a motorhead. I love mechanical things. More than anything, I love the sound of an engine. Different engines have different sounds and for those of us who notice this kind of thing, some of those sounds are a treat.
A modern car with a four or a V6 engine is a normal sound. Some of them sound a little different than others do, but they still make sounds that are more or less background noise, even for someone like me.
But an older V8 or certain older inline six engines are simply music to my ears. These were background sounds when I was growing up, and in those years I soaked them up almost unconsciously. Now those sounds light up certain areas of my brain and make me happy.
The sound of a piston-engine aircraft does the same thing for me. The jet engine was well on the way to dominance in the years of my childhood but I can still remember the sound of multiple massive piston engines powering an airplane through the sky.
I can recall the thrill from a few years ago when a B-24 Liberator was in town for an air show. The B-24 was a four-engine bomber from World War II. Those things suck fuel at such a rate that the only way it is possible for one to be kept airworthy is for it to somehow earn its keep on the show circuit, which involves selling rides.
I still recall the day I stood in the parking lot of my office and watched that plane slowly lumbering through the air, all four of those giant radial engines making what some would have considered a racket but which I considered as fine music – music that sent a thrill all the way through my bones. When I later found out that this was one of only two of this model that remain airworthy, the thrill went even deeper.
I experienced the same thrill as these three fighters flew in big, lazy circles. Every time they would come back my way I would hear the engines getting louder before their sound would drop to a lower note as they passed. I have been told that this is the Doppler Effect, that the sound waves from an approaching airplane are different from those that come from a plane as it flies away.
I went into a store to do some shopping and was delighted to hear those planes yet again as they flew over the building. This time they added an element of surprise to the experienced as I could not see them coming. It was then that something struck me: This sound, one that I awaited eagerly and thrilled to as it passed overhead would once have been a sound as terrifying as any ever made to huge numbers of peoples all over the world.
The people of England, Europe, Hawaii, Islands of the Pacific, and those on vessels on the ocean would once have lived in fear and dread when that sound became audible. As one living in the middle of the US during a time of uninterrupted peace, I cannot begin to imagine the emotions that would come from that sound during a time of war. Would the planes pass harmlessly by? Or would there be deadly and destructive bomb blasts or machine gun fire to accompany them?
I don’t really have a point to this but to consider how a sound can be all about its context. This being the week of Independence Day in the US, we can all enjoy the sound of fireworks both big and small as being part of a celebration. Who doesn’t love a good fireworks show? But for some those are also the sounds of death and destruction in places where gun shots and bomb blasts have upset the kind of normal life everyone wants to live.
In a way they are both the same thing. Fireworks are meant to signify long-ago military battles that brought plenty of terror in their own day. Warplanes did the same thing, only more recently. In both cases, however, enough time has passed that the sounds of exploding gunpowder and obsolete armed aircraft are more associated with good things than with bad.
It would be naive to hope that the sounds associated with modern warfare could soon be transformed in the same way. The world is a dangerous place. The playground will always have bullies and the world will always have aggressors – essentially the same thing, but for a wildly different scale.
I guess this makes me appreciate the time and place where I live quite a lot, where I can enjoy the sound of old warplanes and fireworks as something fun. It is my sorrow that not everyone can enjoy the sounds that accompany these things. And my child-like hope that this will not always be so.
Opening photo of F4U Corsair, P40 Warhawk and T6 Texan – Wikimedia Commons, Photo in the public domain.
B-24 Liberator Diamond Lil – Wikimedia Commons, Photo dated May 31, 2015 by R’elyh Photography