Oklahoma City sonic boom tests
The Oklahoma City sonic boom tests, also known as Operation Bongo II, refer to a controversial experiment in which 1,253 sonic boom
Sonic boom
A sonic boom is the sound associated with the shock waves created by an object traveling through the air faster than the speed of sound. Sonic booms generate enormous amounts of sound energy, sounding much like an explosion...

s were carried out over Oklahoma City
Oklahoma city
Oklahoma City is the capital and largest city of the U.S. state of Oklahoma.Oklahoma City may also refer to:*Oklahoma City metropolitan area*Downtown Oklahoma City*Uptown Oklahoma City*Oklahoma City bombing*Oklahoma City National Memorial...

, Oklahoma
Oklahoma is a state located in the South Central region of the United States of America. With an estimated 3,751,351 residents as of the 2010 census and a land area of 68,667 square miles , Oklahoma is the 28th most populous and 20th-largest state...

 over a period of six months in 1964. The experiment, which ran from February 3 through July 29, 1964 inclusive, intended to quantify the effects of transcontinental supersonic transport
Supersonic transport
A supersonic transport is a civilian supersonic aircraft designed to transport passengers at speeds greater than the speed of sound. The only SSTs to see regular service to date have been Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144. The last passenger flight of the Tu-144 was in June 1978 with its last ever...

 (SST) aircraft on a city. The program was managed by the Federal Aviation Administration
Federal Aviation Administration
The Federal Aviation Administration is the national aviation authority of the United States. An agency of the United States Department of Transportation, it has authority to regulate and oversee all aspects of civil aviation in the U.S...

, which enlisted the aid of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Air Force. Public opinion measurement was subcontracted to the National Opinion Research Center
National Opinion Research Center
NORC at the University of Chicago, established in 1941 as the National Opinion Research Center, is one of the largest and most highly respected social research organizations in the United States. Its corporate headquarters are located on the University of Chicago campus...

 (NORC) of the University of Chicago
University of Chicago
The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois, USA. It was founded by the American Baptist Education Society with a donation from oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller and incorporated in 1890...


It was not the first experiment, as tests had been done at Wallops Island
Wallops Island
Wallops Island is a island off the east coast of Virginia, part of the barrier islands that stretch along the eastern seaboard of the United States of America.It is located in Accomack County, Virginia...

, Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...

 in 1958 and 1960, at Nellis Air Force Base
Nellis Air Force Base
Nellis Air Force Base is a United States Air Force Base, located approximately northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. It is under the jurisdiction of Air Combat Command .-Overview:...

, Nevada
Nevada is a state in the western, mountain west, and southwestern regions of the United States. With an area of and a population of about 2.7 million, it is the 7th-largest and 35th-most populous state. Over two-thirds of Nevada's people live in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which contains its...

 in 1960 and 1961, and in St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis is an independent city on the eastern border of Missouri, United States. With a population of 319,294, it was the 58th-largest U.S. city at the 2010 U.S. Census. The Greater St...

, Missouri
Missouri is a US state located in the Midwestern United States, bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. With a 2010 population of 5,988,927, Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the nation and the fifth most populous in the Midwest. It...

 in 1961 and 1962. However, none of these tests examined sociological and economic factors in any detail. The Oklahoma City experiments were vastly larger in scope, seeking to measure the boom's effect on structures and public attitude, and to develop standards for boom prediction and insurance data.

Oklahoma City was chosen, as the region's population was perceived to be relatively tolerant for such an experiment. The city had an economic dependency on the FAA's Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center
Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center
Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center is administered as one of the FAA Regional Offices.Located in Oklahoma City on the grounds of Will Rogers Airport, with around 5,600 direct federal employees the Aeronautical Center is one of the Department of Transportation's largest facilities outside the...

 and Tinker Air Force Base
Tinker Air Force Base
Tinker Air Force Base is a major U.S. Air Force base, with tenant U.S. Navy and other Department of Defense missions, located in the southeast Oklahoma City, Oklahoma area, directly south of the suburb of Midwest City, Oklahoma.-Overview:...

, both of which were based there.

The sonic booms

Starting on February 3, 1964, the first sonic booms began, eight booms per day that began at 7 a.m. and ended in the afternoon. The noise was limited to 1.0 to 1.5 pound-force per square foot (48 to 72 pascal) for the first twelve weeks, then increased to 1.5 to 2.0 psf (72 to 96 pascal) for the final fourteen weeks. This range was about equal to that expected from an SST. Though eight booms per day were harsh, the peak overpressures of 2.0 psf were supposedly an order of magnitude lower than that needed to shatter glass, and are considered marginally irritating according to published standards. The Air Force used F-104 and B-58
B-58 Hustler
The Convair B-58 Hustler was the first operational supersonic jet bomber capable of Mach 2 flight. The aircraft was designed by Convair engineer Robert H. Widmer and developed for the United States Air Force for service in the Strategic Air Command during the 1960s...

 aircraft, with the occasional F-101 and F-106.

Oklahomans initially took the tests in stride. This was chalked up to the booms being predictable and coming at specific times. An FAA-hired camera crew, filming a group of construction workers, were surprised to find that the booms signalled their lunch break.

However, in the first 14 weeks, 147 windows in the city's two tallest buildings, the First National Bank and Liberty National Bank, were broken. By late spring, organized civic groups were already springing into action, but were rebuffed by city politicians, who asked them to show legislators their support. An attempt to lodge an injunction against the tests was denied by district court Judge Stephen Chandler, who said that the plaintiffs could not establish that they suffered any mental or physical harm and that the tests were a vital national need. A restraining order was then sought, which brought a pause to the tests on May 13 until it was decided that the court had exceeded its authority.

Pressure mounted from within. The federal Bureau of the Budget
United States Office of Management and Budget
The Office of Management and Budget is a Cabinet-level office, and is the largest office within the Executive Office of the President of the United States .The current OMB Director is Jacob Lew.-History:...

 lambasted the FAA about poor experiment design, while complaints flooded into Oklahoma Senator A. S. "Mike" Monroney
A. S. Mike Monroney
Almer Stillwell "Mike" Monroney was a Democratic Party politician from Oklahoma.He represented Oklahoma's 5th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives from 1939 until 1951 and represented Oklahoma in the United States Senate from 1951 until 1969.Monroney graduated from...

's office. Finally, East Coast newspapers began to pick up the issue, turning on the national spotlight. On June 6 the Saturday Review published an article titled The Era of Supersonic Morality, which criticized the manner in which the FAA had targeted a city without consulting local government. By July, the Washington Post reported on the turmoil at the local and state level in Oklahoma. Oklahoma City council members were finally beginning to respond to citizen complaints and put pressure on Washington.

The pressure put a premature end to the tests. On July 30, the tests were over. An Oklahoma City Times headline reported: "Silence is deafening!" Zhivko D. Angeluscheff, a prominent hearing specialist serving with the National Academy of Science, recalled: "I was witness to the fact that men were executing their brethren during six long months ... with their thunder, the sonic boom, they were punishing all living creatures on earth."

The fallout

The results of the experiment, reported by NORC, were released beginning in February, 1965. The FAA was displeased by the overly academic style of the report, but stressed the positive findings, saying "the overwhelming majority felt they could learn to live with the numbers and kinds of booms experienced." Indeed, the NORC reported that 73% of subjects in the study said that they could live indefinitely with eight sonic booms per day, while 25% said that they couldn't. About 3% of the population telephoned, sued, or wrote protest letters, but Oklahoma City surgeons and hospitals filed no complaints.

However, with the city population at 500,000, that 3% figure represented 15,000 upset individuals. At least 15,452 complaints and 4,901 claims were lodged against the U.S. government, most for cracked glass and plaster. The FAA rejected 94% of all the claims it received, fueling a rising tide of anger that soared even after the experiment's conclusion. By 1965, Senator Monroney had grown extremely upset over hundreds of letters from his constituents complaining about the FAA's "cavalier manner" of dismissing claims, and began demanding frequent reports from the agency. As late as May 1966, the FAA was still attempting to respond to all of Monroney's inquiries. The SST program lost all support from Monroney, who had initially been a key supporter.

The Oklahoma City experiments were partly to blame for weakening the FAA's authority in sonic boom issues. After the tests, President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon Baines Johnson , often referred to as LBJ, was the 36th President of the United States after his service as the 37th Vice President of the United States...

's presidential advisory committee transferred matters of policy from the FAA to the National Academy of Science. Secretary of the Interior
United States Secretary of the Interior
The United States Secretary of the Interior is the head of the United States Department of the Interior.The US Department of the Interior should not be confused with the concept of Ministries of the Interior as used in other countries...

 Stewart Udall
Stewart Udall
Stewart Lee Udall was an American politician. After serving three terms as a congressman from Arizona, he served as Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969, under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B...

 complained that the NAS did not include one environmental preservationist, and pointed out that although the Oklahoma City tests were stacked in favor of the SST, they were still extremely negative. Indeed by 1966, national grassroots campaigns against sonic booms were beginning to affect public policy.

The FAA's poor handling of claims and its payout of only $123,000 led to a class action
Class action
In law, a class action, a class suit, or a representative action is a form of lawsuit in which a large group of people collectively bring a claim to court and/or in which a class of defendants is being sued...

 lawsuit against the U.S. government. On March 8, 1969, the government lost its appeal. The negative publicity associated with the tests partially influenced the 1971 cancellation of the Boeing 2707
Boeing 2707
The Boeing 2707 was developed as the first American supersonic transport . After winning a competition for a government-funded contract to build an American SST, Boeing began development at its facilities in Seattle, Washington...

project and led to the United States' complete withdrawal from SST design.

Further reading

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