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Saturday’s sonic booms likely from F-15 fighters, NORAD says

By Howard Altman
Published: December 11, 2017 Updated: December 11, 2017 at 07:49 PM
Jets similar to this Air Force F-15 Eagle got permission Saturday to fly at supersonic speeds and likely are responsible for loud booms that reverberated through the cold air during the weekend across the Tampa Bay area and Florida. [U.S. Air Force]

Those sonic booms heard across the state Saturday afternoon were likely from two F-15 fighter jets protecting President Donald Trump during his visit to Florida, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The jets, which belong to the Louisiana Air National Guard’s 159th Fighter Wing, were on patrol in support of Trump’s visit but not responding to any incident or intercept, NORAD spokesman John Cornelio told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday.

Air Force One touched down at West Palm Beach at 2:15 p.m. Saturday, according to the White House press pool. Trump had been in Jackson, Miss., earlier in the day to visit a civil rights museum there.

The jets were part of NORAD’s mission to protect airspace for travels by the president and vice president, Cornelio said. The command, with headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., is also responsible for warning of ballistic missile or air attacks against North America.

Cornelio said the sonic booms were probably the result of a decision to allow the two F-15 jets to hit supersonic speeds that day.

"There is no other plausible explanation of why people heard that loud boom,’’ Cornelio said. "No other explanation makes sense."

Cornelio said the command is researching why the jets were given permission to go supersonic, something that rarely generates the kinds of public concern heard Saturday.

The massive booms shook homes across Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties around 1:45 p.m. Saturday. Residents called government hotlines while theories swirled online. Was it military operations? An explosion? A meteor?

"We recognize that when the aircraft went supersonic, based on altitude and other factors, it caused concern on the ground and can create confusion," Cornelio said.

When aircraft exceed the speed of sound — about 760 mph — it creates a shock wave ahead of the aircraft that results in a loud boom.

Cold weather like what the state experienced over the weekend can affect how sound travels, which could explain why people across a broad region heard the booms, said Buck McLaughlin, range director of the Avon Park Bombing Range. The noises had no connection to Avon Park, McLaughlin said.

Saturday wasn’t the first time Floridians have heard sonic booms of late.

On Friday, a pilot with the Florida Air National Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing momentarily went supersonic while flying at a very high altitude over the east coast of Florida, which likely caused the boom heard by residents of that area, said Maj. Mary Brown, a Florida National Guard spokeswoman.

And last month, the annual Checkered Flag training exercise, held at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, may have caused some sonic booms. The two-week, large-scale, aerial total-force exercise involved F-35s, F-22s, F-18s, F-16s and F-15s, all capable of reaching supersonic speeds.

There may be more sonic booms in Florida today. According to SpaceX, residents of Brevard, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties may hear one or more sonic booms during the landing attempt of a Falcon 9 rocket being launched by the private space company at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station shortly before noon.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.