Thrust SSC - Supersonic Race Update

Richard Noble's July 2003 Update

ThrustSSC Roundup

Richard Noble

"We actually drove ThrustSSC twice too often." Andy Green said it for the team - the intense risk coupled with the uncertainties had taken the project right to the brink. The team were exhausted, there were doubts over the cars structure suffering from fatigue from the huge acoustic energy of the two Spey 202s. And the project was in an appalling financial state. Yet we finally achieved the two supersonic runs on October 15th 1997.

The first activity was to celebrate – this was the famous occasion when Andy and Jayne rode Andy's bike into the Gerlach bars - and the track team went beserk leaving a trail of white desert marking line which followed Andy through all the bars and along the street. The second was to get the ThrustSSC team back to UK as quickly as possible because we were haemorraging money we never had. The clearup on the Black Rock Desert was achieved so fast and to such a high standard that it became virtually impossible to find the Black Rock Pit Station base – the Bureau of Land Management were deeply impressed and awarded the team their trophy for the most responsible use of their land in 1997.

Back in Reno Nevada the team were looked after by our sponsors and great friends Tom Reviglio of Western Nevada Supplies, sponsors of both the Thrust2 and ThrustSSC runs. HeavyLift moved with tremendous speed switching an Antonov to Reno while the ThrustSSC advance guard returned home. We tried to get Andy a special upgrade for his and Jayne’s return flight - but the airlines were not sympathetic.

The Antonov duly made it back to Stansted and in the huge and intense effort to unload 100 tonnes of equipment, in a jet lagged state I made the mistake of running my diesel Golf out of fuel on the M25. The RAC man was enthusiastic: "Aren’t you a part of the team that just broke the Sound Barrier - I’m sure I’ve seen you on television?" In the meantime the trucks and equipment were brought back to Farnborough for storage in the huge DERA hangar. As usual ThrustSSC on its transporter was stopped by the Police for a look see and a chat!

There followed a huge round of awards and parties. Andy’s father and the Norwich Civic Council organised a welcome for him and the team at Norwich City Airport – 9,000 people turned out to meet their hero and the local radio stations had to put out instructions to keep clear of the airport and its access roads. The ThrustSSC merchandising team were reduced to taking orders on scraps of paper.

Back in Farnborough the true apparent situation was becoming clear. David Richards, our accountant, explained that the debt level was likely to be £300,000 - the direct consequence of under-financing and the huge push to complete the super sonic runs at Black Rock. I can remember the conversation with Andy: "We are comprehensively knackered – the whole team is knackered – yet we now have to pull together to get the company out of this mountain of debt." I couldn’t see how it could be done. I felt we were finished – we were so tired that the effort required to generate yet another huge surge of activity was just too much.

About this time we took part in the Lord Mayor's Show in London. The parade is a vast annual event seen by zillions on live television. The ThrustSSC team walked the route behind the Pit Station and ThrustSSC on its trailer, and right from the start there was something very strange about the event. The large pompous British companies were fielding huge extravagant carnival floats with their people riding in fancy dress – and yet the public lining the streets were strangely silent. I suppose it's difficult to get worked up about this kind of expensive self expression. And yet when the black ThrustSSC emerged on its trailer they cheered and shouted like Hell – this and the Norwich experience gave us a taste for what was to come. The City of Coventry arranged a drive around the streets with ThrustSSC on its trailer and the team in the Coventry City Football Club open topped double decker bus - and 30,000 people turned out lining the streets and cheering. It was the most amazing experience – John Coppinger, always a deep thinker, standing next to me on the bus said: "Do you know what I am seeing, Richard? When I asked what he meant, he said: "Well, look at those people. They have smiles on their faces. You don’t see people on the streets with smiles any more. They are smiling and they’re cheering."

The parade threaded its way through the streets and came to a halt in Coventry City centre. The Central square was full of thousands of people, you couldn’t move and there was real danger that the car would be damaged. The local authorities hadn’t expected anything like this and there was no police support. But in fact there was no danger, just vast quantities of goodwill. Later ThrustSSC went on display at the Museum of British Road Transport and 15,000 people went past the car in one day. The Museum and the City held the most wonderful dinner for us that night.

Back at Farnborough the merchandise orders were coming in by the sackfull: Sally, Ninetta and Suzy were hard pressed to keep the stock moving – but gradually we were beginning to eat into our debt. Also members of the Royal Family kept making sudden appearances to meet the team and see ThrustSSC. There was a wonderful moment when we raised Princess Margaret up on a forklift so she could see into the ThrustSSC cockpit! As a team we stayed together as long as there was money in the bank to pay everyone - for about two months – then the money was gone, we had a wild all-night party in the hangar and it was time for the team to disband - and the graft to begin to get the debts paid.

But getting new jobs was never going to be easy. The ThrustSSC project was a flat project which succeeded because it trusted its team – after that experience the return to a hierarchical business where politics rule and there is little mutual trust is unlikely to appeal. On top of all that, we did not realise how tired we all were – we had been working at such a high pitch for so long that the team were exhausted. Webmaster Jeremy Davey made the point when he stated that it took most people two years to get back to normal.

Another magic event stands out. The Design Team, Andy and I were invited for a black tie dinner with the Rolls-Royce board at their offices in London. Andy and I coming from different locations were both late and arrived up the lift together to be met by the Chairman Sir Ralph Robins with a plate of oysters. We sat at a long table with the Board and I sat next to Sir Ralph. I was talking animatedly when I discovered Sir Ralph was on his feet to make a speech. "I want you all to know that the Rolls-Royce Board considers this to be a very great achievement and we are delighted that the supersonic record was achieved with our engines." He then presented everyone with a present and in memory of the occasion a solid silver Spitfire model.

The team went to the Williams Formula One team for a day and Frank Williams most kindly sent us £10,000. The British Racing Drivers Club had also heard of the problem and were surprised to see us in the old rough 1950’s building at Farnborough: "You don’t do yourselves very well." The truth of the matter was that the building was free and we never had a budget for accommodation. BRDC later sent us £25,000 which was most generous.

More money came from the auction at Farnborough at which all the project kit was sold off. The auction was generously donated by Robert Brooks of Brooks Auctioneers and raised a further £50,000. And a valuable sum came from the advance on the Thrust book which was published by Partridge, part of the TransWorld group which was in no small respect due to the efforts of Adam Sisman who pursued the project doggedly and saw the deal through despite intensive competition.

The book took 6 months to write in conjunction with Dave Tremayne who did the hard work. Dave made sense of my ramblings often carried out in the early hours of the morning and turned it into smooth flowing credible prose. That wasn’t the hard part - the hard part was the proof reading which seemed to go on for months. Sally and I were taking a holiday – and every evening there would be 20 pages of faxed copy to check for accuracy and return overnight. Once the book had been completed with all the comments and views of the key team members, the whole thing had to be checked over by the key team members – this had to be our book and a book which everyone could support. This was not at all easy, but everyone stuck with it and we eventually completed the huge task. I went down to Butler and Tanner in Shaftesbury to see the first print run – they were to print 53,000 copies.

Andy was awarded the OBE for a truly outstanding personal effort – today people wonder at the man who put his life on the line again and again for his country. But despite correspondence with Downing Street, nothing was awarded to the other team members. I was appalled that after such a huge achievement there was nothing for the engineers who had made this possible, Ron, Glynne, Jerry, Chris, Mike Horne - the people who had designed and built the car, who had the anguish of making the daily decisions on the run profiles and then watching grimly as Andy drove the profiles. (I am writing this five years on and sheer scale of the achievement is still talked about – and the failure to honour the engineers makes me very angry.) Then there was the vast effort put in by the operations team under Martin Davidson and later Adam Northcote Wright. The huge committment put in by Jeremy Davey and the internet team which included the first ever end to end electronic trading in Britain and the 800 page website which ran 56 million hits in 1997 and directly enabled the project to succeed. Then there were the 4,800 Mach One Club members headed by Robin Richardson – and the simply humungous merchandising effort by Sally Noble, Ninetta Hearn and Suzy Kraike. All told it was an astonishing effort put in by a tremendous team of people who were just not going to be beaten.

ThrustSSC went to a number of exhibitions – in Paris ,Essen, Salzburg and then the time came to retire the car. It went into hiding in Farnborough while we developed the next programme and in due course after a titanic struggle the car was acquired by the City of Coventry with major funding from the Lottery and with the deal brokered by Brooks. The Museum of British Road Transport has done a spectacular job in presenting ThrustSSC together with its drive simulator where Andy takes you through a ThrustSSC run profile. It's also great to see the two cars, Thrust 2 and ThrustSSC, together for all time.

After ThrustSSC we moved onto a different programme – Farnborough The idea was to build a new type of taxi aircraft which could operate like a cab flying from the 2,000 small airfields in Europe and the 5,000 in the US. It's best described as a mix of a Spitfire and a London Black Cab. Clearly there are big transport problems ahead for everyone with the ever more expensive railways incapable of expansion – and studies stating that we can expect 25% more traffic on the roads by 2010. The airline business is suffering as a centrally driven mass transportation system - it's clear that the old business model needs to change radically. It's quite possible that the traditional surface transport systems are going to seize - which leaves only the air. The cleverness of the F1 is in the aerodynamics which were principally developed by Gordon Robinson who had solved the problem of developing strain gauge mountings for ThrustSSC’s Spey engines. Basically to go slowly to land on the short runways you need a big wing – to fly fast, over 300kts, you need a small wing. After designing and evaluating some 300 wings Gordon managed to achieve the Holy Grail developing the wing and its section that made both possible, which was subsequently proved in the wind tunnel at Cranfield. Looking back, it was a phenomenal achievement which gave the project tremendous value, because the faster the aircraft flies, the greater its earning power and the lower the cost per mile. It looked as if it would be very difficult to better the Farnborough F1 performance.

The company developed under severe financial strains with 450 shareholders, and with some 30,000 man hours achieved, a minority shareholder became anxious to own the intellectual property rights and this instigated an unfortunate split in the company and an expensive battle. At an EGM the shareholders voted in favour of a change of ownership and I resigned my directorship. The project is a winner and I wish the team the best of good fortune in finding the rest of the money and completing the programme. One day direct taxi travel from small airports for distances of 1000 miles will be commonplace – and as NASA quotes, demand levels may one day reach 20,000 units a year as the system is capable of developing a travel capacity of three times the old hub and spoke airline model.

This year (2003) there is more activity on the Land Speed Record front. The American Eagle team have taken an F104 supersonic fighter fuselage and mounted it directly on wheels. Ed Shadle, the team leader, is on record as stating that the design is a no-brainer - since the F104 was a proven supersonic design he wonders why no one has tried this before. There is talk of the American Eagle Team running at Black Rock this summer, so we are going to see whether this is indeed an easy short cut to supersonic performance. Activity is also stirring at Rio Vista, where Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America now sports a truly superb paint job depicting his new main sponsor "The National Guard". There are rumours of runs this year or next. Over in Australia battler Rosco McGlashan is working up for his next try, with a supersonic twin jet design.

I am often asked what are the limits to land speed record speed. I explain that the key physical limits are track distance and the ability of the human body to function under extreme acceleration - quoting astronaut Jim Lovell who flew the Gemini capsule at 9g into orbit. And of course the all-critical power to weight ratio which is directly related to engine power/weight ratio - more modern engines than the 1960’s Speys would enable a smaller, lighter supersonic ThrustSSC.

It's easy to talk of these things in the abstract, but in reality the effect on a team of taking these life or death decisions on a daily basis can become a limit in itself. Andy Green stated it for all of us when he said that ThrustSSC had been run twice too often.

But we did it. We gathered ourselves together for the final push – and we achieved the first supersonic records on land. Then we struggled again and we somehow got the debts cleared.

When talking to other team members, the subject often gets around to how we ever achieved the project and when seen against today's climate there is almost disbelief at having succeeding against those overwhelming odds. We try to meet up at least twice a year – and although it's five years ago the new stories keep on coming out. Just like the Thrust2 team we shall be spending the rest of our days making impromptu visits to Black Rock. The astonishing thing about the visits is that the Gerlach people don’t seem to get any older as if frozen in a time warp, while the Thrust team get older and greyer. There must be more to this Desert life than meets the eye!

It was a fabulous team achievement by a truly great team.

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