Switzerland - The Precision of the Swiss, by Gerry Catling (1968)

In the late 60s, BOAC introduced the Super VC10 on the London-Zurich-Nairobi-Johannesburg route. In many respects it was a beautiful aircraft, loved by passengers and crew alike. However, even its most devoted admirers had to admit that it left a most horrible noise behind it on take-off, and would have given Concorde a run for its money in any Perceived Noise Decibel (PNDB) contest – anybody, that is except for the sternly Calvinistic Zurich air traffic control authorities.

As the Zurich-Nairobi sector was about the aircraft’s maximum range, we used to fill the tanks until the wingtip overflow valves popped, or up to maximum take-off weight, to get the flight plan fuel on board. It then roared off the runway with the distinctly satisfying sound of the air being chopped violently with a blunt knife. Ten minutes later, my office telephone would start to ring with a variety of complaints alleging anything from dogs running round in circles foaming at the mouth to the local nursing homes filling with people prostrated with nervous exhaustion or seizures.

The Swiss authorities regarded these complaints very seriously and considered banning the Super VC10 altogether. However, with true Swiss fairness, they decided to perform their own tests to prove with scientific precision that it exceeded the maximum permitted 95 PNDB. They set up a monitoring machine in the basement of the airport building connected to microphones placed along the length of the runway. They then monitored each Super VC10 take-off for a month. I thought it certain that the aircraft would be banished.

However, when I sat beside the monitoring dial, I was surprised to see that the noise registered was no more than the Boeing 707, Douglas DC8 or Caravelle and wondered why this should be. I eventually found out (although I kept it to myself) that the microphones had been placed facing out so that they were effectively recording about 100 feet above the level of the runway. The Super VC10, being at maximum take off weight, stayed on the runway until the last few hundred feet before it lifted off, staying below the reach of the microphones and reducing the measured noise level by about 10-15 PNDB.

The ATC authorities were completely satisfied with the readings. They said, “This is not a noisy aircraft, and it may continue operations. Refer any complaint to the authorities and it will be answered accordingly.” Needless to say, I did not report this to Head Office in London.


Image: SVC10

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