ROUND-MOTOR HUM. Budd can recognize the sound of a Stearman formation before it’s in sight.
The other day, I got yet another nastygram. This one from an individual who had read somewhere that my airplane has no mufflers. He had never even seen the airplane, but he’d read about it, and felt driven to comment on it. Even though my little bird came out of the factory with no mufflers, after a lengthy e-mail exchange, his summation of the situation was that “…just because it was certified without mufflers doesn’t mean it should be flown,” and he advised me to “…give up your selfish hobby that is inconveniencing so many on the ground.”
The exchange was much longer, a little more tense and much more ridiculous than the above, but one of my arguing points was that I really do everything that I can to keep from irritating those on the ground. I pride myself on being considerate to others. That, of course, made no difference to this individual. One thing worthwhile, however, did come out of the conversation: Over the course of the several days when the exchanges took place, I began to notice how many people—pilot and otherwise—look up when an airplane passes overhead. It’s a conditioned response. And there’s almost always a pleased, sometimes wistful, expression on their face.
Even standing in my open hangar engaged in conversation with hardcore aviation types, when an airplane is heard winding up on takeoff, everyone turns in unison and watches. While the airplane is out of sight on the other side of the hangar and about to slip its surly bonds, most will cock an ear and venture a very educated guess as to the airplane type, but the conversation doesn’t suffer a bit. It’s understood that pausing to watch an airplane take off is a given. Cherokee, Gulfstream, Cub, F/A-18 Hornet, LSA, no matter. We love them all, and every single one gets our undivided attention.
I’ll be sitting here at the computer and I’ll hear an airplane in the distance coming this direction. Unfortunately, other than a super-narrow floor-to-ceiling opening that looks suspiciously like a gun slit right behind my main monitor, I have no convenient airplane-watching window. So, I can’t see an airplane unless it’s right in the middle of the narrow piece of sky defined by my window. Normally, I just glance up, in the off chance it will pass through my tiny slice of the world. Once in a while, however, I’ll be on my feet, headed for the door at the first sound. I’ll have heard an oh-so-familiar sound that says “round motor.”
Often, the sound is slow-moving, and the image that my mind instantly forms is that of a biplane. Its high-drag airframe is attached to the back of the round motor like an anachronistic drag chute straining to slow it down.
Other times, I’ll hear the unmistakable beat of a round motor, but this time it’s clicking right along, so I hotfoot it for the door, knowing that besides mounting a round motor, at one time this particular airframe probably carried machine guns. The sound of a fast-moving round motor means an ancient warrior is about to pass into view—and I don’t want to miss that rare opportunity.
Sometimes the round motor is plural. The sound of several of them bespeaks one of two things: a multi-engine, round-motored airplane that can’t be missed as it does its flyover, or a number of round motors in varying formations. If the sound is slow-moving, I know the Stearman guys up at Carefree (what an aptly named little town) are headed south and I have to get out and watch their surprisingly solid formation. If it’s a bunch of faster-moving round motors, it’s part of the herd of Yak-52s and CJ6s from Deer Valley that sometimes travel in well-orchestrated swarms. Often it’s a quartet of mechanical singers that form a totally unmistakable harmony: The CAF’s B-17 based across town is about to grace us with its presence.
And then there’s the whop-whop-whop sound that can only mean one thing: Huey. Here, too, it’s usually plural—some of the local units are still flying Slicks and Snakes, and they almost never venture out alone. It’s really a kick to watch a flight of three Super Cobras beating the air aside to make holes for them to fly through.
Of course there’s the occasional, “What the….?” sound that I absolutely can’t identify. We had one of those last week, and I listened for a longer-than-normal period of time, as I tried to attach the sound to a mental image but couldn’t. It was distinctly weird (at least weird in aviation-listening terms), and I could tell they were big, relatively slow-turning blades, but what were they attached to? I got out in the backyard in plenty
of time to see it coming, but until it gained visual form, I had no idea what I was hearing or what I was seeing. It was my first V-22 Osprey, so I can be forgiven that I couldn’t identify it. You don’t see one of those every day at the local ‘drome.
The point is that it’s seldom that an airplane of any kind flies over people of any persuasion and at least a few of them don’t look up and visually track it. They don’t have to be airplane people to look. But, they do have to be people who are capable of dreaming—and who wonder what’s over the far horizon. As the airplane disappears in the distance, most of us watching are probably picturing the cockpit and how we’d look flying it. We try to imagine where it’s going and what the pilot’s seeing. An airplane that visits our personal space for even a few moments fires our imagination and inevitably puts a portion of our soul in the air going right along with it.
Now, about the guy who sent me the nastygram: I don’t know where he fits into the scheme of things, but he’s missing one of the more important factors of airplane noise. If they were silent, we wouldn’t know when to look up, and in missing them we’d be deprived of one of life’s subtle pleasures. And it’s free! Unfortunately, I’m betting he doesn’t see it that way. Too bad. That’s his loss.