By Stephen D. Bowling
They scared some in Breathitt, but others knew what was happening. For three months in 1967, as many as two loud booms were heard in the skies over Breathitt County and across much of eastern Kentucky. It was unlike anything that anyone around Jackson had heard before.
Rumors spread about silver things high in the sky. Many blamed them for their cows drying up. Local farmers said the shaking earth caused an unusual number of doubled-yoked eggs. Women across the county reported “shattered nerves” and a general state of uneasiness.
Then as quickly as they started, the house-shaking booms ended.
What were they? Many local “professors” on the porches of the country stores presented their theories. Some of them were most undoubtedly outlandish and a bit far-fetched. The truth was much harder for some to believe. The problem was- not many in Breathitt County had ever heard of a sonic boom, and fewer understood what they were.
For three months in 1967, the loud booms that startled and puzzled so many in our county had a straightforward explanation. The sounds were part of the United States Strategic Air Command Spring Training exercises. According to press releases in numerous regional newspapers, the flights were part of the required bomb alignment training to help keep American forces prepared for defensive actions should the Cold War heat up.
The flights over Breathitt County started on January 1, 1967, and generally followed the same general path between Oneida and Salyersville, Kentucky. The flight course positioned the flights directly over Breathitt County. The military tested supersonic B-58 Hustler bombers and planned to break the sound barrier beginning at Fall Rock in Clay County, Kentucky. The planes followed their routes every morning and most afternoons, kicked in the afterburners, and cruised to Cockport, Pennsylvania.
The Pentagon explained that the flights were designed to avoid loud sonic booms over significant cities (they apparently did not mind scaring cattle and chickens). The military has preselected practice target sites along the route through eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. During the scheduled runs, Army Nike units used radio and radar signals to test the accuracy of simulated bombs. The Pentagon stressed that the planes did not carry any live ammunition during these training runs.
According to the plans published before flights, the planes would cover the area and reach a top speed of Mach 1.65 (or 1,100 miles per hour) but would fly at 35,000 and 50,000 feet. Other corridors were planned around the country, including flights from North Carolina to Minnesota and routes in the west. The planes were to stay in these 40-mile-wide corridors, which took them directly over the heart of Breathitt County.
Because these events before this time were rare and new to people in our area, The Jackson Times also printed the following from the United States Army: “Although sometimes startling or distracting in the suddenness, the sonic boom will not injure people or damage a structurally sound building.”
The reassurance of the United States military and the publishers of the local paper did not wholly calm the people of the mountains and all along the sonic corridor. The stories of the loud booms and the silver airplanes slashing through the sky have not, for the most part, survived to our more informed time. The tales of the three months of booms are just a few more of the unusual events of Breathitt County’s past that have been lost to time.
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling