Thrust SSC - Supersonic Race Update

Issue 188 Lead Article - 6th October 1997

Taking Turns

by Jeremy Davey, ThrustSSC Webmaster and Satellite Communications Manager

It was bitterly cold this morning when we got up - as Rod Barker put it at breakfast: "It's so cold the speed of sound is backwards!". The sky was devoid of cloud cover, and 4000ft above sea level all the heat of yesterday was soon lost into space. There was a good wind blowing - from the north - and the general surmise was that Spirit of America would not run. They did try yesterday, too, but the wind was always too high for them to make the 540mph sprint that they planned, and eventually they had no choice but to postpone until today.

The schedule for today was for Craig Breedlove to go first in his car on the 0800hrs slot, with Andy Green and ThrustSSC following in the 1030hrs slot. When we arrived on the desert the wind was much lower, and coming from the north, there was very little dust pickup if any. SoA advised that they intended to roll out, and sure enough at 0840 Craig made a reported 531mph run to the north. His return to the south was some two hours later - we saw little from our Desert Pits at Mile 1 as he stopped well to the north, still beneath the horizon.

With the opposition's runs completed, it was our turn to roll out. We have a slight variation to the usual today - the BBC and Paris-Match gentlemen are with the USAC timekeepers, so it will be a solitary day in the Merlo, with just a laptop and cameras for company. Mike Hearn has taken the Fuji digital SLR to take some start and turnround photos - while Mach 1 Club member Michael Dempsey has lent you his 500mm mirror lens - you should be able to get some good close shots of the car in action.

Clouds over the Black Rock
(Clouds over the Black Rock. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

It's dull and cloudy over the desert by the time you arrive at Mile 7. This has three interesting effects - the first is that it makes the laptop screens easier to read - in the normal intense light of the Black Rock sun, Jerry Bliss has to wear a light-proof hood over his head to set up the car's computers before a run. You make do with the shadow of the Merlo, or the inside of a Winnebago. The second effect, and by far the most fun, is that it makes the reheat flames of ThrustSSC visible - it's far more exciting watching the car charge past with 40-foot long flames out of the back.

Jerry Bliss setting up the car's computers
(Jerry Bliss setting up the car's computers. Photo: Mike Hearn. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

The third effect is critical to supersonic record-breaking - the cooler temperature lowers the speed of sound. As Andy is driving by Mach number, not ground speed (see "Driving By Mach Numbers" for details), this means that today's planned M=0.95 and M=0.96 runs will yield ground speeds in the region of 723mph and 738mph, if all goes well. They will vary accordingly if there is a tail or head wind - which was the reason for the second record run on September 25th being more than 7-or-so miles per hour faster than the first - as would be suggested by the increment in Mach number of 0.01. The record is still subject to confirmation by the FIA - we will let you know as and when that confirmation is made.

Preparing ThrustSSC for the run
(Preparing ThrustSSC for the run. Photo: Mike Hearn. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

There is a long wait while a problem on the SSC is rectified. Finally, at 1242hrs, you hear that SSC is in position and preparations are being made for the run. You look up - to the south and east there are the characteristic stripes of rain in the air. 'Pegasus Black' passes and lands at the USAC timekeepers.

Chris Cowell on the radio
(Chris Cowell on the radio. Photo: Mike Hearn. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

1251 Chris Cowell is on the air, reporting that Team 1 is in position. The SSC is still being manoeuvred into its final position. The skies to the south clear a little. You feel like the cold is reaching your bones, and a light breeze exacerbates your discomfort. You have your fleece jacket on, but even so you have to walk round to keep warm. "Deserts are supposed to be nice, warm places," you think.

1304 - "Pit Station, SSC. Radio check. Good morning!" Jayne responds to Andy's call and reads out a temperature of 14 degrees, pressure of 872mb, and a 3 knot wind at 11 o'clock to the tracks.

1310 - "SSC is armed and starting."

"SSC, that's copied. All stations, SSC is armed and starting. 5 minutes to run. I say again, 5 minutes to run."

Jayne confirms all operational callsigns are ready. Chris responds for Team 1 - they are ready and waiting. You check in for "Merlin". Dave Petrali confirms he, Mac and Art are ready. Glynne Bowsher answers for "Mobile Recs".

One of the two Pegasus Quantum microlights
(One of the two Pegasus Quantum microlights. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

At 1314 dust rises at the south end of the desert as the twin Spey 202's are started by Team 2. "Pegasus Green" disturbs the peace by buzzing overhead - the silence in the middle of one of this desert is almost tangible.

1315 - "Pit Station, SSC. Two minutes to run."

"SSC, that's copied. All stations, two minutes to run. Two minutes to run."

Firechase charges north towards your position. SSC reports ready to roll. Firechase takes up his position opposite you, blue strobe-lights flashing on the roof, and reports in. Jayne gives Andy permission to roll to Mach 0.95 at his discretion.

"SSC rolling."

ThrustSSC making a northbound run
(ThrustSSC making a northbound run. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

It's a cracking run - with little mirage to spoil the sight the dust rises as the car accelerates. Moving towards you at an incredible speed, ThrustSSC appears over the horizon with afterburners blazing behind it. As he passes you, Andy cuts the burners and throttles back, allowing the car to slow down before deploying the parachute. The dust trail behind lifts itself gently off the desert floor - forming a long strip of brown cloud. Normally it disperses into a fog much more quickly - but today the still, cold air has an effect. "Pegasus Black" passes overhead, en-route to land at the Press Area - Richard Meredith-Hardy waves as he goes by.

1324 - "SSC, say again."

A pause - you can't hear the SSC's tranmissions at that distance.

"SSC, this is Pit Station. That's copied. All stations, SSC is safe, safe, safe."

Dave Petrali wastes no time: "Pit Station, USAC Timekeepers. I have some times for you." It's 720.428mph for the kilo, 714.427mpg for the mile, 704.792mph between the traps.

You move on to Mile 6 and begin typing up the first run. The sun comes out and it warms up markedly. "Blackadder" - Paul Remfry - calls by and stops for a chat.It seems terribly British to you that you discuss the weather: Paul with his meteorological knowledge points out the telltale clues to the cold front that has just gone over.

Chris Cowell on Team 1 is on the radio - a bolt on one of the rear-wheel-bay access panels has stripped its thread. A replacement bolt, nuts and tools to remove the old bolt are requested. Nick Dove on Team 2 heads to the Desert Pits to find the items which "Long-Name" takes to the end of the tracks. The sun is shining brightly by the time Pit Station requests visibilities from you: east and west are both excellent, some of the hills to the south are obscured, ditto to the north-west.

1508 - SSC issues an "estimated 15 minutes to engine start" warning. Spirit of America get in touch with the Pit Station - they would like to run again this afternoon. The long wait continues - it's long enough today to finish the Daily Telegraph crossword. You wonder if bodywork specialist Mike Horne has finished his copy yet - he usually does it well before you.

Positioning ThrustSSC for a second run
(Positioning ThrustSSC for a second run. Photo: Mike Hearn. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

1521 - SSC is on the air. Jayne gives Andy the temperature and pressure: 18 degrees Celcius, 871mb pressure. Wind is 5 mph or less from 4 o'clock.

1526 - SSC is armed. Engine start in 1 minute.

1528 - Jayne Millington check that the operation callsigns are ready and waiting.

1533 - 2 minutes to run.

ThrustSSC making a southbound run
(ThrustSSC making a southbound run. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

At 1536 comes the call you have been waiting patiently for: "SSC, you are clear to roll at your discretion to Mach decimal niner six." It's another good one and Andy reaches a peak of some 732mph before slowing down slightly as he heads through the measured mile.

1539 - Runs Controller Jayne Millington again: "SSC, that's copied. All stations, SSC has stopped." A minute later she calls: "Safe, safe, safe" and you relax and pack up your cameras.

"USAC Timekeepers" is quickly on the air. Kilo was 730.546mph, mile was 727.860mph, 723.496 between the traps. Estimated Mach number was 0.95.

You begin the long drive back to the Pit Station at the Merlo's peak speed of 24mph. Andy Green is extremely happy. He estimates a Mach number at the peak of the second run of between 0.96 and 0.97. Asked for an opinion, he simply says: "A nice day and two good runs!" All you have left to do is finish your report, add Mike Hearn's photographs from the Fuji Digital Camera, and upload the whole lot onto the Web Site. Oh, and answer the email complaining that the Web Site hasn't been updated for two and half hours...

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