Jim Quinn has heard thousands of warplanes whiz by in the 56 years he's lived in Tucson. He's never heard anything like the ones that swooped over his north-side neighborhood on Tuesday.

"It was insanely loud, almost unbearable. You had to cover your ears," said the retired city worker, who lives near North Oracle and West Grant roads.

"I like to be a gracious host to the military, but this was not acceptable."

Though he didn't know it at the time, Quinn may have had a taste of what life could be like if Tucson becomes the home of the Air Force's newest warplane, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-35 has a noise level similar to that of another U.S. fighter jet, the F-18, according to military studies.

And it was the F-18 - four of them, actually - that descended upon the city at midday Tuesday, halting conversations, setting off car alarms and sparking complaint calls to the Arizona Daily Star, a City Council ward office and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

"I thought there was an air show going on," said William Lowe, a light-aircraft pilot who lives in the Sam Hughes area and complained to D-M and City Councilman Steve Kozachik's office.

"Normally, I'm not too bothered by aircraft noise, but this shook the windows. If you were talking to someone right next to you, you'd have to shout to communicate."

If that kind of noise became a regular occurrence in Tucson, "I would not be happy," Lowe said.

Where the F-18s came from wasn't immediately clear. Flown by the Navy and Marines, the aircraft are not based in Tucson.

Maj. Gabe Johnson, a spokesman for the Air National Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing in Tucson, which is a candidate to receive the F-35, said he checked with D-M's control tower and learned that four F-18s flew over the city toward D-M around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.

"The aircraft flew a normal approach-departure corridor for D-M then left the area without landing. The tower did not know the aircraft's origin or final destination," said Johnson, who made the inquiry at the request of the Arizona Daily Star.

Capt. Stacie Shafran, a spokeswoman for D-M, said the F-18s had permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to be in Tucson's airspace. Since they didn't land, D-M isn't required to track where they came from or where they were going, she said.

D-M, which has been averaging two to three noise complaints a day since Jan. 1, received 15 complaint calls on Tuesday. And that's despite the fact that the base's complaint line — 228-5091— was out of order for about three hours Tuesday, including the time period when the F-18s flew past.

Johnson said that even though F-18s and F-35s have similar noise profiles, it's not fair to conclude that the noise residents experienced Tuesday would equate to what they'd hear if the F-35 is based here.

The Air Force is conducting environmental impact studies at potential F-35 sites, and those studies should shed light on "how to minimize the impact on the community," Johnson said.

The first F-35 public meetings in the Tucson area are due to take place in early March. Preferred sites will be announced in late spring, and final decisions are expected early in 2011.

The F-35 is due to replace the F-16s now flown by the 162nd Fighter Wing, which is based at Tucson International Airport.

The unit has more than 1,400 personnel and pumps about $280 million a year into Southern Arizona's economy, a 2008 state study found.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.