Decoding sonic booms in SWFL

KEY WEST, Fla.- The shaking, the rattling, and a sound similar to an explosion.

Dozens of residents flooded the WINK newsroom with calls and messages in January and February, asking what caused the loud booms and trembling walls. The answer is sonic booms from military jet training out in the Gulf of Mexico.

“A sonic boom is when parts of the aircraft go faster than the speed of sound,” explained
Captain Steve McAlearney, the commanding officer of the Naval Air Station in Key West.

McAlearney says the mission at the air field is training in air-to-air combat, “you want to be able to establish and maintain air superiority and air supremacy in any theater, anywhere.

McAlearney adds that supersonic flight is crucial to the training.

“Why go supersonic?,” asked McAlearney. “That’s what we expect the enemy to be doing.”

During the supersonic flights, that’s when sonic booms occur.

“The airwaves compress, the airplane breaks those waves that are piling up as you approach the speed of sound, and as it goes through there, you get a sonic boom,” McAlearney explained.

The Naval station in Key West uses more than 25,000 square miles of air space to the west of the island, called W-174, a self-proclaimed perfect location for the training because of its size and lack of commercial air traffic, among other things.

“It allows us to train from the surface up to as high as we need to train,” McAlearney said. “Nearly the entire range is supersonic, and that’s really important to us, to be able to train at realistic air speeds.”

The closest part of W-174 to Southwest Florida is about 51 miles from the coast of Sanibel. Most of the Naval station’s missions won’t go supersonic until at least 69 miles away, so McAlearney believes residents might not be hearing their missions specifically.

“First of all, we do fly a long, long way, couple hundred miles away to do some of this stuff.”

McAlearney says the sonic booms heard locally are most likely coming from sector W-168, which is only 17 miles from Sanibel and run by the Homestead Air Reserve Base.

Although McAlearney says he doesn’t want to speak for the Air Force, he does say the “air space and weather” are the same reasons as to why W-168 is another perfect location to fly supersonic.

The Naval Air Station in Key West flies about 36,000 operations a year, 365 days a year. Although training goes on all yearlong, officials say they hear the most complaints during wintertime because of the cold and dry air.

“Certain days where it’s cooler and maybe winds are out to the west,” McAlearney said. “There’s a higher likelihood you would hear a sonic boom.”

There have been no reports from local residents of glass breaking as a result of sonic booms, McAlearney says that’s due to certain rules that are in place. A pilot usually won’t go supersonic closer than 30 miles from shore, and with the advanced GPS today, it’s easier to keep track of and stay in the supersonic box.

“Certainly no one going supersonic too close to the Fort Myers area, where they got out of the box and kept going. We haven’t seen that,” McAlearney explained.

Officials add fly zones remain close to land to save gas and taxpayer money. McAlearney says they may think about warning residents of the possibility of hearing sonic booms on days that are cooler and drier.

WINK News was unable to reach Homestead Air Reserve Base for additional comments.