STEVE CANAVAN: A bit of blue-sky thinking fails to hit new heights

B-58 aircraft like these were used in the brilliantly-named Operation Bongo II
B-58 aircraft like these were used in the brilliantly-named Operation Bongo II
The Lush store on Oxford Street, London, one of more than 100 of their high street cosmetic stores facing backlash for featuring a 'damaging and distasteful' campaign criticising undercover policing. Picture: PA Wire

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Regular readers of this column will know I’m a hugely intellectual man – indeed I was once a contestant on Mastermind and scored maximum marks in my chosen specialist subject, Playboy centrefolds of the 1980s.

Occasionally, therefore, I feel it is only fair to share my wisdom with you and this is one of those weeks.

I was leafing through a book I keep on my bedside table called The History of Aviation 1871-1995 – never let it be said that I don’t lead a hedonistic lifestyle – and came across an experiment that happened in America in the mid-1960s called, quite marvellously, Operation Bongo II.

What occurred during this operation, read years later, seems quite insane but at the time the plan was accepted as fine.

In a nutshell, the world was trying to develop what is known to aviation scientists as ‘transcontinental supersonic transport’. To the rest of us, think Concorde, or a plane designed to transport passengers at speeds greater than the speed of sound.

By the way, the speed of sound, as everyone obviously knows, is the distance travelled per unit time by a sound wave as it propagates through an elastic medium – I knew that off the top of my head and definitely did not look it up.

The problem with these super-fast aircraft, especially in those early days, was that they were exceptionally loud. Thus those in charge of the project decided they needed to test the effects of the noise produced and, after a lengthy selection process, opted for Oklahoma City in the middle of the US.

Remarkably, the city actually threw a celebratory dinner when chosen, but this was before they knew what was in store.

Planes were flown low in the sky eight times a day for six long months, creating a total of 1,253 sonic booms – huge balls of energy, which sound like explosions to the human ear.

The first sonic boom occurred at 7am each day – the sale of alarm clocks in Oklahoma must have plummeted – and went on pretty much relentlessly till 3pm. Not so good for those working nights or mums trying to encourage their baby to take a mid-morning nap.

In the first 14 weeks of the experiment, 147 windows in the city’s buildings were broken, there were 9,500 reports of cracked plaster damage to properties, and an estimated 15,000 residents complained their lives were being made a misery – 'sorry, what was that you said darling? I couldn’t hear for the sound of that sonic boom and the window blowing in'.

Finally, after protests spread nationwide, the flights were stopped, prompting the front page headline in the local paper ‘Silence is Deafening’, and for the next five years various lawsuits flew back and forth in the courts relating to hundreds of civil claims. Suffice to say, no such experiment has occurred since…

On a completely separate note, here’s another aviation snippet from my book that caught the eye – it is 44 years to the day since a chap called Samuel Byck made a right hash of trying to assassinate Richard Nixon.

Byck’s plan – if you can call it that – was to drive to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, jump on a plane, then crash it into the White House and kill the president.

There were some drawbacks to the plan, the main one being that he couldn’t fly a plane, but that didn’t seem to deter him.

Byck was cheesed off with Nixon after being turned down for a loan by the Small Business Administration, but instead of doing what most of us might and send a brief but stern letter of complaint – similar to what I did when my milkman left me two pints of full fat instead of semi-skimmed – he instead decided to try to murder him.

Byck’s tactics left a little to be desired, it has to be said. After checking Nixon was at the White House – I’m not exactly sure how he did this, can you just call up and ask if the president’s home? – he armed himself with a revolver, drove to the airport and burst onto the first plane he saw that looked as though it might be about to depart. Airport security clearly wasn’t quite as tight back in 1974.

He ran into the cockpit and asked the pilots to take off, only to be told it was impossible because the wheel blocks were still on.

A furious Byck made the strange decision to shoot both – one thankfully survived – then grabbed a female passenger sat nearby and ordered her to 'fly the plane to the White House'.

She presumably stared back at him and said, ‘are you bonkers?’, to which obviously the answer was 'yes'.

A lengthy stand-off ensued, with hundreds of police surrounding the aircraft before finally storming the plane and firing several bullets towards the cockpit where a hiding Byck was hit twice. He shot himself in the head before he could be arrested.

The plane never left the gate and Nixon’s schedule was not affected, while Byck – who had made a series of tapes explaining his plan and imagined he’d be a national hero – is now almost completely forgotten.

Come on, don’t tell me you didn’t find that interesting? Oh, okay then. Don’t worry, I promise I’ll start reading a different book soon.