On a glowing Wednesday, Clark County residents rest on blankets and folding chairs in the cool grass at downtown’s Esther Short Park to listen to a noon concert by country band Flexor T.
Halfway through the show, two sleek, black fighter jets scream across the blue sky, drowning out part of the song “Hot Blooded,” and drawing the audience’s eyes skyward.
Children’s fingers point, and for a few moments, there’s a sense of collective wonder at the power shooting through the sky.
The sound of the Oregon Air National Guard F-15s’ combat training flights out of Portland International Airport are a routine part of summer concerts at Esther Short Park at noon on Wednesdays, but for downtown residents and workers, the fighter jets are a daily slice of life. They swoop over downtown at least twice a day on a largely predictable schedule, drowning out concert music, silencing business conference calls and interrupting cellphone conversations.
“They definitely drowned out the music, but they’re only deafening for a minute, and then, they’re gone,” said Mary Jo Hoffman, who works at City Hall.
There’s no question downtown Vancouver is a noisy place to live. The ambiance is punctuated with the sounds of outdoor concerts and other events, vehicle traffic, commercial planes from the Portland airport and three railroad crossings, but the F-15s are the most deafening and the most awe-inspiring. The F-15 can be as loud as 83.5 decibels from more than a mile away compared with a commercial jet, at 63 decibels.
“I’ve gotten used to it, but sometimes they make my insides shake, like bass on a stereo,” said Judy Jubb, who lives in the Heritage Place Condominiums overlooking Esther Short Park. “You don’t realize how loud it is until you come outside.”
Downtown resident Ramiro Franco said the sound mutes even his television at his home at Center Apartments by Esther Short Park.
“I recently re-watched all of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and experienced about three to four times when I had to rewind like a good minute or two where I missed dialog because of the jets flying by,” Franco said.
But the fighter jets are part of downtown’s character, a vein of life and sometimes a shot of adrenalin, residents said. The military planes have been flying over downtown for decades, adding a sort of Fourth-of-July celebratory atmosphere, along with rows of eclectic shops and public gatherings at concerts and the weekend farmers market.
“It’s just something that happens downtown,” said Vancouver resident Kim Pearson. “To me, it’s a good sound.”
The jets, which average about 180 flights per month, also have a distinct purpose: homeland security.
The F-15s are part of the 142nd Fighter Wing at the airport. The fighter wing represents the only the air defense alert base in the Pacific Northwest and is crucial to homeland security, according to local and federal authorities. The pilots are charged with protecting airspace between Fresno, Calif. and the U.S.-Canadian border. They respond to and help identify unknown aircraft in the area. For instance, in August 2010, two pilots from the base caused two loud booms when they intercepted a plane that had entered restricted air space over Seattle when President Barack Obama was visiting. Numerous Western Washington residents called 911 when they heard the sound, according to The Oregonian.
In order to carry out their mission, the pilots have to undergo training, hence the daily training flights. The flights are limited to between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., unless there is an emergency or a deployment.
Limiting the time frame when flights occur is one way the Guard tries to minimize the noise, said Vancouver resident Col. Mike Bieniewicz, vice commander of the 142nd Fighter Wing.
The 1,100 people in the fighter wing have a vested interest in keeping Vancouver as quiet as possible because about half of them live in Vancouver, Bieniewicz said.
Pilots take off slower and steeper (to about 3,000 feet) than they ordinarily would in order to reduce the noise, even though going slower and higher uses up more fuel, he said.
“We try to climb up higher so we are more quiet, and we spiral down in a cylinder,” he said.
Another technique they use is to fly over the Columbia River, but that isn’t always possible when air traffic is heavy.
This summer, air traffic is particularly dense over downtown Vancouver due to closure of the airport’s south runway during reconstruction. Since the project began in April, planes all take off from the north runway, diverting more traffic, both commercial planes and fighter jets, over Vancouver. Construction is expected to last through October.
“It’s a loud sound, but it’s also a sound of reassurance,” Pearson said. The F-15s remind her not only that pilots are guarding the Pacific Northwest from aerial attack, but also of her 19-year-old son, Brendan, who is in Navy boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill.