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Photograph by Jeff Kearns

Final Reproach

The valley plays out its own rhythm and percussive beat, far above our heads

By Jeff Kearns

There are the usual noises: A car door slams, kids squeal, leaves rustle. Then an almost inaudible turbine whine begins to build, growing louder until it covers the other sounds. It shifts pitch as it passes overhead, Dopplering from high frequency shriek to low roar, but washing away in seconds, restoring the cacophony of cars, kids, trees.

I catch my neighbors craning their necks. Kids on scooters peer up, shading their eyes. A strolling elderly couple tilt their heads back. As a paleta vendor digs a frozen fruit bar out of his pushcart, his customer gives a bored glance upward. Cats panic.

We live under downtown's nonstop parade of planes. The stream of gleaming aluminum may be noisy, but it's not so bad.

However, one wouldn't know it from the criticisms. Last year, San Francisco Airport and the Federal Aviation Administration unveiled a plan to cut delays by rerouting air traffic further south over Santa Clara County. Homeowners groaned, South Bay politicians joined the fray, and hundreds of residents packed an FAA hearing, moaning about property values and sleep deprivation. But few knew that aircraft descending through 8,000 feet do not growl but merely whisper.

For those who hate the nocturnal incursions, San Jose has a hotline for tattling, and airport noise abatement staff must respond to complaints within 24 hours. Our neighbor SFO maintains a website where annoyed neighbors can monitor air traffic.

I don't mind the noise, but then I grew up in Seattle, under Sea-Tac's climb-out pattern. When the family moved to California, we found a home near SFO because Mom worked for an airline. When I went to college, school was a few blocks from the City of Angels' LAX.

After graduation, I worked briefly in the sprawling engine shop at the United Airlines maintenance center at SFO. I helped a team of mechanics write a manual on the aging, hot dog-shaped Pratt & Whitney JT8D, transcribing pencil scribblings from yellow legal pads into a thick book of mumbo-jumbo about temperatures and tolerances, stents and flanges.

Now, living in downtown San Jose, the sound is a constant part of life, and it's not going away.

When the municipal airport opened in 1945, its runways pointed northwest, into the prevailing winds. But it's grown into one of the biggest pieces of valley infrastructure, with another $1.5 billion expansion underway.

Every year, the airport pumps $4.2 billion into the regional economy and generates $470 million in local and state taxes. Airport stats are taking off: 13 million passengers a year, up 2.5 million since 1998, and 850 takeoffs and landings a day. The present expansion won't hold for long; U.S. air traffic is expected to triple in 20 years.

But that's not what's interesting.

When the sun is high at midafternoon, planes eclipse the sun for a fraction of a second as their shadows race across treetops. Our house, just off South First Street, goes dark as if someone turned off the sun then, realizing their mistake, quickly flicked it back on. It startles visitors.

At night, with the blinds open upstairs, pale lights like moonlight creep down our bedroom wall and glow brighter as landing lights shine through the house. And as they pass, some aircaft light up our bedroom with their wingtip strobes, blinking through the blinds.

If the windows are open, as ours always are, the noise disrupts phone conversations. It can also drown out the television just as the dialogue reveals an important plot point. But during evening newscasts, when TV reporters do live shots downtown, it's amusing to hear a plane pass over our house, then a minute later watch the frustrated reporter raise his voice over the roar.

It's also possible to tell the size of what's passing over by how fast it's going: The biggest move slowest. They all have their wheels down, like eagles about to snatch a salmon with their claws.

The sky quiets after the 11:30pm curfew, though stragglers break the silence until the wee hours.

Every city has its noises. San Jose's signature sound sings softly above the tall palms and red warning lights that dot the nocturnal skyline. It sweeps across the skies, hits its monotone crescendo, and gurgles away like water down a drain.

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From the August 30-September 5, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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