October 15, 2008

A tribute to Thrust SSC: still the fastest machine on wheels

Against the sun-scorched craggy peaks surrounding Nevada's Black Rock desert, a cloud of dust emerges out of the distance. Amorphous at first, the cloud narrows into a contrail as the ground below starts to tremble.

The thunder swells. In moments, a raven black dart shoots past and with it, a thunderous boom that rewrites history.

Eleven years ago today, RAF pilot Andrew Green drove Thrust SSC — a British-built 54-foot-long earthbound missile — faster than any who had come before him. Setting a 2-way average of 763.035 miles per hour on October 15, 1997, Green drove into history as the first man to drive faster than the speed of sound on land.

Thrust SSC was as much about a car as it was about the goal -- to solidify Britain's grasp on the land speed record and be the first to break Mach 1 in the process.

To do it required the complete dedication of Richard Noble, Ron Ayres and their team of fabricators, technicians and aerodynamicists. Fewer than 50 people worked on the Thrust SSC project, yet by virtue of the feat they accomplished, fewer teams were more unified in their effort.

As for the car itself, Thrust SSC was constructed largely from aluminum. Some 54 feet long, 12 feet wide, Thrust SSC weighed just shy of 11 tons. Powered by two afterburning Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines, Thrust SSC was propelled by 50,000 pounds of thrust, rolling on wheels were hewn from solid billets of aircraft-grade aluminum.

During the record-setting runs with the engines at full thrust, Thrust SSC burned 4 imperial gallons of aviation gasoline every second. When translated into miles per gallon, Thrust SSC averaged four hundredths of a mile per gallon at 763 miles per hour.

In other words at top speed, Thrust SSC burned a gallon of aviation gas every 211 feet, 2 inches.

In recognition of the teams achievement, official recognition came from the governing World Motor Sport Council four weeks later:

The World Motor Sport Council homologated the new world land speed records set by the team Thrust SSC of Richard Noble, driver Andy Green, on 15 October 1997 at Black Rock Desert, Nevada (USA). This is the first time in history that a land vehicle has exceeded the speed of sound. The new records are as follows:

* Flying mile 1227.986 km/h (763.035 mph)
* Flying kilometre 1223.657 km/h (760.343 mph)

In setting the record, the sound barrier was broken in both the north and south runs.

Paris, 11 November 1997.

Today, both Thrust SSC and its predecessor Thrust2 are on display at the Coventry Transport Museum in Coventry, England.

In the intervening years, much of the world has changed. Brazen attempts like those by Richard Noble's and challenger Craig Breedlove have grown more distant. Breedlove retired from his 1997 attempt after his
Spirit of America could do no better than 676 mph. The car was sold in 2006 to Steve Fossett, who died in an airplane crash while scouting for an area to run Breedlove's car and stage a record-challenging run of his own.

[Picture Credit:
Andrew Graves]

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