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Backstory: Most Evasive Subject


Published December 29, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 29, 2021 at 2:17 p.m.

  • Jesse Azarian

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2021.

I pulled my car into Winooski's O'Brien Community Center parking lot and braced for disappointment.

To my right: a plastic briefcase containing an expensive sound monitor I barely knew how to use, despite a two-hour lesson from the person who'd lent it to me. To my left: a window cracked just enough to hear my surroundings without letting the summer heat into my air-conditioned car. Above, a clear — and quiet — sky.

I waited.

I had already wasted more than 10 hours chasing the F-35 stealth fighters, a pursuit that included two full afternoons anticipating their arrival while sitting on back porches in Winooski and South Burlington and a morning in the driveway of a Williston home.

I was writing about jet noise, and though interviews with several dozen people had given me a clear sense of just how loud it was, I wanted hard data to back it up. More than that, I wanted to experience it firsthand; though I live in South Burlington, the jets usually don't fly over my apartment. I had never heard one directly overhead. That needed to change.

The only problem was how to be in the right place at the right time. The Vermont Air National Guard says national security concerns prevent it from releasing precise flight schedules, beyond a pair of two-hour windows in the morning and afternoon. The pilots also vary flight patterns based on the wind, sometimes taking off over Winooski and, other times, Williston — a fact I learned the hard way. And so here I was, doodling in my notebook and watching the minutes tick by.

After an hour and a few false starts, including once mistaking a garbage truck for a takeoff, I finally heard the sky start to rumble. I grabbed the sound monitor, jumped out of my car and craned my neck, catching the first jet just in time. Four more tore by in the next five minutes.

I'd heard enough descriptions of this moment to know what to expect: a full-body, "bone-rattling" sensation that lingered long after the sound subsided. Still, I was shocked by how I felt. As the jets pushed the sound monitor to 110 decibels — the equivalent of a rock concert — I felt my pulse quicken, and I realized too late that I had forgotten to cover my ears. For the next few hours, I felt myself subconsciously moving my jaw around, as if trying to dislodge a ball of cotton trapped behind it.

The moment earned only a passing mention in my story; the anecdotes I had collected proved more compelling. The experience did, however, impart one lesson: I need to be better prepared. On my way home that day, I bought a package of earplugs.