North Pole residents were startled by a sonic boom on a Monday night in late September after an Eielson Air Force Base aircraft went supersonic outside of an authorized zone.
It’s not an isolated incident; people commented in local Facebook groups that the booms occurred intermittently over the summer.
In April 2020 Eielson received a fleet of F-35 fighter jets, which can travel at nearly twice the speed of sound, and the base is slated to receive even more. With the planes come an onslaught of new airmen, who will need to be trained on airspace boundaries. As Eielson’s fleet of F-35s and new personnel have grown, so have concerns about noise pollution.
Residents describe experience with booms
One longtime North Pole resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, describes herself as “very pro military” and was clear that she doesn’t mind the jets flying overhead. However, the sonic booms, she said, do bother her. The booms, she said, are “very upsetting ... they’re scary ... and really take you aback.”
The resident described the booms as “large explosions” both in terms of sound and disruptiveness. The sound on Sept. 20, she said, was “so large and forceful” that she thought something had exploded in the backyard. The boom shook her house and rattled windows but did not cause any damage.
Sonic booms, the sound of shock waves traveling faster than the speed of sound, are unpleasant for people but even worse for animals. The resident said she has four dogs, who “jumped up barking like something was coming after them.”
Eielson spokesperson Parker Dubois confirmed that the house-shaking event in late September was a sonic boom. According to Dubois, an Eielson aircraft flying at 27,000 feet “went supersonic outside of an authorized zone” around 6 p.m. on Sept. 20.
The resident estimates that there have been about five or six sonic booms over summer with the late September event being the most intense. However, Dubois said that without specific dates, times and locations, they are unable to confirm whether the other instances were also caused by Eielson aircraft.
The resident attributes the uptick in sonic booms this summer to the arrival of the F-35s and new pilots.
“The timing of the F-35s and the several sonic booms this summer makes me think it is a combination of a faster aircraft and pilots who were not properly briefed,” she theorized.
The resident recalled that a similar situation with sonic booms occurred about 20 years ago, when pilots were flying too quickly outside of an authorized zone. The Air Force fixed the problem then, and she is hopeful that they will do the same now.
“They need to go over flight boundaries,” the resident said.
An uptick in air traffic
Although the North Pole resident is not bothered by jets flying overhead, others are concerned by the air traffic. Salcha resident Sheila Perry has noticed that frequency of jets flying overhead has increased in the past two years, and it has been particularly disruptive this year.
“It’s insane,” she said, “it’s gotten really bad.” Although she grew up on Air Force bases and has lived in Salcha for about 20 years, Perry said she has never experienced anything this disruptive and damaging.
The jets fly over from 7:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., and Perry said there can be as many as 10 jets per day. The planes, Perry said, “go low, loud and slow” over Salcha. “It’s just terrible,” she said of the noise that can last for as long as 30 seconds.
Though not sonic booms, Perry said the noise is still incredibly unpleasant.
“There’s no way you can sleep through it or talk over it,” she said.
The planes, Perry said, have made living in Salcha — once a quiet and peaceful place — unpleasant. As a result of the incessant noise, many of Perry’s neighbors have moved away.
“People have grown tired of it and feel like they can’t do anything about it,” Perry said.
Perry said she has called Eielson and talked until she was “blue in the face.” However, she said that Eielson has not followed up on her complaints and that nothing has changed.
Impact on wildlife
Skip Ambrose, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, was camped on the upper Yukon River last summer when a F-35 flew “very low and very fast” over the river. Ambrose submitted a noise complaint to Eielson, which he said the base did not follow up on.
Ambrose was particularly aware of both the jet and flight policy because he was part of a study that evaluated the impact of military jets on wildlife. His research went into developing the flight policy currently used by Eielson pilots.
According to Ambrose, noises from jets may disturb animals, but the exact implications are unclear. “There are probably impacts but we are not sure exactly what they are,” he explained. That said, the studies did not find that the jets had any impact on animal productivity.
Yet, Ambrose pointed out, the studies were conducted in the 1990s, when most of the aircraft were F-16s and A-10s. Now, the planes are mostly F-35s, which are are “much, much louder” — up to eight times louder than other types of planes. Ambrose believes that Eielson’s growing F-35 fleet should prompt further environmental impact studies.
“This might require additional review,” he said.
To remedy the problem, Ambrose believes the Air Force should focus on training pilots and making sure that they are aware of authorized zones as well as following up on noise complaints.
The people interviewed noted the need for additional training of pilots and for greater transparency from the Air Force. Air Force spokespeople explained that pilots are trained but mistakes still happen. When people complain about pilots flying out of bounds, the noise complaint process can move slowly.
According to Dubois, when Eielson receives a noise complaint there are several steps that follow. The complaint is sent on to the 354th Operations Group, which then sends it to the appropriate agency, either the 354th Combat Training Squadron for Red Flag-Alaska or to the 354h Operations Support Squadron. Once Eielson hears back, they then respond to the complainant.
“We strive to be as responsive as possible, but sometimes it takes time to track down who was flying in that specific airspace at that specific time,” Dubois said.
In terms of training, all military pilots in Alaska receive local area orientation (LAO) training before taking their first flight, 354th Operations Group deputy commander Dean Miller explained. Pilots who are permanently stationed at Eielson also complete a local area orientation simulator and a flight with an instructor or squadron leader. Moreover, pilots are debriefed on airspace restrictions following every flight. The goal is to “ensure pilots understand the complexities of flying in Alaska,” Miller said.
Miller explained that the Federal Aviation Administration sets the airspace regulations that all pilots, including Air Force pilots, must adhere to. In general, Miller continued, pilots can only go supersonic above 30,000 feet mean sea level in air spaces within approximately 30 miles of inhabited places (such as Fairbanks, North Pole and Delta). Pilots can still fly in these areas, they just must travel at slower speeds. In airspaces that are more than 30 miles from towns, pilots can fly at supersonic speeds down to 5,000 feet above ground level.
Despite training, violations still occur. “Pilots do not knowingly violate the restrictions, but due to the complexities of the airspace and the demanding nature of combat maneuvers in fighter aircraft, sometimes pilots accidentally miss a restriction,” Miller said.
When pilots fly outside of the proper airspace, they are expected to explain how the mistake happened and how to prevent it. After the Sept. 20 incident, Dubois said that Eielson pilots will undergo refresher training about airspace and authorized zones. If a pilot repeatedly flies outside of the space, they could be prevented from flying until they complete further training.
According to Miller, Eielson is not reevaluating its policies, even with the addition of the F-35 fleet and new pilots.
To file a noise complaint with Eielson, contact the 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office at 907-377-2116.