11:30 PM in a forest campground. The sound of surf gives a gentle hiss off in the distance. It had been a nice warm summer day, and we were settled in for a good nights sleep. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? At least until that fighter jet came screaming past.
You might think this event would have us jumping out of our tent, hair on end and adrenaline pumping. But no. Truth was, this sort of fly by had been going on off and on all afternoon and evening.
We had come to Deception Pass state park, at the northern tip of Whidbey Island in Washington state on a Thursday afternoon. The campground is in a beautiful setting, embedded within exceptionally tall trees, deeply green foliage, with foot trails to the island’s ocean shore. We were there in part for the camping, and in part to scuba dive in the area with other members of our dive club. Most of the times we’ve made this trip it’s been fairly quiet, but on this day and night the nearby naval air station was going full out. The airbase was close, less than four miles away as the jet flies. This put us on the fringes of the flight pattern.
A normal flight pattern is a big rectangle, with planes normally taking off and landing into the wind on one side of the rectangle, and entering the pattern downwind on the other side. The side of the rectangle that’s closest to and perpendicular to the landing zone is called the base leg. The campground was adjacent to the corner of the rectangle where the plane turns from the downwind side to the base leg. This means that when we did see glimpses of the jets through the trees, they were doing a steep turn, with a little added power to compensate for the lift lost in the turn.
Let’s talk decibels. A quiet conversation at home is about 50 decibels. Background music or conversation in a busy office about 60. A vacuum cleaner or TV turned up a bit around 70. A garbage disposal, or diesel train 100 feet away at 45 mph is about 80. A motorcycle at 25 feet, 90 dB. A Boeing 737 one mile before landing, or a lawn mower is about 100 dB. Car horn at 3 feet or a live rock concert, and typical pain threshold is at 110 dB. Chain saw revved up, 120 dB. Military jet take off with after burner at 50 feet, 130 dB.
When the jets were making their turn to base leg, most of the time they were about 200-300 hundred yards off, so they were probably generating about 100-105 dB’s. But once in a while one would start his turn a bit late and be almost over the camp, driving the noise into the ear splitting 115 plus neighborhood. As they seemed to be practicing night touch and go’s (takeoff and landings) that evening, that 11:30 ear blaster must have been a pilot missing his turning point in the dark. Ouch!
After that ear abusing pass, and the implication that they were going to continue to ignore the usual campground 10 PM quiet niceties, it was time to break out the ear plugs. While this didn’t eliminate the noise, it did cut it some, and adding fatigue we did get some sleep despite the chaos continuing for a couple more hours.
Come morning we were treated to a much more musical treat; the sound of various birds trilling away to greet the day. Even the crows sounded good after the night’s ear pounding. As the weekend wore on the jets continued, but at a more reduced pace.
Of course as the weekend wore on we also subjected our ears to a different sort of abuse, that of diving to about three atmospheres (60-70 feet deep) of pressure. But dive regulators are designed to serve air to your lungs, ears, and sinuses that equalize the water pressure, so as long as you don’t have a head cold that abuse isn’t an issue.
I don’t want to give the impression that staying at Deception Pass state park is an auditory nightmare. Most of the time it’s a tranquil, relaxing setting. But that particular night is one my ears will remember for quite some time (or at least until they stop ringing).