by Glen Milner
The Blue Angels’ F/A-18E/F Super Hornets are returning to Seattle for a second year in this weekend’s Seafair air show over Lake Washington. Air show promoters are touting the newer jets as “heart-stopping,” “adrenaline-pumping,” and “the ultimate thrill-seeker’s dream come true.”
The Super Hornets are 25% larger than the legacy Hornets they replaced, and they unleash a more powerful pressure wave than its predecessor. Records released through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show the potentially destructive force of the new Blue Angel jets. On Jan. 21, 2021, during training exercises at Naval Air Facility El Centro (California), the “winter home” of the Blue Angels, a single Blue Angels jet caused an estimated $180,000 in damage to buildings. The jet was performing a low-flying “sneak pass” maneuver, in accordance with normal operating procedures.
The destructive impact, detailed in witness statements, included knocked-down ceiling tiles, cracked windows, fallen shelves, nails pulled out of plywood, and dislodged sheathing in two shear walls designed to help a base fire department building withstand earthquakes, according to a Navy investigative report.
The close fly-by of base buildings also injured a dozen personnel, who initially suffered ringing in the ears and headaches, according to the report.
When the Blue Angels’ Super Hornets flew over Lake Washington for the first time last year, sound measurements taken during the air show revealed a fast maximum level of 108.4 dBA at one location. The measurements were taken between 3:15 p.m. and 3:52 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, at Island Park Elementary School on Mercer Island by Jerry Lilly, owner of JGL Acoustics in Issaquah. In total, there were over 10 sound measurements during that time that exceeded 90 dBA. The closest pass of the jets to the school was at an estimated horizontal distance of a quarter-mile.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), noise levels above 70 dBA over a prolonged period of time may start to damage hearing. Loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm.
Compared with adults, children usually are more vulnerable to noise effects because they are growing and developing. Some children with special sensitivities — such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory processing disorders, or learning differences — may be disturbed by sounds or noises that usually don’t bother children without these conditions.
Navy records recently released through the FOIA show that the U.S. Navy, at least between high-ranking Navy officers, admits there are health-related issues caused by the Blue Angels. In a Feb. 17, 2022, email, the commanding officer at Naval Air Facility El Centro in California wrote to the executive officer for the Blue Angels:
“I wanted your awareness on what is becoming a growing challenge…that didn’t manifest last year but is definitely manifesting this year. Normally we receive a small number of noise complaints from the community about noise from various tenants throughout the year…
“Something new is happening and it’s a bit outside the standard of deviation. Noise complaints from Seeley [the city south of the air base] are exponentially up…
“If it was just noise grumbling, I would serve as the shield, but some valid concerns including safety of citizens and impact to medical patients are being raised. All of them have been passed to your staff as we receive them but I wanted to ensure you had visibility.
“–Baird Board and Care Facility for developmentally disabled clients/autistic clients reported that clients becoming extremely frightened by the volume change of the pass recently over prior years. Things are falling off walls and scaring her patients who are unable to understand what is happening.
“–A citizen complaining the pressure wave is affecting his wife’s breathing machine (rattling windows in their house and bouncing the device around, he is concerned about potential for damage to her breathing device).
“There might be something new that needs assessment from your experts that is outside my team’s swim lane…”
The Navy has not yet released the assessment, if one was ever conducted, as suggested by the Navy commanding officer at Naval Air Facility El Centro.
This Project is funded in part by the City of Seattle’s Environmental Justice Fund.
Glen Milner is an activist and a researcher with the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action in Poulsbo, Washington, since 1984. For the past 35 years, Glen has used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to learn about Navy operations in the Puget Sound region. In March 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against the Navy regarding a FOIA request involving explosives handling at Naval Magazine Indian Island, and issued an opinion regarding the case, Milner v. Navy, that overturned 30 years of established legal precedents pertaining to Exemption 2 of the FOIA.
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