Thrust SSC - Supersonic Race Update

Issue 193 Lead Article - 11th October 1997

British Weather

by Jeremy Davey, ThrustSSC Webmaster and Satellite Communications Manager

Peter Ross dragging the tracks to remove the dunes
(Peter Ross dragging the tracks to remove the dunes. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

"It's typical British weather. Let's go out and do it!"

It's approximately 1030hrs on Friday 10th October and the ThrustSSC Team shiver in the cold as they are briefed by Operations Manager Adam Northcote-Wright. Spirit of America have relinquished their priority on the playa to ThrustSSC - despite the dark, forbidding skies and light rain, an attempt to run is to be made. Pete Ross rolls up in the Merlo - he's been dragging a section of loading ramp from the SSC's trailer to level the dunes on the south end of the tracks.

Bad weather on the Black Rock Desert
(Bad weather on the Black Rock Desert. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

A break in the weather is possible, and with winter coming every day's running could be vital and opportunities cannot be squandered. Despite the continuing precipitation everyone heads out to their alloted positions and ThrustSSC is towed to Mile 0. Ron's profiles call for Mach 1.015 and Mach 1.036 on the two runs - approximating to 769mph and 784mph ground speed at 12 degrees Celcius. It isn't 12 degrees though - as you don you fleece jacket and head out of the Pit Station you glance at the thermometer: it reads 8.5.

Shockwaves developed by ThrustSSC
(Shockwaves developed by ThrustSSC. Photo: Richard Meredith-Hardy. Copyright 1997, Richard Meredith-Hardy. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

ThrustSSC has already run to within a whisker of the speed of sound, with fantastic shockwaves developing around the car and lifting the dust from the surface in two bands 150ft wide either side of the car. Indeed there have been reports in the media that the car has gone supersonic. Ron Ayers has a considered answer: "The only reliable assessment of Mach number comes from the USAC timekeepers. Our on-board monitoring suggests that we at least touched M=1 and this is confirmed by the remarkable photographs taken by Richard Meredith-Hardy. However on-board measuring is not good enough - we cannot claim to have broken the sound barrier until it is independently timed." If we can get in the runs within an hour, the ThrustSSC Team will set the first ever supersonic World Land Speed Record.

You're on your own again - Paris Match are with the USAC timekeepers and you drop Matt off at the Press Area. The light rain has laid the dust and little is lifted by your wheels as you drive. Rod Barker is acting as "Sky Mobile" today making sure there are no problems for the media. Stopping at Mile 7 you report in - it's still raining. Sergeant Tim Halpin of the San Jose Police Department pulls up with "Blackadder" - he and his wife are visiting the attempt on the sound barrier on their honeymoon.

The Merlo after a drive across the damp desert
(The Merlo after a drive across the damp desert. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

The rain continues. One of the Pegasus microlights reports a discoloured patch on the run-off from the desert racetracks - "Cat 1" is despatched to check the surface has not been turned to mud. Eventually the playa surface starts to get slippery - a thin layer of slime is forming over the dry mud beneath - the measured mile is particularly a concern. All operational callsigns are recalled to the Desert Pits - this time you make two distinctly marked tracks as the off-road tyres pick up the surface and throw it into the air over your head. Merlo quickly turns from green to brown.

Back at the Pit Station a 'weather hold' has been called. The rain has stopped but there is no wind to dry surface. The situation will be reviewed until 1400hrs - the last possible time for a roll out to be made and two runs completed before dark.

Time drags on. The surface dries enough to run ThrustSSC, then a fault with the Medic Air Turbocommander is found - a relay in the starting system of one of the turboprops has failed. A replacement Cessna is flow in with spares, but is not suitable itself for medical evacuation. Running is cancelled for the day - the Turbocommander is regarded as 'safety critical'. Other work takes its place - fodding on the tracks, and signwriting on the car.

Joe Broxterman signwriting the Sterling Software logo
(Joe Broxterman signwriting the Sterling Software logo. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

The latter item is something which gives me enormous pleasure - for the past two years my colleagues and managers at Sterling Software have worked around my involvement in this project, doing their utmost to make it possible for me to take part. Sterling is a sponsor of the project - through the loan of myself during operational periods in Jordan and Nevada. It was always an ambition to see the company's logo on ThrustSSC, though - and the other day Richard was contacted: "We want to upgrade our sponsorship!" I could not have done this without the support and assistance of my colleagues - to have the logo on the car is a fantastic recognition of all their work.

The storm front advances on the Desert Pits
(The storm front advances on the Desert Pits. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

Out on the tracks picking up stones during the afternoon you look up at the sky - to the south it is black and laden with huge billowing cumulonimbus clouds. Deep rumbles of thunder reach us out on the playa - one hell of a storm is coming in. Suddenly Gerach is obliterated by the heavy rain and the storm front is moving rapidly towards the Desert Pits. White-lining vehicles and fodders sprint back to base and grab personal effects. Everything in the Pit Station is shut down - computers, radios, satellite electronics - everything bar the Honda diesel-generators powering the compressors for the Airesheltas. External aerials are disconnected - the Pit Station is by far the most prominent lightning conductor in the area.

Vehicles fill with people and depart at speed towards Access 2 Bravo - to the south Access 1 has already been hit. Merlo is the last vehicle to leave, running through the rain as it strikes the playa with ferocious, but fortunately brief, intensity. As the front hits the Desert Pits the Cessna is seen to lift itself from the ground and climb hard to the north, running to safety.

In minutes it is over, with only light rain left and the clouds clearing. The playa surface is now mud, and down at Access 1 there are small lakes where the run-off from the surrounding land has not yet soaked in. The team return to Gerlach - the desert may yet dry and allow running tomorrow, but it won't be the early breakfast that was planned. By 2100hrs the desert is dry enough for cars to pass - and Richard Noble drives you back out to update the Web Site - otherwise you won't be popular with any members of the media who have heeded your instructions to be at Access 2 at 0700hrs to see the runs.

Andy Green drives up on his motorbike
(Andy Green drives up on his motorbike. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

You drive out again in the morning and the desert surface is good. Access 1 is still very muddy, but Access 2 is fine. Andy and Jayne on Andy's motorbike try to come on at Access 1 - the result is a slide into the mud and Jayne being tipped unceremoniously into the slime. Andy is suitable chastised. A track inspection reveals the white lines still exist but are faint - Jack Franck and his team head out to repaint them with yet more Gypsum from the USG at Empire. Gary Berg and Joe Broxterman continue their signwriting.

You carry on working, hoping the weather doesn't come down again. The wind picks up - which is great news for drying the track, but being perpendicular to the lines it is not good for running. Then it begins to snow gently...

By 1400hrs it is obvious that there will be no running today - there is little wind at the damp north end of the tracks, and where it is blowing on the desert the crosswind is too high. Adam Northcote-Wright gathers the team for a briefing: the weather is scheduled to improve over the next few days, so breakfast will be at 0600hrs with the team due to be operational on the desert at 0700hrs and roll out at 0800hrs. Let's hope we can finally get the chance to get on with it...

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