Imagine you have a crowd of people, who want to go to a certain territory (e. g. close to the border). An airplane flies over them such that when it reaches supersonic speed, there is a loud bang. People hear it, it hurts, and for several days they are deaf. That noise scares them off, and after some time most of them recover (i. e. there is no permanent injury to their ears).

I heard this story from a source I don't trust.

Can this be true? Could you, in theory, protect the border of a country from intruding crowds by simply flying over them (provided the crowds can't down the plane)?

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    $\begingroup$ Depending on how low you're willing to fly, the downwash from the wings might also be used as a weapon. $\endgroup$
    – Steve V.
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ It's an effective method of disrupting a fairly low-tech enemy which is dug in to a trench system - though the Geneva Convention probably doesn't allow it. No need to actually go supersonic - just fly along the trench at near-supersonic speed (so they can't hear you coming until you are on top of them) at low altitude (a low level attack aircraft can fly at 25 ft if the crew have enough bottle to trust the ground avoidance radar) and leave the enemy infantry too deaf to communicate, not to mention being scared witless if they are mostly conscripts and new recruits. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ F-16 Pilot uses Sonic Boom to save Ground Troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder how many people commenting have any RL experience with using jets in this fashion. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ There is no bang when you reach supersonic speeds. The bang is "continuous" while you're supersonic, it's just that any single stationary observer only hears one "bang". In any case, you don't need supersonic - the jets are plenty loud and scary enough on their own. The boom itself is pretty boring - humans are quite resistant to that kind of overpressure, unlike panes of glass. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 8:58

9 Answers 9


Sonic booms from low flying aircraft, while loud, don't seem to cause hearing damage, as this F-14 pilot demonstrates during a Tiger Cruise air wing demonstration.

Now military fighters will sometimes make a 'show of force' in the form of a low altitude, high speed pass against threat forces which don't have a substantial IADS capability in order to motivate them to disperse under threat of employing ordanance on them if they continue belligerence.

UPDATE: I found this story about an F-16 2-ship over Iraq on a CAS patrol mission. The pilots get a radio call from desperate SOCOM operators pinned down by enemy troops at night. The pilots cannot get a IR strobe to track for bombing, so the lead Viper uses a sonic boom delivered from a dive to frighten off the combatants.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you expand the IADS acronym, please? $\endgroup$
    – user20083
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ Integrated Air Defense System - a network of radar and other detection systems, command and control nodes, and AAA and SAM sites to identify, track and shoot down hostile aircraft $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ That was so relatively quiet that nobody jumped or covered their ears. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ The second video has link-rotted away. I would replace it it you had put it's title somewhere. Can you replace it or provide a title? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 9:50

An American F-16 pilot scared off Iraqi troops closing in on an SAS force in 2003.

Apparently the pilot could not visually identify the SAS force, so instead of dropping ordinance and potentially shelling the Brits, he flew dive-bomb maneuvers which sounded like ordinance exploding to the Iraqis on the ground. They scattered, and the Brits were spared.


The use of a "show of force" by supersonic aircraft has variable influence on the ground

Could you, in theory, protect the border of a country from intruding crowds by simply flying over them (provided the crowds can't down the plane)?

To answer your question, no you can't protect the border by doing that -- by itself. Sonic booms are loud and cause discomfort/annoyance. If you flew very, very low, (50 feet or so) you might cause physical damage to people from the combination of sonic energy and wingtip vortices and jet exhaust.

If what you are protecting the border from is crossing, all the people have to do is fall flat, experience the discomfort, and then keep on doing what they are doing. It takes more than a transient discomfort to protect a border.

If, on the other hand, this show of force is a part of a larger effort that includes ground and air based people doing things to protect the border, it may act as a deterrent because it signals to the people that whomever is guarding the border will act.

Experience base for this answer

Military Operations, Afghanistan and Iraq. The show of force using jet aircraft to influence a variety of situations on the ground via non-lethal means was common once major fighting had stopped and the "restore some semblance of order" operations had begun with their ensuing civil wars / inter-factional fighting.

Sometimes a show of force was more effective than others, in that:

  • sometimes it induced even armed people to back off,
  • other times it was just more noise during a fight.
  • While most were sub sonic (for political reasons) passes, I recall very clearly one case where a supersonic pass influenced the ground action very favorably. (By that I mean that the unit who requested the air support achieved their objective, the people they were fighting did not).
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    $\begingroup$ Do you have more details on the last bullet point? " influenced the ground action very favorably." could mean it scared people off or did wha the OP suggests and caused physical damage. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Pureferret No, I can't. The unit who requested the air support achieved their objective, the people they were fighting did not. Beyond that, the NDA's I signed are still in force. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ That's absolutely understandable $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 21:25

TL;DR: deafining, no , scaring, yes

During the recent coup in Turkey sonic booms were used by the airforce to discourage and scare citizens who were gathering to resist the coup.

The video in the link shows the aircraft as being far away, but I know that the aircraft in Istanbul were making several low passes to scare the opposite party, as exemplified by this image:

F-16 above the streets in Istanbul

Image source

I have some anecdotal evidence to support this fact. I happened to be in Istanbul when the coup was taking place, and at some point during the night when we were sleeping, we suddenly heard the roar of a jet followed by a loud explosion (caused by the sonic boom). I haven't found any evidence to support this, but I think the sonic boom was created whilst flying a low altitude, as I've heard sonic booms before, but never this loud.

Knowing how sonic booms sound, I was sure it was not the sound of ordinance exploding. I can imagine it has the same effect on any troops, inducing the fear of immediate danger.

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    $\begingroup$ I can corroborate this answer. I was in the capital Ankara during the same coup attempt, and in my case, I did not hear the jet coming, but first the sonic boom, and then the jet roaring away. I can concur that it was an extremely frightening, absolutely jarring experience. Each time this happened, I prayed the jet would not return, but it returned half an hour later, and this lasted from 10 PM until early next morning. $\endgroup$
    – Sabuncu
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ It makes sense that you would not hear the jet before the boom, as the jet was travelling faster than sound. When the sound does catch up to you, well, that is usually accompanied by the boom travelling at the same speed from the same origin! $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 15:21

Jet fighters have been used to disorient as early as 1977.

On May 23.1977, a train was hijacked in The Netherlands by nine Moluccans, taking 50 hostages. After 20 days the situation was mostly unchanged and an assault was started to resolve the crisis.

A combination of precision fire by snipers and simulated bombing runs by starfighters was used to suppress and disorient the hijackers during the initial phase of the few minutes. The starfighters made three low passes over the train with afterburners engaged while explosive charges where detonated near the train to simulate bomb impacts. In the confusion a team of marines broached and entered the train, ending the hostage situation. Two hostages and six hijackers were killed during the attack.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome, While a good post, and certainly related, it's not about using the sonic boom "weapon" to scare people, but using explosives to create a diversion. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate more on simulated bombing runs by starfighters? I've looked at the link, but I didn't understand what exactly they did (I don't speak Dutch). $\endgroup$
    – user20083
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ I do speak Dutch, but the link doesn't say much about the 'simulate bombing runs'. What I think they did is to simulate the detonation of a bomb in two ways: 1. setting off explosives near the train to simulate the tremors or a real explosion. 2. Having jets fly over the train, creating a sonic boom. The two elements, the boom and the tremors together should simulate an explosive. $\endgroup$
    – ROIMaison
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 11:00

Yes. It has been used before, by the Israelis- as a form of psychological warfare. Basically, it is to create fear and put pressure on the people to do something. It is quite well documented too- see here and here.

Apparently, the Israelis consider the tactic to be effective in 'sending a message':

During five days in late September, the air force caused 29 sonic booms.

A senior Israeli army intelligence source, ... said the tactic is intended to break civilian support for armed Palestinian groups. "We are trying to send a message in a way that doesn't harm people. ... " he said. "What are the alternatives? ... . We are cautious. We make sure nobody is really hurt."

Israelis have done it in other places too for pretty much the same reason- sending a message.


In WW2 the Japanese flew a plane with a loud or out of sync engine over US troops all night to disrupt their sleep. I believe they called the plane washing machine Charlie. I presume using a sonic boom by plane or drone over troops all night would have a similar effect. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washing_Machine_Charlie

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting history! Welcome to Av.SE. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 18:31

Just flying low will not be helpful but producing sonic boom while flying low should work if flying really very low (somewhat 50 meters or lower).

From this source seems that both jet engines and firearms produce "just" about 140 dB, and from here the threshold of death is at about 185-200 dB. The enemy will not fall dead just from the sound of your gun, neither just from the sound of your interceptor aircraft passing low.

However this source says that sonic boom can reach as high 213 dB. Hence breaking the sound barrier while flying low may produce the killing force.

How efficient? There is the site that allows to calculate the sound level decline over distance. If the sound level is 231 dB in the distance of 2 meters from where it originates, it should decline to the survivable 184 dB in the distance of 55 meters only. Hence the effect zone the weapon would be somewhat 100 meter wide track, matching the flight path.

Speaking about the "non lethal weapon", it depends that do we mean by this. If the goal is just to scare unprepared civilians, 140 dB may be sufficient.

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    $\begingroup$ And from this source: decibelcar.com/articles/40-everything-else/87-dbequivalent.html a sonic boom is about 213 dB $\endgroup$
    – Metoniem
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ Since a sonic boom is produced continuously while travelling faster than the speed of sound, there is no difficulty producing a boom 'above' a target beyond being able to fly above that target. Flying to one side of the target will just increase the distance the boom has to travel, and thus decrease its intensity. $\endgroup$
    – grkvlt
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 16:08

A sonic boom can shatter windows on any building nearby and cause damage (sometimes irreparable) to any person close enough. It's a shock-wave, but with no ordinance. So, I would say that it MIGHT be non-lethal. and it might also kill the target, or render them deaf for life, or shell-shocked, or concussed, or any other sort of thing you could imagine after being hit with a pressure wave such as that (which is why it's not legal to break the sound barrier over land).


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