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The Sound Barrier: Not Just Broken by Aeroplanes! Whips and Bullets Do It.

Updated on April 18, 2016

Some of the elite barrier-busters

British Thrust SSC First car to break sound barrier (twice)
British Thrust SSC First car to break sound barrier (twice)
Bullet breaking through barrier
Bullet breaking through barrier
Bull whip breaking barrier
Bull whip breaking barrier
Even a Cobra Helicopter can break sound barrier now
Even a Cobra Helicopter can break sound barrier now
Protype Concorde smashing sound barrier
Protype Concorde smashing sound barrier
F 18 Hornet goes through easily
F 18 Hornet goes through easily

Breaking the Sound Barrier is now Commonplace

From the 1950’s, when war planes became commonly able to break the “sound barrier” and become “supersonic,” the loud “sonic booms” became an everyday occurrence in the skies of those regularly deploying military aircraft.

This provided an ideal opportunity for those who loved to pick up their pens and complain to the authorities and the press. Many lurid and exaggerated claims of the damage caused by this phenomena were bandied around, some even getting to the courts where people claimed they had been deafened, had their windows broken, (some verified) or even been shocked into falling somewhere. Most were rejected or discounted when the truth emerged that the booms were indeed loud but rarely caused any damage or long-term problems.

As aircraft became more streamlined, the force of the transition through the “compressibility” became weaker and less noisy.

Sound has a definite velocity through air close to sea level at about 1236 kms/hour, or 768 mph. When an object such as a plane attempts to go faster than this speed, it overtakes and compresses its own sound waves (along with some other complex effects) causing an explosive boom as it breaks through and the compressed wave is violently released. The second boom from supersonic aircraft is heard as the tail passes through the same compressed wave.

(note: this is a simple explanation to a complicated problem when described mathematically or in physics…even Wiki struggles with it!).

When the supersonic passenger plane, Concorde, began its major acceleration, it was over water, generally the Atlantic, to and from Britain/France/USA. Therefore, few heard the aircraft’s powerful booms over land. Ships, however, described Concorde’s progress as a loud rumble, called the “boom carpet,“ high in the sky at around 60,000 feet. This is because once a plane has breached the barrier, the sonic effect and sounds are continuous until its speeds drop below the speed of sound again.

Other objects which break the speed of sound are certain whips, like the bullwhip, producing the familiar “crack.” Most firearm bullets are faster than sound and produce a “crack” as they go overhead. A few land vehicles have reached this speed and produced the boom, and, as I read somewhere, a tomcat with a 10 yard start on the vet with a knife!.

The most unlikely and disputed is that certain dinosaurs could use their tails, whip-like, to breach the barrier and make explosive sounds to frighten other predator dinos! Who said there’s nothing new under the sun?

Most meteors pass through Earth’s atmosphere at “Mach 1, plus” speeds, (Mach 1 is common parlance for the speed of sound…Mach 2 is twice the speed, and so on), and produce sonic booms too high for us to hear.

Unless an invasion forces us to fill our skies with military planes hurrying hither and thither, or we replace supersonic passenger aircraft again, sonic booms are a thing of the past, probably a good thing in a world full of noise. It’s enough for this scribe to live near the UK’s Stansted Airport and hear the roar of landing and leaving jets (often in the “quiet” hours of midnight to 6AM). Commerce does what it likes under the Cameron government.

The earliest known records of this barrier facing aircraft was in Russia in the 1930’s. During WW2, both German and British propeller warplanes occasionally saw the effect while in power dives. Not only was the barrier breached, surprising pilots with the explosive sound, these early planes often became destabilized by buffeting at speeds beyond Mach1. A spitfire was known to have some controls reversed with fatal consequences. Not until jets came into common use was the phenomena understood and ceased to be feared.


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    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Ha, I remember those days, hearing those impressive sounds. Every once in a while, we still hear one at the beach, not far from a military base.

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Hi Rosemary: The tom cat analogy actually came from an old joke, "What is a ball-bearing rat trap" A tom cat, etc."

      Kids just don't love the needle do they?

      Thanks for visit


    • Rosemay50 profile image

      Rosemary Sadler 5 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

      An interesting and enjoyable read. Love your sense of humour, I can see how a tom cat could break the speed sound running from the vet :) My 6 yr old daughter did the same when I took her for injections.

      A great read and interesting facts

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico

      I love that part of the world, Dust, any desert area really. I have been to Tucson a few times in the old days, a step ahead of the San Diedo PD!

      I don't know Phoenix, but have been to the Canyon.

      I expect we'll have another healthy conflict going soon to start up the air boys: the new planes don't seem to excite the sound barrier so much


    • 50 Caliber profile image

      50 Caliber 5 years ago from Arizona

      Bob, great essay on the boom, as a resident of Arizona living between two airforce bases one in Tucson "Davis Monthan" and The other in Phoenix "Lukes" it was the cold war and along with missile silos dotting the land scape they launched sorties of jets on the hour and the pilots seemed to take great joy in the boom as I heard them in the valley 100 miles either direction to the bases. I think they slowed and powered the after burners to amuse us with their big boom, like children finding that farts on a church pew were thunderous and every other kid would burst out in laughter, quit fun remembering the booms of the era.


    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 5 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Thanks again, Au fait. IT comes from having a long, wicked and dissolute life! And being a columnist for too many years than I like to remember.

      You don't do too badly yourself!


    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 5 years ago from North Texas

      Love your sense of humor, Bob. (Tom cat breaking the sound barrier!)

      This seems very informative, so I learned some things in addition to having a laugh. Had no idea you had written all these hubs when I wasn't looking! Now I have to catch up . . .

      Voting you UP and awesome. No one can make things interesting like you do. Will share with my followers too.

    • profile image

      diogenes 5 years ago

      Hi Little Nell. I didn't realize it went past Mach 1 over land

      I remember reading that, too, "Star..Yes, neutrinos may do that.

      Hi Trish. I lost an unc on the spit during the war so always been interested, too


    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Bob :)

      That was very interesting and educational!

      My Dad loved planes, and so does my husband, so I have been to quite a few air displays, where I have witnessed this phenomenon.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      I heard that once upon a time, travelers thought that trains going too fast would suck the air out and kill the passengers.

      This is why I believe that someday we will break the speed of light barrier too. Neutrinos do it :-)

    • Little Nell profile image

      Little Nell 5 years ago from Somerset, UK

      I used to hear Concorde's sonic boom regularly at around 4.30 when it flew across the West Country on its way to New York. Missed it when it was taken out of service.