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The first time I saw the huge black beast that is ThrustSSC was in the Al-Jafr desert, Jordan, but under rather disappointing circumstances. I had been called in as a replacement pilot to fly the Pegasus Quantum 912 microlight with barely a day’s notice as Simon Baker, the original pilot had run out of time. While I was on the flight to Amman the car had irreparably broken it’s rear suspension on a run to 525 mph. All I got to do was help pack the 90 tons of kit which constituted “Thrust on tour” for shipping home. I didn’t get to fly at all, the Al-Jafr desert is a military training area and the microlight only had permission to fly immediately before the car was to run.
Despite my personal disappointment, the development of the car was deemed to be going well and more importantly for us, the microlight operations were judged a success by team leader and the then current land speed record holder, Richard Noble. Our primary job was to ensure the track was clear before a run, and almost every day Simon had found some obstacle hazardous to SSC driver Andy Green’s health at 500 mph - locals in vehicles, camels, donkeys and on one occasion a freshly fired missile.
Pegasus were therefore asked to provide two Quantum 912’s for the forthcoming land speed record attempt in the much larger Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA. I don’t think they had to think about it for very long. This was potentially history in the making, the greatest motor race on earth, a head to head between ThrustSSC and Spirit of America. SoA were no small threat either, the driver Craig Breedlove had been the first man through the 400, 500 and 600 mph barriers and had held the official unlimited land speed record no less than four times in his career. All Richard Noble had to do was raise £600,000 in six weeks to get Thrust half way across the world and subsequently maintain a 40 strong team for a two month campaign.
Having run the paramotor championship at the World Air Games in Turkey, I got one day at home and then set off for America. I arrived in the little town of Gerlach, Nevada, pop. 350, motto: “where the pavement ends the west begins” towards the end of September as part of the second shift of pilots. Bill Sherlock arrived a couple of days before me, John Fack had already gone home but Simon was still around. Spirit of America were having problems but the Thrust team was in optimistic mood. The car had gradually been going faster and faster in the previous three weeks and a new land speed record was on the cards for the very next day. This perfect timing meant that the first occasion I got to see the car run was when it broke Richard Noble’s existing 14 year old record by no less than 81 mph with a two way average of 714.144 mph, the greatest margin in the history of the unlimited land speed record. Everyone was delighted, 6 years of work had finally paid off. The team set about some serious partying. Gerlach’s five bars didn’t really know what hit them.
Two days later everyone was back at work, the job was not yet finished, the goal was at least Mach 1, the sound barrier, about 750 mph at our altitude of 4000 ft, and it was thought 800 or even 850 was achievable before the weather closed in sometime in mid October. For my part it had already been a worthwhile trip, it was t-shirt flying weather and we had the best view in the house from the microlights. They make them big in America and the Black Rock Desert is no exception, from the air it was very difficult to appreciate the scale of things. It is a simply vast banana shaped area of dead flat dried mud maybe forty miles long by five to ten wide with Gerlach at one end and the Black Rock itself at the other. It would be possible to do an entire qualifying cross country for your pilot licence across this desert and you wouldn’t need a map! The Playa, as it is known, is surrounded by craggy mountains half a mile high which turn from a uniform brown to purple and pink in the evening sunlight.
The timed section between miles six and seven looked tiny in comparison. At 10 ½ tons the car could only use each track once so a series of parallel tracks thirteen miles long with several miles of emergency run off area at each end were laid out using locally mined gypsum mixed with water to make the lines. Each track had to be walked for debris. Fodding (Foreign Object Debris) was everybody’s least favourite task.
In the microlights we could see the whole thing. Andy Green would start SSC off fairly slowly otherwise the desert surface would be literally hoovered up by its two massive intakes, but once over 150 mph it would go ballistic, and by 250 with full afterburner established it was accelerating by 100 mph every four seconds. At 700 mph the car was going through the measured mile in less than five seconds trailing a massive plume of dust which eventually rose thousands of feet into the air.
I will make a bold statement and say anybody with funds, determination, experience and a bit of luck can make 600 - 650 in a car. The problems arise above 650, when you start getting to “transsonic” speeds where air over parts of the car starts to go supersonic. The difference between SoA and ThrustSSC was science. Lots of it. Nobody wanted a repeat, or worse, of Craig Breedlove’s 1996 demonstration of what can go wrong, when at something over 500 mph his car turned over and slid for 7 miles down the desert on its side.
You have to remember that the objective was to do something nobody had ever done before, Mach 1 six inches off the ground is an entirely different thing to Mach 1 at 100 ft. The ThrustSSC boffins had a very good idea of what the air around the car was doing at each speed. Before a single part of Thrust was made there had been several years of aerodynamic analysis, some of it on university supercomputers, some with models shot at supersonic speeds up a rocket motor test track in Wales. The car itself was covered with over 150 monitoring systems and the figures were compared to their theoretical counterparts after every run. The theory turned out to be remarkably accurate.
Because of this, I suspect most people imagine that driving ThrustSSC was not such a difficult job, certainly our Andy comes over almost as if all he had to do was press the green button at the start, enjoy the ride, and press the red button at the end. This was absolutely not so, I saw different. Despite various tweaks both to the angle of incidence of the tailplane and to the software controlling the active suspension system, the car was horrendously unstable between 550 and 650 mph. I could see it every time the car ran, just as it really got motoring there would be a big weave, sometimes more than 50 ft either side of the line, before it settled down straight again at 700. The in cockpit videos showed Andy lock to lock on these occasions, and the guy had the balls to get back in and do it again, and again. What’s more, it’s possible to hear his breathing in these videos and the rate does not change from beginning to end of a run. There’s a guy with the right stuff.
It was a week before the car ran again. There were several days spent checking the car over and then just as it was ready the first winter storm came through from the North Pacific with some rain and quite strong winds. Snow appeared on the peaks of the mountains and it was below freezing in the mornings.
The surface of this desert is mud, it floods every year which is what keeps it so flat, and it's no good for wheel-driven record attempts because it's rather soft, but with jet engines this didn't matter, in fact it was an advantage because it had a bit of 'give' in it which gave a much smoother ride for Andy than in Jordan or you'd find on harder surfaces like Bonneville. The mud has a relatively hard crust on top which in normal circumstances stops it blowing away in the wind, however any kind of vehicle driving on it breaks the crust exposing loose dust underneath. We had several days of horrendous talcum powder dust storms which reduced visibility at times to a few feet. People got lost in the stuff for hours at a time out on the Playa. It was a frightful job cleaning up the microlights after each storm, but they never gave any trouble.
At last the weather cleared. For some reason, the next time the car ran I did not have a passenger and had the chance to photograph it in action. At the same time I noticed something extraordinary, a sort of line extending away from the side of the car. When I landed, nobody believed what I said I'd seen, but the film was dashed to the nearest 2 hour processor in a Reno supermarket and the print clearly showed a shockwave, something none of the experts had predicted. For the next run I was issued with a sponsor as passenger rather than a media person and again had an opportunity to photograph the car, this time from what I thought would be a better position at 500ft almost dead ahead as it came through the measured mile. This run peaked at somewhere around Mach 0.98, 740 mph and the line was very distinct, about 50 ft either side of the car.
So what exactly is happening? I had no idea, but it was elegantly explained by Ron Ayers, ThrustSSC's brilliant aerodynamicist.
Imagine you are going in a boat very slowly, and you watch the bow wave. At first, as you go -very very slowly- ripples will come from the bow and move away from it forwards in a circular pattern. Go a little faster, the same speed as the waves can go, and the bow wave will be a straight line perpendicular to the direction the boat is travelling. Go a speed twice the speed the waves can go and the bow wave will be the familiar V at about 45 degrees.
The same happens with sound, only sound goes a lot faster. Mach 1, the speed of sound, is about 750 mph at the temperature and altitude of Black Rock desert. Go slower than Mach 1 and the ripples (sound waves) will ripple forward of the car, hence you can hear it coming. In these photos the car is going close to the speed of sound and the bow wave is about perpendicular to the travel of the car. If you were standing in front of it you wouldn't be able to hear it coming. If the car could go Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) then the wave would be a V about 45 degrees, the same as with the boat. The main difference is that the wave from the car is in 3D; if the ground wasn't in the way it would be a cone.
One of the reasons why the Lockheed SR-71 'Blackbird' has such a long pointy nose and wings right at the back is because at Mach 3.2 they still wanted to keep the entire aircraft inside the cone because the shockwave itself is quite fierce. With the ground in the way, there were unimaginably violent things going on underneath the car, controlling this was really the greatest technical feat of the car's design because what actually happened was more or less what was predicted. It was an extremely fine line between preventing it from taking off with catastrophic results, but at the same time not pushing it onto the ground so hard that there was a huge amount of drag.
So what you see is where the 'half cone' shockwave generated by the car touches the ground either side and disturbs the fine layer of loose dust deposited by the storms which gets picked up by the sunlight and leaves an apparent trail before it settles back down again.
I had a third opportunity to photograph it the next day, october 8th. Unusually, it was an afternoon run which set the sun fairly low in the sky, the run was not timed officially but became known in the press as “Was this the moment Thrust went Boom?” I risked all with a 500 mm telephoto and 400 film and got what have become known as the “Shockwave” photos. It was an extraordinary, and, as it turned out, unique sight. I recall saying to myself as the car came towards me, “wow, this is really epic”. This sounds a bit corny now, but it really was an epic sight, the shockwave extended some 150 ft either side of the car and the dust it was picking was reflected in the sunlight and I got off a sequence of 10 shots. My passenger, another sponsor, got some too, but back on the ground he was so excited he opened his camera before he'd wound back the film and ruined it. I had the only photos, and with the long lens this time they were much better.
Just as it looked as though ThrustSSC might officially make Mach 1 another storm came through. First we had dust and then some serious rain. The Playa turned into a morass for a few hours and our machines had mud pies on the wings. The far end of the desert fared worst and took days to dry out. The track lines had all but disappeared and had to be re-done but finally, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Chuck Yeager’s famous feat in the Bell X1 we were on for a record attempt. (Though he reached Mach 1.015, it was a mere 670 mph at an altitude of 42,000 ft.) The press were out in force, it was a nice sunny day, freezing cold, with light winds.
As usual we were airborne a couple of hours or so before anticipated roll out time. I patrolled one end of the desert in “Pegasus black” and Bill the other in “Pegasus green”. We made sure the desert was clear, visited our “wind flags” and reported on direction and strength and then 30 minutes before engine start picked up our allotted passengers from the press area adjacent to the measured mile. I had a photographer from Paris Match. As the car came tearing towards us I remember feeling slightly pleased that the shockwave, though much wider, maybe 300 ft each side, was nothing like as distinct as before, the rain had stuck the talcum powder back down to the desert, but then as the car passed BOOM – BOOM, the microlight actually jumped! My first reaction was to look at my wing - it looked OK - my second - or perhaps my first, was a certain expletive repeated several times which translates approximately into “What an incredible thing”. This time there was no doubt, ThrustSSC had gone supersonic.
“What?” They said when we landed back at the press area, “we heard nothing”, but it was true, the official time through the measured mile was 749.687 mph, a fraction over Mach 1. As it turned out the press never heard any booms, it went upwards and forwards, the recovery crew got it very strongly and it even rattled the windows in town 15 miles away, but nothing went sideways. The race was on to do a repeat run in the other direction within the hour to get the record. The recovery crew quickly ran into a problem, the thread on a 50 pence bolt had stripped while trying to remove a panel to inspect the rear wheels. It was decided to fix it properly and do two more runs, far too much was at stake for a bodge. The next run, a couple of hours later I was rather better prepared for the BOOM – BOOM but it was none the less an extraordinary experience, the noise was almost incidental because you could feel it in your whole body as the microlight jumped up on the first boom and then down on the second.
Now a record was seriously on the cards, but to get the speed of 764.168 mph on that run Andy had had the afterburners going full blast for 45 seconds, longer than ever before, and the heat had softened the massive 2½ inch nylon parachute ropes sufficiently for both to break under the shock of opening and the car ran off the end of the track by a couple of miles. The recovery crew did a record breaking turnaround but the 17 minutes it took to get the car back to the start line was their undoing. The third run, BOOM – BOOM again, came in at 760.135 mph. The average speed of the two runs was over Mach 1.1 but the official timing people announced on the radio, “we regret to inform you that you missed the turnaround deadline by 47 seconds.”
Nobody knew whether to laugh or cry. For the first time ever there was official evidence of no less than three runs by a car above Mach 1, but there was no record. It still stood at a measly 714.
The car was getting a hell of a battering. Hundreds of rivets had to be replaced in panels underneath and at the back. It was going as fast as it could; the surface of the desert was quite simply disintegrating as the car passed over it at these incredible speeds creating a huge amount of unanticipated extra drag. Where it was going fastest the wheel marks we were used to seeing disappeared into a trench of broken ground the width of the car and 4" deep. At a rate of 1100 acres/hr this was the fastest ploughing machine in the World. All thought of anything more than just to officially break Mach 1 had been quietly dropped and just to be sure, an extra half mile was added to the end of each track.
Two days later the car was fixed, the new tracks lined and fodded, the weather was OK, we got the BOOM – BOOM jumping microlight experience again, and history was made with a two way average speed of 763.035 mph. The very last time ThrustSSC ever ran it went the fastest ever with a peak recorded momentary speed of 771 mph. Shortly after it stopped I landed next to the car. Whilst everyone was estatic that they'd done it at last, and Andy was probably very pleased that he'd never have to risk his life in it again, as it sat there tinkling and creaking as the engines cooled it was strangely sad to think this great black beast would never run again.
It was an enlightening experience to be a member of a team of people who were all so infinitely committed there rarely seemed to be any instructions from 'management' because whatever needed to be done just got done straight away by whoever's job it was, even if it took all night. For me, this whole enterprise was a great demonstration of the usefulness and reliability of Microlights, between the four pilots we put in some 180 hours flying, we always were able to fly when required, and did a lot of other flying too despite the extremely hostile conditions. Our primary job, ensuring the track was safe for the car to run by patrolling the 40 mile perimeter would otherwise have needed a whole stack of extra people.
Overall, the ThrustSSC effort genuinely pushed back the frontiers of technology and was a truly epic demonstration of what the British can do if they really try; I predict this record will stand for a very long time to come. It was a truly great privilege to have been involved.
This video gives a good impression of what it was like at Black Rock and contains a brief shot from the other microlight showing the sort of view we had of Thrust SSC.
There is also a complete run which clearly shows Andy recovering the car back to the white line after the instability at around 600 mph and a short video of our view of a run from the air.
This video shows a complete run from the tail fin camera which clearly shows Andy recovering the car back to the white line after the instability at around 600 mph.
There is also a video which gives a good impression of what it was like at Black Rock and a short video of our view of a run from the air.
This video shows our view of a run, for a brief moment you can just see the shockwave.
There is also a video which gives a good impression of what it was like at Black Rock and a short video of our view of a run from the air.