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Today in history… first land vehicle to break sound barrier

12:00am | & Lifestyle

The British-held world land speed record celebrates its 21st birthday today, set by the jet-powered Thrust SSC (SuperSonic Car) on October 15th, 1997.

With RAF fighter pilot Andy Green at the controls, it reached the incredible speed of 763mph in the Black Rock Desert in the state of Nevada, USA. In setting the longstanding record, Thrust SSC became the first land vehicle to officially break the sound barrier, doing so 50 years and one day after American test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first man to exceed the speed of sound in flight.

Thrust SSC was developed by Scottish entrepreneur and speed enthusiast Richard Noble. He held the land speed record himself between 1983 and 1997, having driven his previous Thrust2 jet-propelled car at more than 633mph on the same stretch of Nevada desert.

For the new 1997 record attempt, the then 51-year-old Noble chose to serve as project director, giving up the driving seat in favour of Andy Green, who was 35 at the time. Thrust SSC was effectively a jet aircraft without wings, so Green – a highly skilled jet fighter pilot with a thirst for adventure – was an excellent choice as driver.

Measuring 16.5 metres long, the car resembled a horizontal rocket sandwiched between two Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan jet engines, usually found on the RAF’s F-4 Phantom II jet fighter. They gave it a total thrust of around 50,000 pounds’ force, equivalent to around 110,000 brake horsepower (bhp). For comparison, an average family car has around 120bhp.

Together, those twin turbojet engines burned around 18 litres of high-octane fuel per second, propelling the 10.6 tonne car to death-defying speeds. The real challenge was keeping it on the ground and running safe and level in a straight line.

Extensive testing was carried out in the autumn of 1996 and spring of 1997, resulting is a series of modifications, each adding a few extra miles per hour. It was done in the isolated Al-Jafr desert in Jordan, before transferring to Nevada, USA, for the record attempt, where the team awaited perfect weather conditions.

To set the record the car had to travel over a measured mile for two consecutive runs in opposite directions, in order to cancel out the effect of any headwind or tailwind. Because it had to be running at maximum speed on entering the measured mile and needed a considerable distance to slow and turn after leaving it, the site for the record attempt had to provide a completely flat and consistent surface running for several miles.

During the record run, Thrust SSC’s average speed over two runs on the measured mile was recorded at 763.035mph. It broke the sound barrier (exceeding the speed of sound) in both directions, producing the distinctive ‘sonic boom’. It was the first time in history that any land vehicle had officially exceeded the speed of sound, which is about 343 metres per second depending on atmospheric conditions.

After years of developing their supersonic car, it was a momentous day for Noble and his team, who could hardly have dreamed that their record would still stand 21 years on. Both Thrust SSC and its record-breaking predecessor, Thrust2, are now on public display at the Coventry Transport Museum, where visitors can also ride a motion simulator, giving some idea of what Andy Green went through at the controls of Thrust SSC travelling at 763mph.

Now in his seventies, Noble is still infected by the speed bug and planning a new land speed record attempt, hopefully taking place in 2020. He is still working with Andy Green, now a Wing Commander in charge of the operations wing at RAF Wittering, in Cambridgeshire.

They and a team of engineers have spent a decade working on Thrust SSC’s successor, named ‘Bloodhound SSC’, which is powered by both a jet engine and a rocket engine. They hope it will not just break the land speed record, but smash it by the largest ever margin when it tops 1,000mph. Wing Commander Green is the intended driver of Bloodhound, which is designed to accelerate from 0 to 1,000mph in just 42 seconds. Watch this space…

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