The Smell of Freedom

SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. -- They call it the sound of freedom. It is that distinctive sound made when the auxiliary power unit is running and the jet engine starts to turn. Man, I love that sound.

Or maybe you prefer the roar as a beast with a Gatling gun sticking out of its nose passes right over your head. How about the vibration as the multi-engine heavies get ready to go? Or the sound of the turbofans turning -- I mean, good grief, how many C-130s are there, anyhow?

The idea of "jet noise" being the "sound of freedom" is something that is talked about a lot in the Air Force. My search for that term on the official U.S. Air Force web site returned more than 1,300 hits. You'll find tens of thousands more searching the full internet via your favorite search engine.

If freedom does have a sound, I'd cast my vote along with those who love to hear some jet noise - though to be sure, I'll be wearing appropriate Air Force-approved hearing protection when I listen to it.

But I submit to you that what freedom really has is.... well, what it has is a smell.

Yes, a smell.

To me, it is the fumes of a jet engine turning with JP-8 jet fuel on a warm summer day. Maybe mix in the smell of a couple diesel engines running - now that is what freedom smells like. (This is one of those moments when I wish the Air Force had taken my suggestion for a Scratch-n-Sniff web site a bit more seriously.)

Yes, I know, those fumes will eventually leave you feeling nauseous and I know that in any concentrated amount they are probably hazardous to your health, but leave all that aside for a moment. And just you try to convince me that you don't smell the freedom on a day on the flight line when the engines are turning and the APUs are running and -- is that freedom or what?

I know to say something smells is generally considered to be a negative comment. And a search on the Air Force web site for "smell of freedom" returns not a single hit. But this Airman knows exactly what freedom smells like.

They say the sense of smell is the most powerful jogger of memory for humans. Several studies have shown, for example, that the smell of crayons is the most recognizable scent for American adults and can instantly trigger memories of pre-school and (hopefully) happier, simpler times for most adults.

For me, almost every single time I catch my first whiff of kerosene fumes - jet fuel is a blend of kerosene and gasoline - I'm transported back in time almost three decades, to when I first put on the uniform and when I got my first pungent whiff of freedom. Back then, the fuel was JP-4 - the "JP" stands for "jet propellant" by the way. The Air Force transitioned to the safer JP-8 in the middle 1990s, but the smell didn't change much.

Most Americans have never smelled the smells of the flight line. Knowing the smell of freedom is one of the intangible benefits that come with wearing the blue suit. Even Airmen who have never worked directly on the flight line have still been out and about on the base when the wind carries that unmistakable scent in their direction.

So, here's to the smell of freedom. Long may it waft.

Comprised of approximately 1,600 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which is also home to units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.