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Thrust SSC: Breaking the Sound Barrier… In a Car

Intro

From the small cockpit of his vehicle, Andy Green is jetting along in silence. Travelling faster than his sound, all of a sudden, there is a sudden boom. At that moment, his team knew that they had accomplished their mission.

His vehicle, wasn’t some government-funded, top-secret weapon, futuristic craft or even the Batmobile, but at a glance, just a couple of jet engines bolted onto a dart.

Led by a man with an obsession and drive to be the fastest. Through applied engineering, technology and a spirit for adventure, this project carried a passion that eclipsed a mere desire.

With funding issues, flared tempers and an American team hot on their heels, this project was almost too ridiculous to be a reality. This is the story of Thrust SSC. The Super Sonic Car.

Land Speed Record

Source: guinnessworldrecords.com

The story of Thrust SSC or Supersonic Car starts from looking in the record books. The land speed record is the highest speed achieved for a person using a vehicle on land. This was always a pastime of the rich and eccentric. Since the late 19th century, daredevils took to their often homemade or modified vehicles to barrel along a closed road or barren desert as fast as they could.

There had been many people to claim the title of the fastest person on land with a high-speed car. One of them was Richard Noble who in 1983 took the Land Speed Record, with his car Thrust2 by reaching a speed of 634mph that’s 1020.32kph. After celebrating his achievement, it was discovered that if the car had gone a mere 7mph faster, it would have taken off and killed Noble.

Despite this unknown brush with death, Noble may have been fast but not fast enough. Noble had bigger ambitions, he wanted to go supersonic and would spend the next decade finding a way to do it.

As Richard Noble put it ‘Producing a car that could go supersonic safely is the greatest element of the land speed record… The equivalent of the sub-4-minute mile in athletic terms’. With this mission statement, he had a dream of creating a legend.

Design

The first main obstacle in breaking the sound barrier in a car was the money. With this being a private venture, Noble had to finance the project himself deploying this gift for the gab and negotiating techniques. He was helped along by sponsorship deals but these would only carry the car so far. If Noble was going to break the sound barrier he would have to be as cost-effective as he could.

Once he had the backing of companies including Castrol and Dunlop, he could look into the design. It would take a little more than just having a rocket with a cockpit slapped on it. No, something far more extravagant would be needed.

Not only that but the right designer would be required. Luckily for Noble, in 1992, there was somebody who had all the qualities needed for such a task.

Ron Ayes, a retired missile scientist, who designed supersonic missiles over his lifetime, was approached by Noble to design his car. Aye’s first thoughts were; ‘This is totally impractical, don’t even try it’. Some encouraging words there.

He only continued to work on the project out of curiosity. If a car was to travel supersonically, what would it look like? Some good old fashion British ingenuity and sheer lunacy were needed to overcome obstacles not met with a normal car.

The risk factor in taking a car super-sonic is the danger it will flip into the air unless the aerodynamics dictated it would stay on the ground and not take off travelling at speeds over 700mph/ 1126.54kph.

This was very difficult considering the amount of power that would be needed to get a car up to those speeds usually reserved for jet-powered planes.

Ayes started work on a design and quite a design it was. He sketched out a jet 10-ton black behemoth. A tapered front nose, flanked by two cylinders containing the jet engines with a long thin tail and an odd wheel arrangement underneath. The car would be 54 feet long/16.5 metres, 12 feet/3.66 metres wide and 7 feet/2.14 metres high.

Link to a cross-section of Thrust SSC:

http://bloodhound1.efar.co.uk/sites/default/files/styles/content_image/public/thrustssc2%5B1%5D.jpg?itok=z6Isbn0n

This design also held the aerodynamic properties required to stop it from taking off and the faster the car went the more stable it would become.

Ayes made some computer simulations of his proposed design to see what would happen when the car got up to speed. This sounds perfectly ordinary now but in the early nineties, it took weeks to complete the complex modelling.

The wait was worth it. The modelling showed the car would survive travelling at supersonic speeds. Not only that but a huge wall of energy would build up in front of the car and it would stay on the ground. Exactly what he was looking for.

However, with this encouraging data and always the practical man, Ayes wanted a more solid way of seeing if his design would work.

In May 1994, a scale model of Thrust was blasted down a track at supersonic speeds.

This test, with a combination of high-speed photography and sensor data from the model, gave Ayes all the data he needed to see if his design would work. Only if the results matched with the computer modelling, construction of Thrust SSC could begin.

Upon correlating the data together, Ayes sighted this was the only time in his life he had ever yelled out; ‘eureka!’ The data matched perfectly. Thrust would be able to withstand supersonic velocity.

Foraging for Parts

Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engine by Morio is licensed under CC-BY-SA

After 2 and a half years of research, design and models, construction began. The parts needed for Thrust had to be sourced and found. However, with this being a small independent project, the parts were sourced by Noble and his team anywhere they could find them.

Noble had to deploy all of his bargaining techniques to acquire the parts they needed if his dream of breaking the sound barrier was ever going to become a reality.

First of all, they needed a couple of engines. Luckily for the Thrust team the Royal Air Force, the RAF, had a couple of Rolls Royce Spey 202 jet engines from an F4 Phantom II jet fighter knocking about that they bought for a discounted price.

These two engines provided the power for Thrust. Just how much power is simply mind-boggling and a ridiculous 110,000 brake horsepower or 82 Megawatts! To put that into some sort of perspective, that’s about as much power as 1000 family salons/sedans produce. These engines would burn through 18 litres or 4 gallons of fuel per second.

Steering the Beast

The engines may have made the car drunk with power, but they also caused a colossal headache of a hangover for the team. Because of their weight Thrust would weigh in at 10.5 tonnes or 23148.54 pounds. The car couldn’t use normal wheels with rubber tyres, because of the huge speeds it would be travelling at. This meant the car needed large metal front wheels to steer.

To solve this problem, wheel and brake designer, Glynne Bowsher, came up with an extraordinary solution. He put the steering wheels for Thrust at the back of the car. This solved the problems at the back end and the steering but there were doubters that rear wheeled steering would work.

One of the doubters was Noble, who wasn’t keen on having his potentially record-breaking car have dodgy steering. To put everyone’s mind at ease, Bowsher built a demonstration vehicle to drive and show that the rear wheeled steering would work.

With the help of his brother in law and his 30-year old Mini, they converted it to have rear-wheel steering. Not only that, the wheel plan for the converted Mini was a full-scale version of Thrust’s.

The wheels were not directly in line with each other but slightly off at an angle. This allowed the steering to work and for it to fit into the narrow body of the supersonic car.

Once Bowsher conducted some tests in his Frankensteined Mini, Noble and the rest of the team were happy for Thrust to have the bonkers steering. Two widely spaced wheels at the front and two close together at the back.

Other elements of the car were its 6 onboard cameras to record every aspect of the car, 2 computers to run all the various instruments and provide as much data as possible for the team when conducting the test runs.

This all sounds very straightforward today, but this was the mid-90s, before GoPros and smartphones. To cram that much technology while operating on a tight budget which was soon going to spiral out of control was a colossal undertaking.

The Driver

The engines weren’t the only thing Noble got from the RAF. He needed a driver. Driving a car at supersonic speeds is a task that Noble could not take on himself. To find the right man for the job an open invitation was set up by Noble. Of the potential drivers, many with backgrounds in piloting fast jets for the Royal Air Force.

From a list of 29 applicants, RAF fighter pilot, Wing Commander Andy Green., got the job to get the car past the sound barrier. Describing it as a and take Noble’s title away from him. Something Noble was all too happy to relinquish.

Testing in Jordon

In Autumn 1996 Thrust SSC was complete and weeks behind schedule. Testing could begin but they had to get a move on. The team would have to test everything; the jet engines, parachutes, computers, cameras and communication equipment. Once these were complete Thrust could be taken to the Black Rock desert in Nevada, to see what it was truly capable of.

Thrust could not be tested in the Black Rock desert at the time because it was flooded for the summer. So, in spring 1997 Thrust and the team travelled to the Al-Jafr desert in Jordon, on the suggestion by an enthusiast of the Land Speed Record. Who was quickly recruited by the team to do a spot of foding. Don’t worry I’ll be explaining that later on.

During Thrusts first runs in Jordon, the main aim was to get the car up to 600 mph/ 965kph. By reaching this goal it would show the team how the car handles and if it was a viable candidate for the battle in America.

It may sound a tad dramatic to say that this small British team was in a battle against the sound barrier but it was much more than that. They had a rival.

An American team led by their driver the 60-year old racing driving Craig Breedlove and his car subtly named the Spirit of America Sonic 1. They had the same goal as Noble. He wanted to be the first person to go supersonic.

He was well on his way to realising his ambition. His team were already ahead of team Thrust. With Breedlove’s car coming within 100 mph of the sound barrier. At the time, speeds the British team could only dream of.

Luckily for the Thrust team, however, Breedlove’s car suffered damage in a crash and bought them variable time to test their car.

Not that the team had much time to play with. Summer was on its way in the desert and soon it would be far too hot to test the car.

It was a race in more than one sense, here the tiny crew could hopefully iron out any kinks before any land speed record attempts. That’s if the money held out.

As I have mentioned, the budget of Thrust was always a concern, but here are some examples of how cost-cutting the project was. The mobile command centre was a converted supermarket delivery truck! The supersonic car itself was not housed within some specialist mobile hanger but just a large tent.

Many of the team were using their holiday from their real jobs to be a part of Thrust. Not only that but the team relied on land speed record enthusiasts to help clear the track for Thrust. All in the name of breaking the Land Speed Record.

The tracks for Thrust were white lines painted 50 feet or 15.2 meters apart and 10 miles that’s 16 kilometres long. This was achieved by Andy Green pulling double duty, driving a pickup truck, in a straight line with another member of the team on the back letting out a jet of paint.

This may sound mundane but driving in a straight line in a blazing hot desert with no frame of reference, is an incredibly mentally taxing task. However, once the tracks were painted the test runs could begin.

These initial runs of the car were just to see if everything was working correctly. The main concern was if the rear steering would work as the speed climbed.

Because of this apparition, the planned speed for the first test run was only a mere 140mph/ 225Kph. Far from the ultimate goal of 760mph or 1223kph.

With Andy Green in the cockpit, Thrust’s engines roared and propelled the car along to a speed just over 140mph. A successful first run for the car, however, Green did have some difficulty in steering.

The team back in the delivery truck examined the data from the onboard computers and footage from the run to see what was happening to the steering. The footage revealed something that the car should not be doing. It was beginning to take off!

It was only by a few millimetres but this was highly concerning. This was confirmed when the tracks from the car were visually inspected and a six feet gap in the tails left on the desert floor. Another unease was Thrust was leaving deep grooves in the desert surface with the rear wheels twisting on the desert floor.

Due to Thrust being designed to run on the dried-up lake bed of Black Rock and not the smooth desert floor of Jordon, meant that the car needed to be modified for this surface but they could not change the weight of the car so this annoyance had to be tolerated. Due to these deep ruts left in the desert surface, Thrust could not run on the same track twice. If the car were to run over one of these ruts it could potentially flip!

Data from the computers gave the workshop repair team a solution on how to stop the rear wheels twisting during the runs. It was a quick fix but on another run, the cat performed better. Now they were ready for fast runs.

As the days rolled on the heat in Jordon increased. This was becoming a problem. Even causing one of the onboard computers to fail.

During another fast test run, the steering was still an issue. The team could not work out the problem. The car’s shape dictated that the faster it went the more stable it would become. Their solution was to run the car faster and see what happens!

After a faster run, the car was still wobbling around. The rear wheels steering was the problem. Andy Green said he was still learning the car and it would get better over time.

Upon further inspection, a piece of the rear suspension had come off. No one knew why.

Despite the Jordanian desert doing its best to destroy the car the team were determined to carry on and push the car to 500 mph. With Green back in the cockpit, he pushed the car faster and faster. Dust began to fill up on the cockpit, warning lights flashing, alerts beeping frantically. He wrestled with the controls to keep the car stable.

Just shy of 60mph or 96.5kph of the team’s goal of 500mph/ 805kph, there was a major suspension failure. Both of the wheel mounts had broken.

This was serious. The damage was so severe the battle with Breedlove at Black Rock was in jeopardy.

With time and money running out, Noble gave the team two options, fix the car in Jordon or go home. When the team voiced their concerns over the funding Noble ever the optimist simply said; ‘I’ll keep you going.

The team were put in a difficult position. If they left Jordon with a broken car and inconclusive data, they may not be able to secure funding for the Black Rock runs.

After assessing the time frame, it would take to repair the car in the desert, they decided to go home.

Thrust sat in its tent, under the blazing desert sun, broken and beaten.

A tremendous challenge faced the team. With Noble almost out of money and sponsorship cutting back he would have to raise money any way he could. He auctioned off old used parts of the car and went on a press tour to raise any funds he could. Jordon may have taken its toll on Thrust but not on the man behind it and his quest to break the sound barrier.

Black Rock

During the teams return to England, repairs had been made to Thrust. With a new computerised active suspension, designed by Gerry Bliss, this system would raise the rear of the car and keep the nose down. Hopefully, this would stop Thrust from taking off.

Over at Black Rock, the rival American team had reached an unofficial speed of 670mph or 1078kph. Not without issue though. The Spirit of America took off and speared off course and onto its side, nearly crashing. Luckily it didn’t.

However, travelling at such speeds is filled with danger. One that Breedlove experienced when on his final run he temporarily lost control of his car and it went on its side. He managed to regain control and avoid disaster.

The nearby town of Gerlach was where the teams would rest after each day out on Black Rock. However, it only had one motel but on the plus side, it did have five bars.

Noble, still trying to keep the finances under control, he rented a house for the team. But it wasn’t furnished so there were just mattresses tossed on the floor.

After five days, the base camp was assembled and Thrust was readied. The speed runs could begin.

Before each run, the path for Thrust had to be cleared. This required two microlights to be flown above the desert to look for large debris that could cause damage or worse to the car. Any identified would be dealt with by the teams on the ground.

You may remember me mentioning the term “foding”. This is where a team on foot followed the pickup truck painting the tracks. Here they would look for small debris that wasn’t spotted by the microlights. This is called “foding”, standing for Foreign Object Damage.

Before Thrust set off on its attempts to beat the sound barrier. Green visited his rival driver’s camp. Pleasantries were exchanged. But, this was to size up his rival that he towered over in stature.

Breedlove’s car was far more conventional than Thrust. With its single jet engine, traditional front steering and conventional suspension.

Green sighted it as; ‘a lovely looking car and a superb piece of engineering. No way I could drive it, the cockpit is absolutely tiny. Designed around the man. Very well-designed car. I wish him the very best because the last time he drove it was the fastest crash in land speed history.’

With his rival sized up and the 13-mile/21-kilometre tracks painted it was time to see what Thrust could do.

With two potentially supersonic cars running on the lakebed it was only safe to run one car at a time. Breedlove was up first. His run looked good but on the return, he needed towing back.

A piece of ‘FOD’ was missed, sucked up into the air intake for the jet. The only repair was to put in a new engine.

On hearing the news, the British team handled it with the grace and dignity that you might expect and burst out laughing.

On day 9 at Black Rock was planned to be the first 600mph/965kph run, using the full power of the afterburners. Green climbed into Thrust for this attempted run. With the RAF’s Jayne Millington in charge of communications who happened to be Andy Green’s girlfriend. She was the only one talking to him in the cockpit.

Footage from the onboard camera mounted on the rear wing caught as the engines spat out streams of fire.

At 624mph Green said over the mic, ‘comp 1 down’. One of the computers that control the car crashed. Thrust went in for repairs but on the following days run the same thing happened.

Then a dust storm stopped runs on the car, putting more strain on the finances of the project. At this point, Noble estimated that they were nearly half a million pounds in the red. Ahh, there’s the traditional MegaProjects over budget signature.

During this storm, a fix was found for the computers. The vibrations had shaken the chips from their sockets, so they just fixed them in tighter. Low tech but it worked.

The next runs of the car were far more successful. Clocking in a speed of 721mph/ 1160kph. However, Thrust had developed a new fault. The parachutes were not deploying properly. The drogue chutes would come out but not pull the main chutes with them.

The problem here was the chutes were from Thrust2 and even then, they were second hand. Another result of the cost-cutting issues of the project.

On Day 22, The team loaded a ton of fuel and let Thrust off on another run. Here they reach 714mph/ 1149kph. When this run was completed it was found a panel had blown off at 700mph.

During the repairs, photographs from microlights were inspected from the run revealing what the high speed was doing to the car. A wall of energy was building up in front of Thrust and it was starting to take off.

Andy Green had an idea how to stop the nose from lifting. Do away with the computerised suspension and run with the tail fully up. This was met with a response from Bliss; ‘do what you fucking like’. Patience and tempers were wearing thin.

Day 30 of the project dawned and testing the suspension in the up position began. However, Greens plan just pushed the front wheels into the desert. A comprise of active and locked suspension seemed to be the key to fixing this issue.

After 36 days at Black Rock, the weather was worsening from dust storms to snow not allowing the ground to dry out, the car was now showing its battle scars of the high-speed runs. Panels were so battered that every rivet needed checking after every outing.

Many in the team were now doubting if their creation was capable of completing its mission. However, Noble and his team were determined in breaking the sound barrier.

Boom

Day 40 began with a team member making an impassioned call to his mother back in England to watch the television because they were going to try and beat the sound barrier today.

Thrust may have been battered and pushed to its limits but the sound barrier was only a few miles per hour away.

Andy Green climbed into Thrust and went for it. Powering through the 100s of miles per hour and firing up the afterburners. As the car was thrusting its way across the American desert, he wrestled with the controls to keep on track.

At one moment when Thrust was travelling at 650mph/ 1046kph, Green had the yoke at a full 90º to the right to keep in on track. The steering rearing another painful trait, making the car veer to the left because of the wheel arrangement.

At this moment, Green proved more than ever why he was chosen for the job. He throttled down the jets to rebalance the car. Effectively steering the car with the throttle to get it back on course. It worked and Green hit the reheat on the jets.

From the team watching in the distance they saw the black 10-ton arrow shoot across the desert in silence. A dust trail steaking behind it. Then there was a boom.

Then another sound came that almost matched the boom. The team erupting in celebration. But, the task wasn’t done yet. They may have broken the sound barrier but they had less than an hour to do another run to get the average speed needed to confirm they had broken the sound barrier.

On Greens return run he came back faster than ever, reaching a top speed of Mach 1.007. Unfortunately, they didn’t turn the car around fast enough and missed the hour cut off time by 50 seconds.

The was a crushing blow for the team but they soldiered on. At this stage, Thrust was requiring significant maintenance after every run. The team had doubts that the car would survive to make history. They knew the car was capable and they were not going to give up until Thrust wouldn’t be able to run at all.

On Wednesday 15th October 1997 Thrust went out for one more run. The team were not going to be defeated. As the recovery team waited they listened for the boom and boy did they hear it.

They rushed to recover Thrust and to turn it around in time. They went as fast as they could. Refuelling the beast with a ton of fuel and checking every panel. Once this was done Green set off again. Another boom.

Noble waited impatiently at the base camp with a Walkie Talkie in hand waiting for the average speed to come through. With a speed of 763.035mph or 1128kph, they had done it in time and just like that Thrust was in the history books.

Legacy

After making history Thrust SSC was retired and resides with its sibling, Thrust2 in the Coventry Transport Museum in England. A testament to what is possible when there is passion and determination behind a project.

However, unlike Concorde or the Apollo program, the story isn’t quite over for Richard Noble.

But what is after the speed of sound? Well, it’s not faster than light, that’s just not possible, yet. But, how about taking a car up to 1000mph? That’s what the Bloodhound is tasked with. This could be the subject of another video, if you’d like the see that please leave a comment below.

Link to an image of Noble and his team with Thrust SSC:

https://landspeedrecord.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/thrust-ssc-team.jpg

With his dedicated team around him, he accomplished his dream of breaking the sound barrier.

To realise his vision, he gambled everything. There may have been engineering issues, budget worries and at times flared tempers. But, it was all in his quest to beat the sound barrier. And in the end, he won.

Sources:

BBC documentary; The Mission: Supersonic Dreams Parts 1 and 2

http://bloodhound1.efar.co.uk/node/311/thrustssc

https://cdn.ima.org.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Why-Didnt-the-Supersonic-Car-Fly-from-MT-August-1999.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ThrustSSC#cite_note-4

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