Flying Silently (Part 2)

October 23rd, 2013 by John Petersen

The GA industry has been treating noise like the automobile industry has been reacting to calls for better fuel economy.  Even though it is reported that every automobile sold in China must get at least 35 miles per gallon in fuel economy, major American manufacturers launch all of their lobbyists on Congress every time the hill wants to raise the average CAFÉ standards to something like 28 miles per gallon . . . by 2025!  They say they can’t do it and it would cost jobs, etc., etc.  Can you believe that if American and Japanese and German engineers suddenly were required to build more fuel efficient engines they couldn’t equal the efforts of Chinese engineers?  (Well, the fact probably is that some of those cars manufactured in China are engineered by GM engineers and other folks a little closer to home, so maybe it’s not just an engineering issue after all.)

The same certainly is the case with engine and propeller noise in aircraft.  If we wanted to do it, we could certainly find solutions.  We just don’t think that it is important.  I once suggested to an aviation association VP that aircraft noise had the potential to be a major issue threatening the future of GA and got not much more than a shrug in response.  Regardless of the reality, the public already thinks that we’re a bunch of rich guys who either own or operate airplanes.  Why do you think they’ll cut us some slack downstream when they finally get really mad about all of this when most every other polluting industry is working on eliminating their effluent and we’re not.

Once it seemed that it might just be possible to convince my wife that flying an ultralight out of one of the fields of our farm in West Virginia would be a reasonable idea.  So, I went to Oshkosh and checked it out — but I didn’t want to hassle the neighbors with the noise from the Rotaxes that they all use.  Remember, people like the country in part because it is quiet.  The manufacturer’s rep said that there was nothing they could do to make the engines quieter (something about them being 2-cycle, or something), but I knew friends who were doing exotic aircraft design for spooky government agencies who were producing little lawn chair construction aircraft (and helicopters, for that matter) for sneaking into dangerous places around the world that made almost no noise . . . so I knew it is possible.  The incentives are just not in place. Commercial aircraft have certainly gotten much quieter.  Why can’t we?

Airplanes are not just noisy, they’re more expensive to operate because they’re noisy.  We have to burn gas to make that noise.  It costs more and doesn’t do anything for us.  It’s like waste heat, or sulphur dioxide coming out of the stack of a coal-fired power plant. If engine and prop manufacturers put their heads to it , they could produce more fuel efficiency and less noise at the same time.  That’s a particularly good idea in the face of an almost certain global decrease in the production of petroleum in the coming years (which is another piece of this puzzle).

So every time you look up with interest to the sky (as I always do) when I hear an aircraft two or three miles away, think about the future of aviation, the pollution of the environment, citizens who want to live in peace, the cost to operate an aircraft, and the decreasing availability (and therefore increasing cost) of fuel. Just think about quality of life.  That might convince you that it’s high time that we in the aviation business began to seriously work on silently pursuing our wonderful profession.

John Petersen

John L. Petersen is a futurist, strategist, and pilot. He is a former aircraft carrier based naval aviator, aircraft builder, and author of three books. He founded The Arlington Institute, edits and publishes the free e-newsletter FUTUREdition, and is the chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Ron Rapp

    I’m sure we could make airplanes quieter. It’s not happening for the same reason that causes Cessna to manufacture and sell a 1960 airframe and engine in the year 2013: the market size is so small that developing fresh, cutting edge things would be financial suicide. They’d never sell enough units to amortize the cost of development.

    If the GA industry sold 200,000 planes per day the way the auto industry does, we’d have the latest-and-greatest offerings at our disposal. Instead, 200,000 is about the total number of aircraft that exist in the entire country.

    That’s the difference. As I see it, at least. :)

    • Tom

      Right on John.

      Most people spend their time with can’t. Where has our American initiative gone! The Europeans, Chinese and Japanese have taken up the slack of the US.

  • Rex Offa

    As an engineer, I get exasperated with this attitude that technical problems are simple to overcome if we would just put in a little effort. This stuff is easy; we are just too lazy to bother, right?

    As pilots, we should understand better than most that there are always trade-offs. You want a fuel efficient car in the U.S.? I know of a dozen models that you can buy. But I can’t buy a car that will get 35 mpg, haul my family of six plus luggage for the weekend, and not take an eternity to get to 60 mph, not even in China — trade-offs. Automakers don’t fight fuel standards because they hate fuel efficient cars, they fight fuel standards because they want to preserve their customers options.

    Given enough time and money, I am sure that we can figure out how to make aircraft much quieter, but you should ask your friends what the budget was to develop their lawn chair construction aircraft. And then ask yourself if you would be willing to buy it at that price.

    • Derek Knightly

      Mr. Peterson is, according to his bio, an aircraft builder. May we assume that the aircraft he builds are whisper quiet? After all, we simply have to “want to do it”, right? And since Mr. Peterson avowedly wants to do it, I’m sure he has done it.

      Here’s something every “strategist” should know: there is a world of difference between strategizing and doing. Any 5 year old can wish for something. And paying for the doing is another huge obstacle.

      • William j Kennedy

        Mr. Knightly,
        You are neither a dreamer nor doer. All inventors started with a dream and have made our lives much richer in doing so. Stay in your cubbyhole with your headset tightly clamped to your head and leave the doing to those will. I am sure you will be one of those natsayers who will take advantage of their achievements.

        • Derek Knightly

          Really? I have over 25 patents and my inventions have resulted in hundreds of millions in sales. Maybe all inventions start with a dream, but dreaming by itself is worthless. A dream, a wish, a vision is not a strategy. If it was, we’d have fusion powered aircraft.

          Anyone who is not deaf knows that aircraft are noisy, and the dream of a silent aircraft at a reasonable price is patently obvious. If Mr. Peterson was really a strategist, he would lay out a detailed strategy for inventing one. Instead all we get is a wish that “they” come up with one.

          Get it?

          • William J Kennedy

            You, apparently, are a self centered, arrogant and ignorant little man. You chastize someone for a column on a subject many have thought about because he does not offer a solution.
            P.T. Barnum once said, “Never try to smarten up a chump”. I’m afraid I did not take his advice in responding to you.

          • Bill Rickard

            I would like to appeal to AOPA to eliminate or at least discourage personal attacks like Mr. Kennedy’s. Our interests as pilots are best served if we encourage rational discourse on subjects that matter to us. Name-calling and ad hominem serve us badly.

          • Don M

            Aww come on Mr. Rickard. Do you think Mr. Knightly’s rude remarks were “rational discourse”? He was insulting to the author and deserved a wake up call.
            On another note, I’d love a cockpit as quiet as my Jaguar.

          • Bill P

            Sorry Don M, but I join with Bill Rickard’s criticism that Mr. Kennedy’s entry is uncivil and uncalled for (although I don’t go so far as to say it has to be taken down, as I imagine Mr. Knightly can defend himself). While Mr. Knightly did come on fairly strong about stating that that people need to remember there is a difference between strategizing and doing, I don’t think his response was out of bounds and Mr. Kennedy responded by saying he was neither a dreamer or a doer, should stay in his cubby hole, etc. A little out of proportion don’t you think? And besides, it turns out, if we believe his post, we find out that Mr. Knightly is an inventor and knows what he’s talking about, and now Mr. Kennedy responds by saying he is “a self centered, arrogant and ignorant little man” and further calls him a “chump.” ??? A little more out of proportion, and a totally personal attack, wouldn’t you say? Just an uncalled for response, if you ask me.

            Having said that, I agree with and commend John Peterson for writing this post recognizing that aircraft noise does impact the public, with potentially negative consequences for our right to continue flying (especially as population density increases), and for suggesting that the aviation community may want to address this if possible.

            And now, to get to the really good stuff, I suggest everyone do a google search for Chip Yates and his electric aircraft. I’ll post a link here (assuming the site admin permits it) to an October 2013 story on indicating that Chip Yates has now set 5 new electric plane world records in only 4 weeks. The story states: “After each day’s record-setting flights, Yates wowed the crowds with the extremely quiet high-speed passes during the airshow and spent plenty of time on the ground talking about the future of electric airplanes.” Now I ask you: How freaking cool is that??

            Check it out here:

  • Will Handley

    We need to take a global view of aircraft noise and, indeed, other characteristics if the USA is to remain competitive in the world GA aircraft market. Many European countries are already imposing noise limits. In Germany, planes that cannot achieve their noise limits are banned from some airports and may only operate during certain hours at others. Now that Europe has established a single body to control aviation, you can be fairly certain that the German standards will be implemented in other countries.

    It seems to me that there is a great deal that can be accomplished through the design of propellers as much of the noise associated with them occurs as the tips approach the speed of sound. At the same time silencers on the exhausts (required on many aircraft in Germany) do reduce the noise signature.

    I am not advocating retrofitting all aircraft but new planes and overhauls offer an opportunity to reduce noise.

    • Carl Clarke

      I read 20 years ago or so, either in Pilot or Flying, that in Germany, a Piper Archer had it’s noise footprint greatly reduced after some engineers were able to sync the prop with exhaust valve opening, thus dispusing the exhaust stream . This was accomplished by reorienting the hole pattern on the prop hub. I don’t think that advance has been incorporated in the US.

  • Ross Talbott

    I personally love the idea of a quieter aircraft. My goal is to build a low and slow capable sightseeing plane. I don’t want to be a nuisance or attract unwanted attention or be limited by the loud drone of engine-propeller. I have seen some planes that had mufflers hanging under the belly and have begun to study the lowest drag way to do this. I am even willing to trade some horsepower for a more pleasant experience. Also the experimenting with electric propulsion that some are working on seems to hold some promise for pleasing flight.

  • Peter L Collins

    Wow – it was the thing about Rotax that got my “interest”. I fly (in New Zealand as it happens) behind a Rotax 912ULS 100hp. It has a significant silencer, and (gasp!) a gearbox, driving a three-blade, fixed pitch prop. Fixed pitch limits the maximum revs, three blades are shorter than two, which limits the tip speed, the gearbox enables the engine to work in its efficiency zone with a relatively slow propellor. The silencer speaks for itself (please excuse the pun). On a 600kg MTOW plane, 100 hp is rarely needed if there is more than 300 feet of runway, and a good take-off and climb can be obtained from 80% of peak revs – we use less fuel that way, too. My next plane (now being assembled) uses the more efficient fuel-injected 912ULiS engine, with the new exhaust design – designed and built in noise-sensitive Europe, as it happens.

    We, as owners and pilots, have a great deal of influence in what happens in aircraft design and characteristics. Every time we make a purchase decision – that is also a policy decision. If you want quieter planes it’s easy to achieve (I’m not saying necessarily cheaper) – don’t buy noisy ones! Isn’t this called “purchasing power”? The builders then will find the quieter models carry a premium, and if so, what will that do to their design and build policies? When a community, such as owners and pilots, agree on a direction, and the majority put their money where their mouths are, that does make a difference. Indeed, auto makers do understand that. Our private purchase decisions, if enough of us agree, WILL make a difference.

    A quieter plane is more pleasant to fly in, too!

  • Chris

    Pilots already take steps to reduce noise. Its called obeying noise abatement procedures.
    Opinions are like aholes, everyone has one.
    Pilots who write articles similar to this one, make me sick. I am a pilot and I obey the procedures. Please stop attempting to shoulder me with more than that. FFS…from another pilot?!?! Really? Author apparently has no loyalty to the aviation community.

  • Martin

    I’m sick and tired of hearing about airplane noise, because the aviation community continues to bend over every time someone complains. Folks, we are the only ones who pay any attention to this stuff. Nobody seems to think motorcycles, trains, jake-break trucks, cars and trucks without mufflers are noisy. We’re being led by a bunch of appeasing Neville Chamberlains right into extinction so we can claim…”peace in our time.” Petersen’s strategy–Chamberlain’s strategy=bend over.

    • duck

      Martin…..You hit the nail squarely on the head. Doers are led by the nose by non-doers and non-producers who sit around and complain. It is in every aspect of our society. I for one do not want to putter around in a little craft at 60 mph and then take eight hours to refuel. I grew up with the big round 2600′s, 2800′s, 3350′s, and the V-1710′s…..noisy? You damn right and we loved it. So to hell with the present day Chamberlain’s and their ilk. Let them bend over and sing kum ba ya with their keepers………

  • Jake Mosel

    Rex Offa and Derek Knightly are right. We hurt ourselves when we insult our engineering capability in this country. Dreaming and doing ARE different, and doing costs money. Most decisions on the dreams of “what if” are decided on real measures of whether customers will pay for the “improvement”. Dreams need not be practical, doing must be. What we say we want is rarely what we will actually pay for. We would love to have those things if they were free or someone else was willing to pay for them. However, when we get to checkout we take the discount.