Thrust SSC - Supersonic Race Update

Issue 185 Lead Article - 3rd October 1997

Back In Action

by Jeremy Davey, ThrustSSC Webmaster and Satellite Communications Manager

0755hrs - "Pit Station, Merlin."

"Merlin, Pit Station. Send"

"Pit Station, Merlin is in position. Mile 7. One-half mile west of track."

"Copied. Thank-you."

At last the team is back into action - over a week after setting a new record of 714mph (subject to confirmation). It hasn't been an idle week - but it has been a frustrating one. Once the engineering work required on the car was completed and the equipment checked out, we were ready to run the car on Wednesday. High winds were picking up dust storms - which scotched any chance of running that day. Yesterday we had been advised of a potential weather window in the morning - but the 0500hrs breakfast was wasted when the wind failed to fall as much as hoped.

The Merlo in position, flag hanging limp
(The Merlo in position, flag hanging limp. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

Today was another 0500hrs breakfast (even the BBC crew made it today, albeit with their cameras and microphones) - but this time the wind is light and the sky clear. There was talk at breakfast of the media reporting back home - we are very short of funds now and apparently this is getting a lot of coverage. One story going round is that reports are being put out that we are returning home - but they always say not to believe everything you read in the papers.

It's getting very cold in the mornings now - while two weeks ago everyone would just wander around in overalls, now T-shirts underneath and Castro fleece jackets on top are much in evidence. The plan for today is two runs, ideally doing the turnround in less than an hour, but cutting no corners to do so in the event of a problem. Ron has scheduled Mach 0.95 and Mach 0.965 - giving indicated air speeds of approximately 674mph and 690mph, which equate to groundspeeds of approximately 723mph and 738mph. A primary objective is to test the modifications made to the SSC since the high speeds of last week.

On the subject of speeds, the FIA have agreed to certify a record as supersonic if it happens - which means the timekeepers are now recording the air temperature as well in order to determine the speed of sound on any runs that are made.

The Desert Pits has changed from the previous flat surface to a series of sand-dunes - albeit of the fine dust that makes up the playa. The progress of the winds across the desert has been slowed by the parked vehicles, crates, Airesheltas and track markers, leaving foot deep drifts - so much so that the area in front of the Pit Station has been dragged to clear a taxiway for the Pegasus Quantum microlights.

The Press Area
(The Press Area. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

Having dropped the Paris-Match people at the USAC timekeeper's RV (they'll get some fantastic shots from there) you've only got Matt from the BBC with you for the first run. On the second you'll be on your own again while he films from the Press Area. The Press Area is getting very full now - I counted 44 vehicles heading into it this morning in a huge road train from Access 2. Quite a few sponsors are turning up, too - including old friends like Bev Slaughter from Castrol (who did the cartoons in the ThrustSSC screensaver) and Hugh Chappell from Taxan. Reading Pneumatics are here, as are Fuel Safe and Supacat. Art Arfons who held the record in the sixties is there too - he's never seen one of these cars run.

Richard Noble, Craig Breedlove, Andy Green and Art Arfons
(Richard Noble, Craig Breedlove, Andy Green and Art Arfons. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

0830 - SSC is in position. "Mobile Recs" (the 'Recs' stands for Rectifications, a throwback to the early days of testing at Farnborough) heads down the track to take up position. The two microlights take off from the Press Area in formation - with two more lucky members of the media getting to try aerial photography.

0835 - SSC is on the air, estimating engines start in 10 minutes. Jayne Millington in the Pit Station provides the usual meteorological data: 9 degrees Celcius, 885mb pressure, wind at 10 o'clock, 10mph maximum, Access 5 has wind at 6 o'clock 1-2mph maximum.

0840 - Jayne checks all operational callsigns are ready. Team 2 is not quite, but a minute later Nick Dove calls up to say they are ready and waiting.

0842- "Pit Station, SSC armed and starting engines." Jayne relays to all stations - in the background you hear a single blast on the Aarooogaah! alarm signifying 5 minutes to go.

0847 - The radio crackles. It is Andy's voice again, but reception has suddenly faltered and its intermittent. Jayne repeats for the benefit of all stations: "SSC, two minutes to run. Thank-you. All stations, stand by. Two minutes to run. Two minutes to run."

0850 - "SSC is ready to roll." Firechase rolls to a stand and Brian Palmer reports ready. Jayne give Andy clearance to roll to Mach 0.95. "SSC rolling."

ThrustSSC slows on Run 55
(ThrustSSC slows on Run 55. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

Nothing seems to happen for a moment, then the dust is seen rising - the car itself is still below the horizon. First the tail, then the rest of the car emerges from the light mirage to the south. Short of the measured mile the radio barks - Andy reports that he is slowing down. Jayne relays. ThrustSSC passes through the measured mile with the engines spooling down.

Andy is back on the radio. He has experienced a minor control problem. He advises that he is rolling to the finish.

"SSC stopped, Mile 10."

"SSC copied. SSC is stopped at Mile 10. Mile 10."

Mobile Recs heads for ThrustSSC
(Mobile Recs heads for ThrustSSC. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

0855 - Andy requests the Palouste to the left side of the car - you wonder if there is an jet-pipe fire: the air start unit will be used to start the engine up and blow any fire out.

A minute before 9 o'clock safe is called. Times are 374.194mph for the kilometre, 389.483mph for the mile, 417.478mph between the traps.

0913 - "Pit Station, Dog." Adam Northcote-Wright acknowledges. "Pit Station, the car appears serviceable. We are just analysing the data to determine the problem. At the present time, there is a reasonable possibility of a second run." "Pit Station, copied."

"Spectre" calls by - the BBC had wanted the call-sign "Baldric" to go with Paul Remfry's "Blackadder", but somehow they ended up with "Spectre". Simon is after their digital video camera to pass to Firechase. He explains what he knows: Andy has reported that the car was experiencing more directional wander at certain speeds than usual.

ThrustSSC and a Supacat between runs
(ThrustSSC and a Supacat between runs. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

You head to your next position at Mile 6 - and pass the news to Richard Noble in the Press Area. The wind has picked up strongly - the Merlo's flag is flapping horizontally. The Design Team head to the Pit Station with the data and onboard videos to analyse the problem while the car remains at the north end of the tracks, awaiting a possible second run. Nick Dove heads back to the Pit Station to collect some spares - to fix a problem with an anchor nut.

The wind blows. And you wait. The USAC Timekeepers aren't needed for the second run, so they depart for Reno to collect the calibrated thermometer they require for the speed-of-sound judgements.

1024 - Team 2 is requested to tow ThrustSSC the 3 miles to Mile 13. There must be a chance of a run. Estimated next run time is broadcast by Jayne Millington in the Pit Station: 1330hrs.

The Merlo with the wind picking up the flag
(The Merlo with the wind picking up the flag. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

At 1320 SSC is back on air. Temperature is 20 degrees Celcius, pressure 883, wind is high teens gusting to 20 knots at 1 o'clock to the track. The wind is causing concern - it is somewhat higher than predicted and dust is being picked up at the south end of the tracks. Andy and Ron discuss options for modifying the run profile to shorten the run to stop clear of it.

1344 - "SSC is armed and engines starting. 5 minutes to run." "Firechase" reports a light dust cloud over the tracks. "Telemetry" advises SSC to run a coasting profile if he is in any doubts about the conditions.

1356 - "SSC, you are clear to roll."

ThrustSSC passes with parachute trailing
(ThrustSSC passes with parachute trailing. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

Once again the familiar rooster tail rises at the north end of the desert as the SSC charges south. It lengthens and rises until the car itself can be seen emerging from the mirage.

"SSC. Run aborting in the measured mile." Jayne repeats as the car passes you with the parachute trailing. All operational callsigns are released to proceed to the SSC at their discretion.

"SSC stopped at Mile 4.5."

You wait for the call of safe. Finally at 1404 Andy reports: "Pit Station, SSC. The car is safe and closing down."

'Cat 1' had left its tow dolly at Mile 2 to go and help with a problem - you have the required NATO tow hitch so go south to collect the dolly for taking the SSC home. The wind is picking up and you just get to it before the dust cuts visibility to around a hundred yards. It will be a long, slow tow back to the Aireshelta for the crew - but at least the dust improves.

Dust hangs over the desert after the first run of today
(Dust hangs over the desert after the first run of today. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

Once back you learn the full facts. Andy reported that on the first run the car's usual directional wander between Mach 0.8 and Mach 0.85 was worse than it had previously been, although the downforce figures were in line with those expected. The changes had had an unexpected effect - leading to the abort at 560mph. For the second run the tailplane was restored to its previous 0 degrees setting and the run profile repeated. The directional handling was noticeably improved, but at Mach 0.85 it was still worse than last week. Peak speed was 628mph.

As I write the Design Team are meeting to analyse the results and map the way ahead. They will be seeking to optimise the stability of the car in both the subsonic (below Mach 0.85) and transonic (above Mach 0.85) regions before we run again in the next few days.

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