What’s The Buzz?


Sound. It’s what lured some of us unsuspecting into aviation. As a kid I reacted to the sound of an airplane engine ticking unseen among cicadas ghost-riding in the sky above my Wonder Bread and mayonnaise New Jersey neighborhood. The sound made me look up to glimpse what shining messenger called and prompted a nun to rap my desktop while invoking unworldly wrath against daydreaming: “Non somnia per diem, Mr. Berge!”  

I feigned compliance, as I often do when confronting authority, but continued to dream my days into hollow weeks and years awaiting Sound’s enlightenment. But before stumbling further into my recurring theme about how spiritually cool sky-gazing is, a note about semantic satiation, a term gleaned from Ted Lasso.

According to unimpeachable Wikipedia, “semantic satiation is a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word to temporarily lose meaning.” Like the universally abused “like.” Caveat invoked, here’s more sound.

Imagine the huff and wheeze of a 1940s radial engine awakening on a misty Blakesburg, Iowa, dawn, coughing oily phlegm like my cigar-smoking Uncle Mart stumbling from a fold-out guest bed while reaching for his White Owl and Zippo lighter. In the radial engine’s birth, the cylinders emit a metallic rumble of pistons, rods and valves in choreographed precision (firing order: 1, 3, 5, 7, possibly 9, on the first revolution, then evens on the second twist) while gray smoke, like the exhaust from Mart’s cigar, puffs sweet violence as spark plugs ignite vaporized avgas into a force that is, as Continental proclaimed when manufacturing automobile engines before expanding into aviation: “Powerful as the nation.” What nation? Several claim bragging rights, but the radial engine sound, like American jazz, has been heard ‘round the world. Still is. You’re welcome, World.

Closer to reality, I’ve had limited experience behind radials, having mostly flown in the flatter sounds of opposed-cylinder Lycomings and Continentals, producing their own music without the radial’s sexy rumba beat. The results are similar—flight. That splendid cacophony from hours of unprotected aero lust didn’t affect my eyesight but degraded my hearing long before headsets were ubiquitous. I don’t mourn the hearing loss but do crank up intercom volume to spinal-tapping 11.

The aviation soundscape profoundly morphed in my lifetime. I remember being too young and broke to fly while exploring rows of piston singles and twins at Teterboro airport in the 1960s when I first saw a Learjet. No ear-massaging clack of a radial or smooth-talking six-cylinder Franklin, Lyc or Continental, this pointy tube sporting a brace of kerosene stink generators, designed to haul Frank Sinatra to Palm Springs to see the total eclipse of the sun, produced a deafening blast in its sooty wake that tried but failed to intimidate the Cubs and Beech 18s whose language I was learning. In contempt for sensibility, I refused to cover my ears, lest I appear the wimpy kid, unable to handle the roar of the future and inevitable degradation of what I’ve yet to comprehend.

Over a half-century later, I’m an old guy pushing my older Aeronca Champ, “Quinta,” from her hangar. With an easy flick of the prop, the four cylinders awaken as they always do, allowing me to fly to nowhere, the best destination anywhere. I’d been content to live out my airport days in this pleasant retreat of gently barking engines, when my friend Rick made an offer I couldn’t refuse. And like Michael Corleone in the Godfather version that we never discuss in polite company (GF3), I was “pulled back in!” Or forwarded in as we took delivery of his new Bristell 912 iS Sport from John Rathmel and friendly staff at Sport Flying USA in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I’d met the future and it teased with a new soundtrack.

“You must ‘burp the baby,’” the instructor explained as he pulled the three-bladed prop through a hundred times. Maybe only 15 pulls, but still. To check the Rotax oil level, one removes the cap and rotates the propeller about a dozen blades (sharp edges; use gloves), while listening for a distinct, and mildly revolting, burping sound. To me it sounds like the FBO’s toilet unclogging after 15 plunger attempts.  With that, we checked oil, replaced the cap, and flew. Or tried to.

Rain and low ceilings reduced the Class D airspace to MVFR, then IFR, so we practiced high-speed taxis along the runway. Lancaster tower controllers are familiar with Bristells and neophyte pilots skittering about like WW I clip-winged Breese Penguin trainers designed to give students the feel of near flight. Humbling, I suspect that tower controllers giggled, watching me play pinball with the runway lights in the tri-gear, low-wing two-seater. I’m used to my boxy, high-wing taildragger on grass.

Two days later skies cleared, and every rental airplane launched. Aloft, the Bristell taught me how to fly the future. Others have examined the breed in detail, so I’ll just say it’s an airplane. Don’t overthink it. Light on aileron to be certain, but honest. Plenty of stall-warning but a distinct break if you ignore those many alerts. Standard rudder and pitch corrections avoid a stall/spin/NTSB obit. Flying the Bristell was fun when I learned to ignore the glass panel: two Garmin G3Xs, GTN 650xi, G5 display, GMA 345 audio panel, GFC 500 autopilot (with optional GW1Z espresso maker). Later, our 900-mile flight home in VMC afforded time to explore the computerized guts of this impressive LSA. We cruised at 112 knots TAS, burning mogas at 5.4 gph.

Promo over. Now, more Sound.

Besides the burp, the Bristell’s fuel-injected, 100-HP Rotax gives a shiver-me-rivets quake on shutdown. This isn’t your grandmother’s phlegmatic radial. Kill ignition, and the prop stops right now, making me suspect we’d taxied into a post. Likewise on startup, the engine mounts get tested going from zero to high RPM exuberance.

Rotax engines aren’t new to aviation. I’ve given flight reviews behind several and have few complaints. Yeah, one quit on me in an RV-12 on climb-out, but we restarted it, and the owner never returned, so it’s all good. What’s new to me is the sound of Bristells and other Rotax-powered airplanes in the pattern. From afar, they buzz like those childhood cicadas in search of the pilot light that glows on the porch at enlightened flight schools. Not a bad sound, just different. Unlike the sound of the first Learjet I’d heard decades ago, this new sound isn’t assaultive, isn’t leaving town in a rush. It’s cute and invites—I hope—a new generation of daydreamers to look up and take my place in the sky and soon, real soon, on these pages (foreshadowing music up).

Sound. I share a few so beautiful they changed my life:

  1. When my wife, Kathy, said, “I do.”
  2. When our daughter, Emily, said her first word (“dog” not “Aeronca”).
  3. Willie Nelson singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
  4. And any piston airplane engine that keeps me looking up and daydreaming.

But here’s the rub. In those dreams what comment can I offer that I haven’t already? Semantic satiation holds that my words, oft repeated over the past 33 years, are losing meaning. They’re not, of course, my words. I merely choose from aviation’s lexicon and insert commas in hopes of sharing a semi-coherent thought. Now, the time draws near for someone more in tune with evolving world sounds to blow the dust off old words I’ve abused and give them new insight.  Stay tuned….

Meanwhile, when clouds puddle in the Susquehanna Valley on an autumn dawn, put another nickel in the jukebox, select Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” and listen for the undying buzz of aviation ear-worming into another soul.

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    • I don’t think a Rotax sounds right either. Especially after firing up a Cessna 182 with dual exhaust pipes…..

  1. Brilliant use of allegory and intricate weaving of hidden meanings, Paul. From what I discern above the familiar but antecedent sound of a radial engine and your words and storytelling may not be as frequently experienced in the future, but neither will ever be forgotten by me or any child at heart aviator. Will stay tuned…

  2. I haven’t yet moved on from my recent read of Paul’s ‘The Logbook’ when suddenly, in today’s essay ‘What’s the Buzz?’ he fluently reflects on a personal and nostalgic exploration of his passion for aviation (and mine) and the enduring significance of sound in the real, and dreamlike world of flight.

    • Thanks, Raf. Didn’t mean to distract you from “The Logbook” post on Substack. (How’s that for shameless cross-promotion…?) Always enjoy your comments.

  3. Your decision or someone else’s, Paul? Good luck to whomever it is looking for that “someone more in tune with evolving world sounds”. And by the way, to hell with “evolving world sounds”.

      • Glad it’s your call Paul. Hopefully it’s a call unencumbered by recent corporate change at the top which all too often bodes less well for the real producer and therefore the consumer than temporally for the new head office. Thank you for always bringing us back from the political click bait precipice to the fellowship of the open hangar, to the rag wing, to the stick and to the rudder where it all began in the first place and where it will aways remain.

      • I, too, am glad it was your call. But was your call influenced by Ramjet Corporation’s recent takeover of virtually all general aviation media? I hope not as I will miss your contributions, but I’m suspicious.

  4. Say it ain’t so, Artie. We still need your perspective. Stay inside the circle a little longer and wax poetic about the whistle of the wind through the wires of a Skybolt…

    • Drew, two allusions to some of my other works. Thank you. Artie Azzetti and Kate Strauss (inside the Circle) appreciate the plug.

  5. Paul, beautiful writing as always. The 100hp Rotax 912S has an optional soft start kit to stop it trying to shake itself to pieces on startup and shutdown, which helps a lot. Without it, I read once that someone fitted an accelerometer to a 912S, and it registered 28G on startup. Eek. The 80hp 912 is a bit smoother.

  6. We’ll miss you and your words, Paul. Best wishes on your coming… retirement? Hope you will stick around on Substack and continue owning/flying the Champ.

    Often I hear piston airplanes over the neighborhood, and most of the time I’ll stop and watch. Sometimes I take a break from firsthand encounters with the deer and coyotes to look up through the forest canopy to try to find out what is sounding like a fast-moving somewhat loud 172 or Cherokee. If I get a look, it’s usually an RV of some kind. Huh. Cool.

    But a few times a week somebody in a Champ will be reconnoitering a north-south-and-back-again corridor over the freeway, under the outer tier of the local Class C, and once a month or so a T-6 comes over, outbound to the west. I hear them before I see them, and they are unmistakable. The sounds of those two will encourage me to find a big enough clearing to watch until they are out of sight.

  7. When you see an article on AVWEB, written by a guy named “Paul”, you can bet that it’s gonna be good!

  8. One of my school reports said that I spend far too much time looking out of the window at aircraft instead of concentrating on the lessons. After leaving school I spent 37 years as an Air Traffic Controller at Heathrow, so in retrospect I was practising!

  9. And I thought I was one of the very few looking out classroom windows on a warm fall day trying to spot the airplane overhead I knew was up there somewhere… By Junior year in high school, after many mowed lawns and driveways shoveled of snow, it was me on weekends. And for another 60 years I have looked up almost every time I hear “that sound”, or look around the airport to see what has started, run up or gone around… Thanks for your terrific writing, and hope your ears continue to enjoy the sounds of someone experiencing the joys of flight!

  10. Please keep writing Paul!
    Yup, the Rotax instant on / instant off deal grates on this geezers ears. The only thing better than the sound of a 985 Wasp Junior is two 985s. My new hearing aids were a small price to pay. (grin)

    • Thank you, Thomas. I’ll keep writing although on other projects, including my next novel, which has been my next novel for over ten years.

  11. Best soundtrack of any engine is the sound from inside the cockpit…my similar destination, when asked is “up”.

    Started the journey in reverse order…no small airport nearby, MSP based jets in era when you could still visit/watch, then USN training in time to watch/hear radial COD deck run and amble airborne after all the jets catapulted out of the way. Stearmans tailchasing down the beach distracted studying NATOPS flashcards inspiring a birthday ride for supportive (future) wife where the grass strip woke to the Stearman’s rumble. A few years/thousand USN hours later, working in the yard near enough to 2800′ strip to hear tire chirps and Otter lumbering over delivering packages still beckoned to a more peaceful aviation segment. Now after 20 radial years, albeit pneumatic started, turning wrong way, still have a bit of Jimmy Stewart “Phoenix” satisfaction when a cough, catch and eventual wake up of all nine tells me my day is about to get better…

    It’s a privilege to lead our aviation lives, but it’s also one well earned, enjoy your next chapter.

  12. I was picked last as a kid in pickup baseball. The trouble was always apparent as any buzzing overhead caused me to momentarily gaze up regardless of goings on in the game. Lucky I was never beaned by the ball during one of those episodes. Happy Trails, Paul.

    • Thank you. I , too, missed a lot of fly balls daydreaming out there in right field. I even missed an inning change once. Not by a little.

  13. Ah, the sweet symphony of a piston airplane engine that keeps me gazing skyward and daydreaming – truly my all-time favorite pastime. Picture this: a nine-year-old me, basking in the summertime sun, perched on the side of a hill, fixated on the glorious spectacle of C47s, F4Us, and other military aircraft gracing the heavens with their touch-and-go maneuvers at an airport in Otay Mesa in California, during the Korean War years. A whopping 72 years since those magical days.

    Even the relentless, high-speed antics of a horsefly zipping past my ear were enough to transport me back to those loggable (?) glorious moments when I’d close my eyes and let my imagination run wild with dreams of becoming a pilot. Ah, the audacious aspirations of a young dreamer, fueled by the buzz of both aircraft and insects! Logbook entry: today I dreamt I flew an F86D 0.2 hrs.

      • I’ve noticed that potential emerging, too. The poems, the experienced perspective, the AI (just kidding 😁) – we know you can do it!

    • Raf– F86. Beautiful flying machine, even if it lacks propellers. Thank you for the images and kind words over the years. –Paul

  14. RN, Dave Miller: When I became a part of the community of commenters at AVweb back in 1995, I couldn’t differentiate a comma from a caterpillar. However, with the invaluable guidance of Mr. Google, Mrs. Bard, and others, I’ve gradually progressed towards a level of literary skill that some might find even a tad overdone. Ain’t AI peachy?

  15. I, too, was chided by a teacher for “wasting time dreaming about airplanes”. During my 37 year career flying jet airliners, I always hoped to see him deplaning from one of my flights.

  16. Dear Paul, You and less than one handful of other writers have been the shining light on my aviation dreams for the past 3 or so decades. It saddens me to lose that light but I hope you know that you have inspired thousands of pilots with your humor and your way with words. No one can ever take that away! You have enriched our lives!

    • Dear Paul,

      My wife and I deeply admire your exceptional aviation journalism and wish you all the best in your retirement. We have cherished your humor and work, eagerly anticipating each story from the fascinating world of aviation. Your tales have truly been an inspiration to us. Millie and I hope that you will continue to enrich our lives through your wonderful writing.

      Warmest regards,

      Raf and Millie (MX) PSP

  17. Fare thee well Paul. I always enjoyed your stuff.
    Does this mean you might have time to publish your great Jake Hollow novels in audio?