Throwback Thursday: The Skies Over Queens and the Port Authority’s Decision

By Roz Hamlett, Portfolio editor

Many people living in the vicinity of a Port Authority (PA) airport know that the agency engages actively with local community groups and roundtables on noise abatement issues. What’s less known is that these efforts began more than 50 years ago.

Under the leadership of former PA Executive Director Austin Tobin, the world’s first aircraft-noise monitoring system was developed and installed.

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Austin Tobin was the Executive Director of the Port Authority from 1942-1972.  Educated at the College of the Holy Cross and Fordham Law School, Tobin was born in Brooklyn on May 25, 1903.

In 1958, Tobin was facing a serious problem. He had to find a way for a person owning a house near an airport to be able to sit comfortably on his or her porch and enjoy life.  Tobin was convinced that if aircraft noise was too loud, a good quality of life was impossible, and the airport’s relationship with its neighbors would suffer.

Meanwhile, Pan American Airways, at the time the largest international air carrier in the country, wanted PA permission to fly its new Boeing 707 from Idlewild, what is today Kennedy International Airport. It was a military jet transport plane refitted internally as a passenger aircraft.  The airplane had no mufflers.

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A group meeting with Austin Tobin and members of the Bolt, Beranek and Newman team in New York discussing noise measurements in August 1958.  Two months later, the Boeing 707 ushered in the commercial jet age on October 26, 1958.  Tobin is third from the left on the back row.  Beranek is seated and wearing glasses.  Tobin’s determination to install noise monitors impacted airport operations across the world.

Aggravating matters was a lawsuit filed by Newark residents because of the noise created by the large propeller airplanes at what is now Newark Liberty International Airport.

Years earlier, the PA had told the airlines that jet planes must make no more noise than large propeller planes during takeoffs and landings. Boeing assured the Port Authority their 707 could meet this requirement, but Tobin was receiving conflicting reports.

During a test flight of the prototype 707, an event attended by Tobin and several sound experts from the acoustical consulting firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), Boeing’s claims about the 707 were contradicted.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Leo Beranek later would later write:  “We were stunned – the noise was terrible, unbelievable. The Boeing people appeared devastated.”

Angst over the Boeing 707 was growing, and Tobin informed Beranek that if something wasn’t done to control the noise, Idlewild residents were threatening to send “mothers with baby carriages onto the runways.”

So, on a late summer day in August 1958, Tobin planted himself on the front porch of a home near the end of the runway in Howard Beach to hear for himself how loud the aircraft were.  The Port Authority authorized BBN to develop a program to determine what level of jet noise would be acceptable in neighborhoods around Idlewild.

BBN gauged noise levels in Queens under many different conditions.  They measured and recorded take-off noise, distances of test locations and with cameras pointed skyward, they measured the height of each flight.  Sound meters and cameras were placed in communities.

By the end of August, Tobin had his answer: 112 perceived noise decibels (PNdB) would be the limit for takeoffs at Idlewild. By late October, a Pan Am Boeing 707-120 at full capacity flew from New York City (NYC) to London, and later a British Overseas Airways Comet 4 flew from London to NYC. Both flights had PA approval.  Neither provoked a community reaction to the noise.   Tobin’s decision to install noise monitors impacted airport operations all over the world by establishing rules and baseline noise metrics at a critical point as the jet age got underway. Both manufacturers and European airlines were put on notice that they must work to suppress jet aircraft noise if they planned trans-Atlantic flights to the New York region.

“Credit must [go] to Austin Tobin for financing the study, accepting the results and setting and enforcing limits of “noisiness” in the face of intense industry and government objection,” Beranek wrote in 2004.

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The Boeing 707 opened the commercial jet age for the U.S. on October 26, 1958.  Pictured above is the 707 on the tarmac on the day of its inaugural flight. The 707 allowed the U.S. to gain the lead in commercial jet transportation.  It remained in continuous production from the mid 1950s until 1977 with more than 1,000 aircraft produced.

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