Strictly Business: Freedom, commerce can create quite a din

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photoGordon Oliver, Columbian's business editor

I'm OK with the sound of freedom, but do I have to hear it every lunch hour?

It's something I've often wondered as fighter jets from the Oregon Air National Guard's 142nd Fighter Wing scream over downtown skies during my noon-hour walks through Esther Short Park or along the Columbia.

If I'm with a friend, it's time to stop talking. If I'm on my cellphone, it's time to hang up. And if I'm just thinking, it's time to wonder why the 142nd Fighter Wing chose 12:30 p.m. to dish up the daily roar that many Vanouverites describe patriotically as "the sound of freedom."

Those F-15 fighters, which also fly in the 9 o'clock hour, aren't the only audio assaults on daily life downtown. An average of 115 commercial planes daily take off westbound over the Columbia, creating a steady dull roar. Small planes out of Pearson Field -- 50,000 flights most years, half that number last year -- aren't allowed in the commercial flight path, so they move above the rail tracks and take a turn over downtown. Pearson Field manager Willie Williamson says he gets few complaints. But downtown resident Ginger Metcalf, retired executive director of Identity Clark County, says she finds those planes so annoying that she's wanted at times to head to her building's roof with a shotgun.

Then there are our trains, horn-blasting their way through downtown. Metcalf recalls a chit-chat with Sen. Maria Cantwell who told her she'd spent a restless night in the Hilton. Next visit, Cantwell told here, she'd sleep elsewhere. Gov. Chris Gregoire must have spent the night elsewhere before her recent visit to Vancouver to cheer the Port of Vancouver's rail improvement project when, as one observer recalls, she proclaimed that railroad noise was "the sound of jobs." With two at-grade crossings being eliminated with the city's westside access project, downtown will hear fewer train horn blasts but hopefully will have no fewer jobs.

But those fighter planes, often flying in waves two or four at a time, are downtown's auditory superstars as they head to the Pacific for practice dogfights and other military preparedness exercises. Their roar lasts just a couple of minutes, and the sleek planes can offer an impressive visual show for children and visitors on cloudless days. But they cannot be ignored.

The Oregon Air National Guard says it gets few complaints, and Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Association, says she's not heard a single knock on downtown's noise, which she says helps create a sense of excitement. And don't expect even a whisper out of the Vancouver City Council. The city lobbied hard to keep the air base when it was threatened with closure, says city spokeswoman Barbara Ayers. The alternative to too much noise, she said, is no noise at all.

But what about that lunch-hour flyover? The Oregon Air National Guard says changing the present schedule is a good fit for the Port of Portland, the operations schedule of the training space above the Pacific, and its own staff. The easiest adjustment, it seems, is accept the sound of freedom while eating that sandwich in the park.

Says Maj. Melinda Lepore, spokeswoman for the 142nd Fighter Wing: "We do a mission that ensures folks can enjoy carefree jaunts in the park and political ponderings that are the foundation of our democracy we all hold so dearly."

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver;http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.