800 MPH Challenge
The North American Eagle - World Land Speed Record Challenger
You Want to Go How Fast?
Those fascinated with speed consider 180 to 240 mph to be a real thrill. Push that speed to beyond how fast sound travels (roughly 740 mph), and it's difficult to conceive how fast that level of speed actually is. This true story, a continuous work in progress, will attempt to provide the racing, or non-racing, individual who is fascinated with speed and is curious about what it's like to go faster than the speed of sound a better understanding of what is involved and what it takes to accomplish such a monumental feat.
The sport of land speed racing is a relatively obscure one. Most people under 30 years old usually give a blank stare when the topic comes up in conversation. When you explain what land speed racing is the typical assumption is that it's some form of drag racing. This is far from accurate since very little is known about the sport. Those individuals over 30 who do know about land speed racing at all immediately recall the days in the early '60s when Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons were battling it out for the record on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Unbeknownst to the greater populace in the Puget Sound region of the Pacific Northwest, U.S. A. there is a small residential airstrip nestled in the rural, but rapidly growing into suburban, area of Pierce County where they meet every Saturday in a hangar. There, a team of men for the past 10 years, have been patiently working on a project that will take the jet powered vehicle to speeds in the vicinity of 800 mph. This is my account of the challenges they have faced and overcame, still face and intend to overcome in their quest to surpass the existing record.
Chapter One -
Just over 10 years ago, on October 15th at the Black Rock desert of northwestern Nevada, a team of land speed racing fanatics from Great Britain set a new record. The car, the ThrustSSC, was the first to break the sound barrier on land at a blistering average speed of 763 mph. The previous Unlimited Class record - these vehicles are thrust powered, pushed to speeds with a jet engine like a giant skateboard with a powerful hair dryer on it - was set by Richard Noble in 1983 in the Thrust2, also from England, at 633 mph average speed. (Yes, the Brits are very proud of their long heritage of land speed racing heroes, like Seagraves and Campbell.) Richard Noble was the Project Manager of the ThrustSSC project this time around, with Andy Green - a Royal Air Force fighter pilot - as the driver. We will return to this event shortly.
Before going further, it's necessary to explain first why the Bonneville Salt Flats are no longer used for the Unlimited Class vehicles to set records on. In the '60s, when Breedlove and Arfons were going at the record, the salt flats were roughly 20 miles of good thick salt surface in every direction. For them, going up to speeds of 600 mph in one direction covered a total distance of about 10 to 12 miles. This included accelerating for about 3 to 4 miles, running through the clocked mile for being timed, and then decelerating to a stop over about 6 to 8 miles after parachutes were deployed.
However, during the '70s a mining company - Riley - purchased the mineral rights to the salt and potash on the lakebed. The salt was sent back to the mid-west and east coast for use by municipalities on their roads during the winter months to keep them de-iced. Over several decades, the mining operation slowly modified the natural process of seasonal re-flooding. This resulted in a gradually diminished area and thickness of the natural salt layer on the lakebed. By the '90s, the surface area that was adequate for running on had been reduced to about 8 miles if it had been a good season of rain through the winter.
Finally, the land speed racing association, a large group of "speed freaks" who gather every summer in August to run their various classes of vehicles from modified street rods on up to streamliners capable of 400 mph, filed a law suit against the mining company in Federal Court in order to try and protect their venue from disappearing. When the dust settled, the court judged in their favor and the mining company had to implement a program which would attempt to maintain the existing salt surface; allowing the racing association to continue their annual event. The last Unlimited Class record to be set at the Bonneville Salt Flats was in the early '70s. It was Gary Gabelich in the Blue Flame - powered by a Liquid Natural Gas rocket - that reached an average speed of 622 mph in 1972.
In the early '80s, Richard Noble brought his Thrust2 jet powered vehicle all the way from Great Britain to try and set a new record on the salt flats of Bonneville. However, after only a few test runs with the car, it was determined that the surface was both too short and too hard for the all metal wheels being used to withstand the stresses of the intended speeds. So, Noble went west to search for another adequate venue into Nevada, where he'd been told there was a long enough desert of dry mud. It was at Black Rock, just north of the small town of Gerlach, Nevada and about 150 miles north of Reno, that Richard decided he'd found an alternate site that would do. Using roughly 13 miles of the 18 useable miles of playa (dry mud surface), Noble averaged a new speed of 633 mph.
The land speed record stood for 14 years until Noble returned in 1997 with the ThrustSSC (SSC stands for Super Sonic Car) as the Project Manager to the same venue. This vehicle was a custom built one; designed by Ron Ayers - a designer of missiles - and constructed by a small paid crew of mechanics in England. It was powered by two Rolls-Royce Spey engines with the driver's cockpit in the middle and between the engines. The most controversial aspect of the ThrustSSC, however, was its steering. It steered through its rear wheels instead of the front. The suspension for the two rear off-set wheels proved at times to be a headache. It took just over a month of test runs and adjustments to the car as they gradually increased the speeds of each run to analyze how it handled as it approached the "transonic zone" where air begins to act like water due to being gone through so fast. Each time the car pushed beyond speeds around 550 mph, the car would suddenly and violently begin going sideways; to be carefully and adeptly straightened out by the driver, Andy Green, by turning the steering wheel hard in the opposite direction.
At the same time this was going on in Nevada, Ed Shadle, Keith Zanghi and I had been members on another land speed challenger project based in the Puget Sound area for the past few years. This vehicle was owned by two men who had built a frame around a J-79 jet turbine engine and we were trying to help them go for the record as volunteers. One of the more memorable events which occurred during our two years with this project was the making of a "skit" for the NBC's Late Show with Jay Leno. The car had a second seat behind the driver and we'd worked a deal to take the car down to the Mojave Airport, where Jay got a ride in the back seat. The skit aired as an opening of Jay's monolog in the fall of '98.
When news broke about the record being set by the British at supersonic, we realized that the vehicle we were working with was incapable of going that fast since the cockpit's design was not adequate to handle the stresses at those speeds. It was decided to discontinue the project and go our separate ways.
Chapter Two -
Before we get much further into this story, it's also necessary to explain exactly what land speed racing is. First, in the early days of the sport, when only axle driven vehicles attempted to go flat out fast to see what it would do, the realization became apparent to the sanctioning body - the F.I.A. - that at times the direction a car was traveling might have enough of a tail wind to give the vehicle a speed advantage and produce an inaccurate result. Of course, the reverse would also be true if the car was going into a head wind; slowing it down even slightly. With the potential for getting, or not getting, a record, the F.I.A. decided to place a new requirement into the rules book; all runs of a car for a record must be done using an average speed and not just a single run. Thus, it was now necessary to not only go two opposite directions, but the car was required to do so within a 60 minute window.
This solved the problem of tail or head winds producing skewed results, but it also created a new one for the driver and his support team. Now, if there was a mechanical problem that developed as a result of the first run, it had to be analyzed and fixed in a timely manner. If the car wasn't into the clocked mile on the return run by the end of the 59th minute, the two runs would not be averaged to determine if the car got the new record.
Second, when Craig Breedlove came along with his jet powered vehicle, not only did the F.I.A. have to create a whole new class of powered vehicles, but they were much more complex in terms of receiving it after the first run and getting it ready in time to be off on the second run. Refueling, replacing parachutes, checking wheels and replacing any if needed, making sure no leaks are occurring, not to mention the task of turning around a 5 to 10 ton "beast", and that's if nothing has broken. With thousands of different instruments and moving parts, the potential is there for something not working properly. If something does need replacing, it could end the attempt at going for the record since the whole engine may need to be pulled to just get at it.
As the record climbed from 500 mph to slightly above 600 mph by 1983, the tail wind/head wind issue became moot. The car traveling through the air was now pushing the air molecules out of the way so quickly that air was beginning to behave much like water as one moves through it in a swimming pool.
This raises the stakes for making sure, as much as is reasonably possible, that everything is working correctly before even attempting to run for a record. When the British team came all the way over from England, the expense was not only high for getting there, but they had to pay for getting the members of the F.I.A. from France over to Nevada, house and feed them for the duration of their stay. In order to properly sanction a record, it's necessary to have these individuals present to certify all rules have been followed before it will be accepted into the books as official. The logistics of such an undertaking are daunting at best.
Chapter Three -
The British had come to our back yard, shattered the record, and gone home with the glory. However, that didn't hold us back. It wasn't more than a few months before a new team was formed. Ed Shadle - who had been the Project Manager for the now defunct project - and Keith Zanghi - who is a former drag racer and currently a manager for Boeing - became good friends during the life of the project. On one of their trips together to southern California just before the project folded, they shared their desire to form a new team as partners and an agreement was made that they would carry on the vision and dream of going for the land speed record with their own car. Steve Green, a machinist and friend of Ed's who'd help build a few of the items for the old vehicle, was - and still is - a technical inspector at Bonneville's annual "speed week" where Ed began racing his Roadster and Lakester in the early '90s for fun. He was eager to help with the new project in the same way.
What about me? Well, I was in the middle of my own career, just like Keith. Only I didn't have any capital to throw into the business like Ed & Keith did. As you may know, teachers don't make a whole lot. My involvement with the now dead project was mostly one of curiosity and fascination to be part of history. Sure, my background out of high school as an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force on B-52 bombers had given me an appreciation for things that go fast, but my involvement was more of one willing to lend a hand in order to be part of history, as well as the challenge of it all. When Ed & Keith decided to form their own project, they called me up and asked if I'd help them with their new project; I couldn't refuse the opportunity.
There was one small problem; neither of them were millionaires and these kinds of projects aren't cheap! It would cost millions just to pay for the research and development of designing a car capable of what it needed to do. Ed had just retired from 31 years with IBM as a field technician. Richard Noble had the credibility of being a record holder to raise sponsorship funds from various companies in the U.K. Neither Ed nor Keith had any; they were virtually unknown. However, both of them did have some assets set aside and were determined to come up with some way of putting together a jet powered car capable of withstanding the stresses of going supersonic, but how? It was Keith who came up with a brilliant idea.
He had taken a trip to Washington, D.C. and walked through the Smithsonian Institute where NASA's F-104 Starfighter hung from the ceiling. Keith stood there for a half hour looking it over and wondering to himself, "What if we got one of these, took off the wings and converted it into land bound vehicle using the same engine it flew over twice the speed of sound with?" The more he thought about this possibility, the more he realized it was the way to go. The interesting thing is, Ed Shadle had been thinking the same thing; having been in the Air Force himself during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early '60s.
Agreeing that this approach would save millions in R&D because of the already proven aerodynamic design done by Kelly Johnson of Lockheed Aircraft's Skunk Works back in the '50s, the hunt was on. Ed set out to putting messages around the Internet via email and making phone calls to acquaintances asking where a surplus F-104 Starfigher jet might be for sale. Within months one was found in Belfast, Maine, from a Steve Alex who was intending to sell it to a museum for a "stick display". Pooling their assets, Ed & Keith bought the airframe for $25,000. The wallets were nearly empty! Once the expense of having it trucked on a flatbed trailer clear across the continent was paid for, their wallets were bone dry!
The day the airframe arrived in Spanaway, Washington was a combination of exhilaration and shock. I was called to come down and take a look at her, along with other friends of Ed's & Keith's. Most of us were excited because we'd anticipated its arrival like children on Christmas Eve. But as we stood around looking at it, we stood silent - not quite knowing what to say. It was a wreck! No wings, no tail, no landing gear. Where there was supposed to be glass in the cockpit, it was broken and only jagged edges remained near the aluminum frame. Panels were missing all over the body. Graffiti was all over the thing. There were huge holes on the side of the engine area; deliberately cut out to "de-militarize" it so that it would never fly again.
In the true character of Ed Shadle, his remark to us all in order to snap us out of our shock was, "We told our women that it's a 'fixer upper'!" Some of us laughed as we walked around it where it sat on old tires in a shed at the small airport for Piper Cubs and Cessnas. Keith was constantly telling us all their plans to clean it up and replace sections of skin, rivets, screws and build new structural members.
For several months and through the first few years, it was a two or three man work party every Saturday when we could get together; and that was sporadic. Because there were no funds backing the project, all those involved understood that this was purely voluntary. We did it for the love of the challenge, and to be able to turn a wrench or operate a power tool with other guys of similar interest. Paint was stripped off in layers, glass was taken out of the frame of the cockpit, dust and tumble weeds from the bone yard it had sat in for years out in the desert of Arizona was cleaned out of every possible compartment, and the serial number plate was discovered. We posted the information about the airframe on the project's web site (www.landspeed.com) and added a few images of its deplorable condition. Little did we know what this action would reveal and lead to eventually.
Chapter Four -
Out of the blue one day, an email arrived in Ed's mailbox that changed the dimension of the project permanently. Before I tell you what happened next, let's jump into the "wayback machine" and learn a bit about this particular aircraft they'd purchased. Going back to the '50s after the Korean Conflict (most people like to call it a war, but technically everything after WWII has only been a conflict, policed by the U.S. because we could.) At this time in our country's history, the "Military Industrial Complex", or M.I.C. - those corporations that built the machinery to wage war - were coming into their own; they were getting the big contracts from the government to build up armaments against the growing threat of the Soviet Union, it's communist regime, and Stalin's dictatorship.
Lockheed Aircraft, one of those corporations in the M.I.C., was given the directive to build a new jet fighter aircraft to resolve several problems the pilots who had been dog fighting over Korea had experienced against the Mig fighter from the North Korean side. At that time, Kelly Johnson was the head engineer with Lockheed, and he was given the "nod" to lead the project for this new fighter aircraft. After interviewing many of the fighter pilots from the newly formed Air Force (it had been up until the late '40s the Army-Air Corps) Johnson came up with a radical new aircraft design that looked more like a missile with little wings on it, than anything that had been built previously. The F-104 was later to be dubbed by aviation enthusiasts and the press as "The Missile with a Man in it." It's powerful GE J-79 turbo-jet engine gave it more than enough thrust to take off, pull the nose up, push the throttle forward into afterburner, and climb to over 80,000 feet at a climb rate of 50,000 feet in 60 seconds. Eventually, after some modifications over the years, it was capable of speeds at Mach 2.2, or over twice the speed of sound. This aircraft was, and still is for many, the best fighter jet ever designed during that era of aircraft development.
Back to 1998 and the email message. After posting the serial and tail numbers of the fuselage that the project had acquired, a message came in from the archivist at the Dryden Research Center next to Edwards AFB in the high desert of southern California near Palmdale. Tony Landis informed Ed that he'd come across our information on our web site and checked it against his records. Tail number 56-0763, the fuselage we now were restoring, had been manufactured at Lockheed in 1957 and was stationed at Edwards AFB from 1958 until it was "retired" from the Air Force in 1971. It had served as a chase plane - those aircraft which are used to fly along other experimental aircraft being developed - for the X plane project for the Air Force Test Flight School at Edwards. It had been chase with the X-15, the maiden flight of the first SR-71 Blackbird, and the XB-70A Valkyrie bomber. A few of these F-104s had been designated as NF-104s, or test aircraft for NASA's research of rocket nozzles to be used for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules in the race against the Soviets to get into space first. Our aircraft had been slated to become the next NF-104 and receive a booster rocket at the base of the tail that would give it extra climb thrust to perform "zoom climbs" for reaching the lower levels of outer space to test these rocket nozzle which were placed into the nose cone of the jet.
For those who have seen the movie "The Right Stuff" from the late '80s, the movie has an ending sequence that switches back and forth between Chuck Yeager - the first man given the designation of breaking the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 - and a dance performed by a then famous nude dancer with large ostrich feather fans used to cover her front and back on a stage in a huge stadium being put on for the newly chosen astronauts. Yeager decides he's going to take an NF-104 up for a "zoom climb" to see what it can do; it happens to be tail number 56-0762. He climbs up to over 100,000 feet and the engine finally stalls out on him. As he reaches apogee, or the top of its climb, and starts dropping down, the aircraft's gyroscopic torque from the engine causes it to turn over on its back and go into a flat spin upside down. Yeager struggled to get it back under control, but eventually upon falling to just above 10,000 feet, he punched out of the jet and safely parachuted down to earth while the jet punched into the desert below.
This happened in the early '60s and the Vietnam Conflict was just getting geared up. Secretary of Defense McNamara made the decision to cut funding for the testing of nozzle rockets on the NF-104s and 56-0763 never received the rocket on its tail.
Scott Crossfield, designer of the X-15, flew 56-0763 countless times and confirmed to the team later when we met him, that he'd brought the aircraft in on a "dead stick" landing configuration over 70 times in practice for flying the X-15. Dead stick landing configuration means that the engine is turned off and the jet is glided in to a landing at Rogers Dry lake bed where all the X plane testing was done. Like the Space Shuttle, the X-15 was the first rocket aircraft that was capable of reaching outer space. Upon re-entry, it could only glide back down to earth and land. The landing was a one time event; you either landed it the first time correctly, or its speed would make one hell of a big crash. (When you go to the landspeed.com site, in the classroom is a page with old B&W videos of the X-15. You see in one that, just before touch down, the pilot had to "porpoise" the bird in order to slow it down enough before setting the rear skids down on the lake bed.)
This revelation added a whole new dimension to the significance of this project. We were now not only the first project to use a former jet fighter fuselage as its platform to attempt supersonic speeds on the ground, but it had a unique aviation history and was now taking on a "Phoenix" aspect of its own as we replaced panels, screws, ribs, and rivets to get it to paintable condition.
Chapter Five -
As work progressed on repairing damaged sections, Ed, Keith and I were constantly spreading the word about the project. At this stage, when most people who were interested and decided to stop by on a Saturday to take a look at it, their reaction was mostly reserved and occasionally a laughing affair of disbelief. In their view the task was too great and they could not see past the huge amount of work involved.
One of the breaks Ed & Keith managed to get going their way was to make connections with the "brass" at Edwards AFB and get them interested in our project. Ed & Keith were informed that, if they could get a university department interested in supporting the project, the Air Force could then enter into a contract for research & development (C.Re.De.). This would allow the Air Force to then provide material and technical support to the project. A university physics dept. was brought on board and a C.Re.De. was created.
Unfortunately, due to some dishonest dealings by others who liked to play dirty by making false accusations about our motive with the project, the support of the local university fell through and the C.Re.De. was discontinued. (This incident is a whole separate chapter to be written later, when the time is right.) This created a major setback to the project's progress. However, Ed was successful at getting PPG to donate the viper red paint ($10K's worth) and Bates Technical College's Auto Body Shop students to do the painting once the fuselage was completely finished. Ed had also managed to find and purchase a trailer-tractor rig that would work beautifully for transporting the car around the country. This Dallas-Smith trailer has a hydraulic crane which runs on tracks along the roof corners the whole length of the 48 feet. With ramps we built to attach to the rear of the open end of the trailer, we use the crane to strap the car underneath the cockpit area, lift it and then run the rear wheels up the ramp as it moves into the trailer. Once in, the rear doors close with only a half-foot to spare with the nose cone off the front.
Keith had managed to find another aviation enthusiast who worked at Boeing to come onboard with the team; Russell Garlow. Russ has a hobby as a graphic artist and was interested in coming up with the design for the eagle image on the side of the car as part of the paint job. Russ is also an experience mechanic and helped replace a lot of rivets and screws. The reason Ed chose to call the car the North American Eagle involved two things; he's part Native American (the eagle part) and our Machinist - Steve Green - has his machine shop in Abbottsford, British Columbia, Canada (the North American part).
At the same time the car was being painted over the summer, Ed, Keith, Russ, and I had come up with a design, fabricated the tubular steel at the ends, and set up a removable running suspension that is installed when the car is going to make a test run. (More about test runs, as opposed to record runs, will be explained later.) Originally, the F-104's main landing gear was positioned just behind the center of gravity point, with the nose gear supporting some of the weight on the front. The tail, with the engine, hung out behind the main gear. In order to reconfigure its long body so that we would have wheels near the rear of the tail and support the weight of the engine (roughly 3,800 lbs., or 1.5 tons), we had to come up with a way to attach the triangular arrangement of the rear wheels to the body. Since the tail cone, which covers the engine, comes off when the engine needs to be removed or installed, Steve, Ed & Keith came up with the idea of adding ringed spacer plate to go between where the tail cone matches up to the back end of the body with a plate extending from the bottom of the ring for bolting the mid-axle to. If you look closely at the picture of the car at the head of this story, you'll be able to get some idea of what I'm saying here.
Another team member to join the project was Bill Eckberg - another Boeing employee who works on 747s, & 767s that fly you and me around the world. Bill's background on jet aircraft began when in the Air Force while an engine mechanic on F-4 Phantoms - fighters that used two J-79 turbo-jets; the same engine the F-104 used only one of. With the opportunity to work on such a unique project and use his training again, he took on the position as crew chief; the "man-in-charge" of making sure everything is ready and getting the car off the start line.
With the rear suspension complete and the paint job finished in the summer of '02, the car was scheduled to debut at the Western Washington State Fair in Puyallup. We were ready to show her off!
Chapter Six -
The Western Washington State Fair is an annual September event which lasts two weeks. The car was placed in an off the beaten path location next to the grand stands and the Pig Races attraction. Either folks going by on the main walk way saw our car from a distance and came over because they were curious about this big red object with an eagle on the sides, or they'd come in with their children to let them see the Pig Races across from the car. When the races took place, the crowds got thick for a while. Between races, there was a steady trickle of people coming in, looking at it, and asking the same questions thousands of others had already. The team of about six or eight rotated amongst each other to always have someone there to answer questions and let folks take pictures. Overall, the public was positive about the idea, with some very excited about our intentions, while others walked away wonder how crazy we are.
Despite the fact that there was no engine in the fuselage yet, we kept a tail cone cover over the back end. We were expecting that an engine would be acquired in some way in the future, but first we had to get some sponsorship. This event introduced several local business owners to our project and over the next few years, word spread and generated some sponsors who were willing to donate their product we could use, or their technical expertise to support the project's long term goal.
At the same time, we were constantly contacting local media to try and work up any exposure we could muster. Occasionally there was an article in the local paper, or even a ten minute piece in the local pre-prime time evening show. Of course, our web site helped provide an ongoing account of our weekend work parties of fabricating various parts needed. We had slowly gotten various companies related to the aviation or aerospace industry to make little improvements; upholstering the ejection seat (no, it's not charged to punch the driver out of the cockpit - more on that later), parachutes donated to the project, instruments for the cockpit's panel, etc.
Up until this point in the history of the project, the car had been sitting outside at the Spanaway Airport with a tarp over it, unless we were working on it. Then Ed found a hangar only two miles away that was large enough for the car and some equipment. Marty Schenck, owner of the property, was willing to rent his hangar next to his house at a small residential air park, to the project for nominal amount. This made a huge difference for the team members working on the car inside and out of the winter rains and wind.
With more and more sponsors from local and regional businesses coming on board to support the project, momentum was beginning to build. Another new team member who came onto the project was Ed Drumheller II; a man who had a list of credentials as long as his arm. Now retired, Ed D. as I shall call him so as to not confuse him with Ed Shadle, the co-owner/driver, had worked in the aerospace industry since the late '50s. His specialty was in parachutes and egress; or the science of ejecting from aircraft. Among his many accomplishments, a few of the most noteworthy ones were being on the team that handled the parachutes used for all the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules. He also designed the parachute that was used on the probe sent to the planet Venus. Ed D. contributed his expertise in designing the parachute system the North American Eagle would be using for low speed testing; under 300 mph.
It was at about this same period - 2003 - that a sponsor contacted Ed & Keith that would hugely impact the advancement of the project. One day Ed got a phone call from a Robin Sipe in Fort St. John, British Columbia. Robin told Ed he was going to be in Seattle on some business and would like to meet with them over dinner. At the dinner, Robin explained that his business, S&S Turbine Services, LTD. refurbished turbo-jet engines - many of them being the J-79 that the F-104 used to fly with - for use in the Northern Territory on the natural gas pipelines. Robin had discovered the project's web site and learned about what we were up to with the F-104 turned car. When Robin proposed using a couple of his engines on the North American Eagle to go for the record with, Ed thought he was suggesting our purchasing them from him. When Ed told Robin that the project didn't have the $250,000 for each of the engines, Robin's reply was, "No, I'm interested in loaning them to the project until it's done, in exchange for exposure of my business as your sponsor supplying the power plant for the car." Ed & Keith couldn't believe their ears; this was the windfall that they'd hoped would happen. After hands were shook and information exchanged, plans were made to arrange for the delivery of the first and older of two models; a -11 model that is capable of 18,000 pounds of thrust, or 48,500 horsepower!
Over the next year, the car was invited to appearances at various Seattle and Tacoma events for display and to get exposure. Otherwise, weekend work parties saw a steady progress in getting it wired and plumbed with new hydraulic tubing. The instrument panel went through a few different looks, and the "stick" in the cockpit was converted so that it could be used to move only right or left to control the steering of the front wheel; one degree off of center to either side. When the car is meant to run straight at such incredible speeds, all that is needed for steering is a very gentle adjustment to keep it on the run line for miles.
With the coming addition of an engine, it was realized that the added weight of the engine on the reconfigured suspension with the rear wheels further to the rear than the original landing gear had been, it was going to be necessary to create center wheels to contact the ground. This would eliminate any possible stress and flex which might occur due to the added weight of the engine on the chassis. So, two off-set axles were added onto the keel beam of the frame of the fuselage to take about 500 pounds per wheel at the center point.
After getting word from Robin Sipe that the engine was ready to test, the team traveled up to Fort St. John to witness the test on S&S Turbine Services' test stand at their facilities. The four day event was one of initial frustration. While the engine started up fine, there was difficulty in getting the afterburner to light. However, persistence and patience paid off in the end with a successful afterburner run on the test stand. The engine was ready to transport back to Spanaway, Washington.
With word getting around the country about our project, we were fortunate to have another sponsor provide us with a critical piece of equipment; a start cart to get the huge 17 foot J-79 engine started. American Valley Aviation, the ground support equipment provider of the world's air forces, offered to loan us a start cart for the life of the project to use with the car. They even went as far as doing a custom paint job on it to match the color scheme of the North American Eagle. The start cart contains its own small turbo-jet engine from a helicopter inside it to produce 90 cubic feet of air volume per second through its hose that is connected up to the engine. This generates enough air flow through the engine to get it turning over so that the engine's own ignition system can then start and take over.
This was another huge boost for the progress of the project. Over the next year, several new team members with varying skills and expertise came onto the team; Bernard McVay, Tim Finley, Steve Wallace and several others. Some came for a couple of weekend work parties, but never showed up again. Little did we know that more interesting stuff was yet to come.
Chapter Seven -
At about the same time, Ed was urged by a family member to contact a distant relative who was a scientist in Port Angeles, Washington. Jerry Lamb, owner of Lev-X Corp. and developer of a unique technology, had a possible solution to one of the problems we were trying to resolve; how to slow down the rotation of the wheels as the car decelerates after a run up to speed. Because of the fact that wheels built to withstand the rotational stresses of 8,000 rpms at 800 mph, it is necessary for them to be solid aluminum. Aircraft tires can take rotational forces up to around 300 mph before centripetal force causes the tire to separate from the rim they're mounted on. Thus, tires can not be used on a car built for speeds higher than this. So, all aluminum wheels have to be used instead which had proved successful for the two previous record setting cars at those high speeds. With all metal wheels, each one would weigh about 200 pounds. Spinning up to 8,000 RPM generates an incredible gyroscopic effect and they will continue to spin faster than the deceleration of the car; thus the need for something that would slow their inertial spin down without melting metal. Regular disc brakes can only take so much friction energy before the metal rotor reaches its melting point. Since the car would be taking miles to slow down its 7.5 tons with the aide of parachutes and speed brake doors, use of disc brakes to scrub off the inertial spin of the wheels was not a feasible proposition.
However, Jerry's technology showed great promise for this very need. He has developed a permanent magnet that is made out of a rare earth iron ore called neodymium boron. When processed properly, it becomes a very powerful magnet; not only for normally magnetic metals like iron and steel, but also for non-magnetic metals like aluminum, copper, silver and gold. However, what's unique and different about this magnet's affect on these non-magnetic metals is that it generates a resistance flux when moved next to them in close proximity. So, over a couple of years of development, Ed and Jerry came up with way to mount 27 of these magnets on a circular bracket that, when moved toward a moving aluminum rotor bolted to the inside of the wheel. The resistance these magnets create is essentially a non-contact brake because it takes only a distance of an inch or less to produce the resistance flux. Use of these magnetic brakes make it the ONLY vehicle in the world with them. This theoretical concept would be put to the test later in the testing phase of the project.
One of our best supporting sponsors to come onto the project at this time was PCB Piezotronics that the team's data acquisition scientist, Steve Wallace, got involved. They loaned to the project the Larson-Davis hardware and a multitude of sensors to be placed on the car at various locations for several different measurements. The purpose of this system is to collect up to six million bits of data per second; from vibration, to pressure, to loads, to stresses and flexes that the car will go through as the speeds of test runs increase.
Once the engine arrived at the hangar, preparations were underway for getting it installed. The all day affair was successful and remaining electrical and hydraulic connections were made so that a run up test of the engine could be made to verify that everything worked "as advertised".
Plans were made to transport the North American Eagle in its trailer down to an air strip in western Washington to conduct the engine test and do a very low speed test run on a 5,000 foot airstrip. Unfortunately, the engine would not turn over more than 35% and it needed to reach a slightly higher percentage in order to run on its own. Disappointed, the team packed up the equipment and loaded the car to head home and try to figure out what was wrong. Little did we know at that point that, with plans to conduct another engine test at the Spanaway Airport the following month, we were headed for a major set back.
It was the weekend between Christmas and New Years that the team got together at the Spanaway Airport to conduct another engine run test. After changing out fuel pumps and a few other items suspected of causing the problem, we needed to see if these changes resolved the problem. A 150 foot steel cable from one of our sponsors was used to anchor the car to a large evergreen tree and we attempted to start it up again. It started up this time, but was having some hanging problems at maintaining a constant idle speed, so Ed shut it down. After a half hour's wait, we spooled it up once again and it seemed to be running better this time. Then the engine suddenly spewed a huge flame out the tail, followed by a spray of metal shrapnel that spat out afterwards.
Once the engine shut down, I looked up the tail into the afterburner section from a distance of about 50 feet and it was glowing orange hot! Nobody was looking very happy and we knew this might mean the end of the project. After loading up the car into the trailer, the team went home and Ed called Robin at S&S Turbine Services to tell him the bad news. Robin asked Ed if we could yard it out of the car and haul the engine up to Fort St. John. He said he'd refurbish the engine at no expense to the project; a job that normally would cost roughly $150,000+! Ed checked around with some of the team members and Bernard, the team's welder, stepped up to do the hauling; a distance of 900 miles north of Seattle during the dead of winter.
After about a month the engine was ready again and it was tested on the stand to certify that it was in good condition. During the process, Robin discovered the cause of the start problem - a sensor wire to the fuel controller had been pinched during installation and the engine was not getting correct information for fuel flow. We also learned of the events which lead to the flaming and shrapnel blowing out the tail. Excess fuel which had not ignited during the previous start was still in the combustion cans and when it was started up again. This caused an above normal increase in temperature in the turbine blade section which in turn caused a warping of the honeycomb lining on the outside of the engine's can shape. Some of the honeycomb material hit the tips of the turbine blades which were turning rapidly and a cascading effect then occurred that took out all the turbine blades behind them; causing the shrapnel to be flung out the rear of the afterburner.
Most of the team could hardly believe that we were so fortunate to have such a supportive and understanding sponsor like this man, Robin Sipe. He literally saved the project from its death. For this, we owe him a humongous debt of gratitude!
At about this same period, we were visited by one of the former team members from ThrustSSC; Jeremy Davey. Jeremy was the project's webmaster and had gone on after the record was set, to take employment with Microsoft, U.K. We had begun to exchange emails over a year and he informed me that he'd be over in Redmond for a conference. I invited him to come to the hangar to see the North American Eagle and he spent a day talking with those team members who showed up. He was supportive by sharing with us what they did to make their project successful. Ed had been in occasional contact with Richard Noble, either by email or phone, and the team was being encouraged to make a go for the record because this would give the British a new incentive to come back with yet another faster car. Noble would later join the 800 Club after exchanging a few emails with me.
The following spring, the team took the car back down to the small airstrip in the countryside of western Washington when the weather was turning nice again and conducted a successful test run on aircraft tires. With the engine running as expected, the car did some very slow runs - under 100 mph - down the strip. Steering checked out, and Ed was confident the next runs could gradually be stepped up. Finally, on the last run of the day, Ed accelerated to a top speed over 2,500 feet of the strip to just over 300 mph with ease. Besides the parachutes which worked perfectly, the speed brake doors on the side of the fuselage worked properly and the rear axle's temporary disc brakes from a Bluebird bus brought the car to a stop before the end of the runway. However, the disc brakes were smoking hot for a while from the intense friction built up over the last 2,500 feet distance they were applied.
The team was jubilant and excited at having successfully completed the first of many test runs for the car. The team celebrated by toasting to our success. This meant that the project had transitioned out of the first phase, refurbishing and systems installation, and into the testing phase of the project. There would be many tests before we reached the final phase. The final phase would be going for the record. However, this meant that we still had to find a sponsorship that would be willing to put some capital into project's later testing that would require very expensive technology to assure us that our theories about how the car would behave was correct.
Chapter Eight -
Over the next couple of years, several appearances along the west coast, from the Puget Sound region south to the L.A. basin, attracted many other interested companies; some of which became sponsors in varying capacities. Many new "small time" and a few "big time" sponsors came on board. Software companies, like Dassault Systemes, and digital mapping companies like INCAT and Faro, provided us with critical services that would make it possible for the project to begin work on the next phase of testing; mid-range speeds to transonic, or 400 mph to 600 mph.
During this same time period, at least six separate test sessions were conducted. One of the more memorable ones was when we were invited to Edwards AFB to be on display during its open house in October of 2005, as well as use Rogers Dry Lake where the Shuttle now lands when an alternate landing strip, other than Florida, is needed. 56-0763 finally was returning home.
The Open House was two days of non-stop people, from dawn until dusk. When you say the same things over and over to the thousands of people, you get it down pretty well. Despite this, all the team members were happy to share their passion about the project with everyone. What made this event different from the other appearances is that we could tell them that this airframe had once been stationed here in the test pilot training school. The biggest thrill for the team was being visited by General Joe Engle. Engle had flown 56-0763 many times and remarked fondly that he especially liked this F-104 back in the '60s. He later went on to be the command pilot of the Space Shuttle and was the only one to have ever manually controlled it during re-entry to earth.
After the air show that ended the second day's festivities with nearly every possible aircraft having flown by, the team pulled the car into a huge hangar at the edge of the flight line. In the same hangar were a couple of the large jet powered drones the Air Force had placed on display for visitors. We set up shop in one corner of the hangar and prepared the car for some test runs. After a couple of days of tinkering to make sure everything was set, we took the car out to the tie-down station and ran up the engine. Apparently word got around the base during the open house days because while we were out setting up to run the engine, two YF-22 jet fighters taxied by us and both pilots saluted us from their cockpits.
The next day we towed the car out onto Rogers Dry Lake and set up for some runs. On the second run, Ed noticed the steering wasn't responding as expected and, after having traveled a couple of miles up to about 225 mph, he had to shut down and throw out the laundry because it had stuck into a left turn and was drifting off the run course. Having exhausted our allotted days to be there (many of the team had to get back to their jobs) we hauled back up the west coast to Spanaway and a winter of tweaking the hydraulic system.
The following June of '06, we once again went down to El Mirage; another dry lake east of Edwards this time, and conducted more test runs to see if our steering problem had been corrected. The first run went off fine with a pass up to about 250 mph - nice and straight for four miles. However, the second pass resulted in the same problem. Our post run analysis came down to the fact that we'd modified the hydraulic system to the point of making more problems rather than improving it. We had over pressurized the hydraulic system and once the fluid was heated up from the first run it began to vaporize during the second run; causing the steering to lose functionality. So, over the following winter months, changes were made to fix this problem.
The event which followed immediately after this test session would prove to be one of the more memorable highlights of this journey toward the record. Plans had been made with Aerobooks/Autobooks of Burbank to make an appearance. It was also understood that, because this store was one of Jay Leno's favorite haunts to get material for his incredible antique car-collection, he would also be stopping by while we were there. He first showed up in one of his 1922 classics and took a tour around the car with Ed, Keith and myself. After donating some money to our donation jar, he left, but returned about a half hour later in his Stanley Steamer car from 1914. He spent more time talking with us and promised he'd write up an article in his Jay's Garage series in Popular Mechanics magazine; which he did. It was written with a senior citizen twist.
Chapter Nine -
Our next and more promising experience would be another test session at El Mirage with a follow up appearance at the John Force Auto Show to raise donations of toys for children's Christmas. In the months of fall, Ed and Keith had been in contact with a couple of companies they'd met while at the Aerospace Testing Expo in Anaheim, CA. Because we were going to be appearing at the John Force Auto Show event in early December just after our test session at El Mirage, FARO, INCAT and Verisurf were coordinated by Dassault Systemes to come to the auto show and digitally map the body of the North American Eagle. These companies were our newest sponsors in that they donated their technology, skills and time to make it possible for the next big step to be taken toward making this project as safe as possible.
FARO, with the help of INCAT and Verisurf, collected thousands of data points on the car's body using Dassault Systemes CATIA V5 software program that allows the team to create a virtual image of the car in 3-D. This is significant because it allows us to use this image of the car to conduct the needed computational fluid dynamics analysis of the car. This CFD work allows us to simulate air flow over the car at varying speeds in order to analyze what is going to happen at specific points anywhere on the car as it goes into transonic and supersonic speeds. More importantly, it will give us the critical data on how to best deal with the drag build up which will occur on the rear suspension that hangs off the bottom rear of the car. Minimizing this drag will be critical to running efficiently through transonic and supersonic speeds along the ground.
Another analysis which needs to be done for the purpose of validating our speculation about how the car is going to behave at these upper speeds is having wind tunnel work done. Computer simulation alone is not enough. It is also necessary to have a solid aluminum model of the car made (very expensive) that is scaled down to a maximum of around six feet in length from its 56 total feet, and placed in a wind tunnel that is capable of pushing wind past it at up to supersonic speeds. There are only a few of these facilities around the country capable of this and they charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to use them.
With connections to those who worked in one of these facilities, we thought we had achieved a major coup of getting the use of the facility arranged, but learned that once the company lawyers got a hold of the proposal gave it a thumbs down. It was not something they were willing to allow; especially if it wasn't related to the business of the company. This isn't the first time it's happened to us. A couple of other times we had interested companies looking at the idea of financially backing the project which would provide us with the capital to pay for wind tunnel time and model, but once the lawyers learned of it, that was the end of it.
In October of 2007, Steve Fossett, renowned millionaire and world record holder in a wide variety of sports, had announced that he was going to be attempting to break the land speed record and go 800 mph. He had purchased Craig Breedlove's Spirit of America and was going to modify it and use it to go for it. Our initial attempts to work with the Fossett team proved unproductive; they weren't interested. So, we left them to their own work and wished them well.
Chapter Ten -
Over the last spring and summer the team worked diligently to make modifications to the car's systems that would correct previous problems and Ed and Keith had scheduled another test session for the 10th anniversary of the ThrustSSC breaking the record by being at the Black Rock desert in Nevada over that anniversary of October 15th.
One of the difficulties for the project conducting test runs was that, not only did the team members have to arrange for time off their jobs, the expense of fuel, meals, and accommodations while there have been a financial burden. An average trip to haul the car in the semi rig, team members driving their own vehicles down to the location, stay in a motel, and eat meals cost a total of about $15,000 all tolled. So, Ed was constantly attempting to find sponsors for our test sessions. One of the factors which gave us leverage with potential sponsors to fund a test session was to make arrangements with a film production company to be present for shooting footage of them and let them sell it to the Discovery Channel, or the Science Channel for airing. The sponsoring company could then have their logo on the side of the car and get exposure to the viewing audience via the documentary.
Paragraph deleted due to agreement of lawsuit settlement.
During this same time, Ed had managed to bring on a new sponsor - Uremet - the world's manufacturer of roller coaster wheels. Because we were intending to run the car up to speeds in the 400 mph range at the next test session at Black Rock in October, Ed orchestrated having the solid aluminum billets purchased for making the all metal wheels for the car; all five of them. The front and two mid-wheels would be manufactured by Steve Green of Eagle Machine in British Columbia, while the larger rear wheels would be done partly by a company in southern California and by our new sponsor, Uremet. Steve Green also then finished the rear wheels and fabricated the hubs and front axle parts for them.
Another sponsor to come on board with the project was WRL Cover All; a company that manufactures temporary structures that large tarps are placed over. Many farmers use them to place their bales of hay and other materials in. We needed a shelter to place the North American Eagle into and they came through with a donation of one to the project for our test session and future record attempt. It was a huge 70 foot by 30 foot structure that has steel curved beams covered with a plastic tarp. This made it possible for us to have all of our equipment needed right near the car to get work done.
It was over Labor Day that news broke that Steve Fossett had disappeared while on a three hour flight over Nevada; supposedly to visit a couple of sites where they might conduct test runs with their Sonic Arrow. Fossett was never found and the team's future was in question. Legal issues had to be ironed out before their fate was known.
Paragraph deleted due to agreement of lawsuit settlement.
The metal wheels were completed just hours prior to our leaving for Nevada and our test session, so there was no time before leaving to fit things up. Of course, high speed bearings were necessary to acquire which weren't cheap either, but Ed managed to make it happen. This meant that once the team gathered in Gerlach - the small town on the south end of the Black Rock desert - we had to spend our first day setting up our shelter to put the car in. The weather was fabulous, sunny and no wind. All the while, two land speed racing celebrities were standing around in our camp, watching what we were doing. Rosco McGlashen - Australian record holder in the Aussie II - and legend Craig Breedlove - four time record holder who had lost his most recent bid to the British 10 years ago by losing control of his Spirit of America car and doing the world's fastest U turn at around 500 mph.
News came to us that the Fossett team was also making an appearance, for press purposes only; to take advantage of the anniversary and our presence on the desert. We drove over to their camp situated more to the south and nearer Gerlach and took a look at the car which was still in the trailer at that time. From our observations, some modifications had been made, but none of any real significance.
After another day of getting the new metal wheels hubs and bearings assembled onto the rear axle, mid-axle and front steering axle, the sun set with the weather being fabulous. We were expecting to test run the engine the next morning and make a pass on the anniversary date; the 15th. However, upon waking up that morning, the weather had obviously started to turn sour. Clouds were gathering overhead, and the wind was starting to blow; a front was moving in. That we would be able to run at all was uncertain.
The weather was questionable, the camera crew that had been collecting tons of footage was desperate for some of the car taking a run, and it was the anniversary of the record being set. With many of the ThrustSSC team there, but understanding the circumstances, Ed decided we'd make a run to see how things went. However, it was necessary to tow the car to the other end of the run course that we'd prepared - all five miles of it - so that the car would be going into the wind. Earlier, while conducting a walk with others to check for foreign object debris, or FOD, I noticed there were parts along the course that had been dragged for smoothing that were harder than the rest. I sat in a truck at the 3 mile marker along the course and watched as Ed went by and disappeared into a huge dust cloud that was sweeping along the desert floor from south to north.
After catching up to him and hearing what Ed had to say about the run, what I'd been concerned about the hard spots on the course were the problem I thought they'd be. When going over them, the car had felt as if it were going over a parking lot speed bump; not good. So, not only was the weather not cooperating, but the surface was not in good shape for going fast. Another unexpected result of running on the playa, or dry mud of the lake bed on metal wheels was the rolling resistence was higher than anticipated. When Ed pulled back on the engine power, he didn't have to use any parachutes, speed brake doors, or magnetic braking. It felt as though it was slowing down quickly on its own. This was most likely due to the fact that there had not been a good rain over the two past winters in that region and the dirt was not as hard as it needed to be. The good news was that the steering problem was resolved. Ed decided to run the car once more for another mile or two down to where the shelter was and we called it a day. With the wind blowing so hard, the fine dust was getting into everything.
That evening in Gerlach at the Miners Cafe & Bar, everyone gathered together for a celebration. Although Richard Noble and Andy Green, the Project Manager of the ThrustSSC project and its driver, were not able to attend, the British team members put on a skit that complimented the two of them. Ed Shadle, Craig Breedlove, and Rosco McGlashen gave speeches in honor and recognition of what the team had accomplished. It was Rosco McGlashen's speech, though, that truly spoke to the essence of what the spirit of land speed racing is. His point was that, despite the fact that he was a contender for beating others, he was given freely the help and advice from other teams to get him through problems. This willingness to help one another even if it might mean that the other guy would get the record was why this brotherhood of racers was so special.
With mixed feelings about how the test session turned out, we broke camp the next day and began our trek back to the Pacific Northwest. Knowing what needed to be done over the coming winter, the team settled into the hangar after a few weeks off and began even more modifications in preparation for yet another test session; again in southern California. This time, with hopes of having conditions conducive to reaching into the 400 to 500 mph range for speeds.
So, that is where the project is now. We still have yet to find that elusive financial backer. It is our hope that, after achieving our goals for this coming spring's test session, we will prove our viability to a potential sponsor waiting in the wings to step forward. Somehow, someway, we will pull this off because, if we've gone through this much, we can make it to the finish.
Signed posters can be ordered through web site.
Other Hubs by Jondolar
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For those who are distance runners, this account is a must read. Competing in 1974, the same year Bill Rogers won it, Jondolar shares his experience of qualifying and running the race during his younger years. Perhaps it will inspire you to do it.
- Jondolar's Successful Summit of Mt. Rainier
Go with Jondolar and his team as he takes you up the mountain to the top and back down. Pictures accompany this account of the experience. This is a must read for the adventure seeker.
- Jondolar's '01 Trek on the PCT
Covering 76 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Jondolar and his hiking buddy, Bill, complete the trek in seven days. Beautiful pictures, taken by Bill Sharpsteen, accompany this account.
- Jondolar's '02 97 mile Trek on the PCT
Jondolar's account of 97 miles in seven days on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington state. Beautiful pictures, taken by his hiking buddy Bill Sharpsteen, accompany this hub.
- Jondolar's Crater Lake Backpack Trek of '05
This is Jondolar's account of the 76 mile trek through Oregon state's Pacific Crest Trail past Crater Lake over five days. Beautiful pictures, taken by his hiking buddy Bill Sharpsteen, illustrate the account.