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Unraveling the Sonic Boom

Written by on Friday, February 10th, 2012

Yesterday’s article featured some of the world’s most amazing airshows, but it didn’t go very deeply into why people find planes so alluring. Many people look at planes with a sense of awe, only just barely understanding the complicated mechanics of flight and amazed at such incredible examples of human engineering. With the notable exception of space flight, the one aspect of flight that has captivated audiences the most is the sonic boom, an explosive burst of sound that occurs when an object breaks the sound barrier.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the sonic boom is so mysterious to civilians is because it is a very new discovery. Chuck Yeager was the first man to officially break the sound barrier with flight in 1957, while piloting the specially crafted Bell X-1. Since then, technology has advanced to the point where supersonic flight is a common feature of aircraft, especially military aircraft.

But what is a sonic boom? While the event is a bit scientific, it is not very difficult to understand. Basically, as an object travels, it emits sound waves out in all directions. The speed of sound varies a bit based on altitude and temperature, but it is generally measured at 768 mph. The important thing to note is that the speed of sound is always static, and is not relative to object producing the sound.

Imagine that you’re standing still and you throw a baseball 10 mph. Then, suppose that you’re driving a car 50 mph and you throw the baseball out of the window at 10 mph. That baseball is moving 60 mph because you add the speed of the car. Sound generic cialis usa works differently. Whether you are standing still or driving at 100 mph, the sound waves are always “thrown” at 768 mph. Imagine if the baseball that you threw always moved 10 mph regardless of how fast you were moving. In that case, you could actually drive much faster than the baseball.

But as you travel, you are constantly emitting sound waves. As you approach the speed of sound, you reach a point at which you are creating a sort of wall of sound, because the sound waves are all stacking on top of each other. Suppose that you were running 10 mph and every ball you threw also traveled 10 mph, so they traveled the same speed as you. If you keep throwing baseballs, you will create a sort of cluster of baseballs around you that will hit an object at the same time.

The same goes for sound waves. The outer rims of the sound waves all hit at the same time, creating the tremendous sonic boom effect. Instead of hearing the jet as it passes you, you are simultaneously hearing all of the jet’s movements for the past several seconds, because all of the sound that it makes reaches you at once.

While many airshow enthusiasts care little about the science behind sonic booms, the visceral impact of the sonic boom as it rattles your bones is the same for all audiences. You can’t help but laugh in delight as a sonic boom crashes over you.


If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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