How we broke the Sound Barrier

by Richard Noble

There were never any problems with ThrustSSC just opportunities. The first came with the completion of the Thrust2 project, and the achievement of the first British World Land Speed Record since Donald Campbell’s record in 1964. We were the best in the world again and there was every expectation the record would be retaken by well funded Americans the following year. I talked to our sponsors about keeping the team together for the Thrust3 supersonic car. The sponsors were a wise lot and made it clear there was to be a new opportunity – no funding for Thrust3.

But there was always the lingering doubt; with Thrust2 we were the best in the world and without doubt the programme had been the most exciting experience of my life. It seemed criminal to leave the speed at Mach 0.84. But faced with sponsor withdrawal, the way forward was not obvious.

In 1990 Art Arfons produced his 27th Green Monster – this was a small tricycle layout car with Art positioned ahead of the front wheels. In LSR history, large heavy cars have always won out over the lightweights. Art was going to change all that. Writing for Autocar, I went back to Bonneville. Art had enormous problems with the car and while I was kicking the salt, Craig Breedlove the first man over 400,500 and 600mph turned up.

“Say Richard, I’ve made the big decision, I’ve brought two J-79 series engines and I am making the big comeback.” His resting time between LSR bouts would turn out to be 31 years.

With Breedlove committed to targetting Mach 1, this opened the doors for the greatest motor race of all time. This would lead to an unrivalled media spectacle and surely another car could be financed if we could find far-sighted sponsors. But how to get started? And where to start with a fresh team?

Thrust2 designer John Ackroyd, was committed to ballooning and reluctant to tread the poverty isolation of the LSR trail again. Thrust 2 had been within an ace of flying, with inevitable appalling results, so a new team with aerodynamic experience was needed. It was a new dimension the designs of the subsonic era were from the pre-computer age.

Progress was slow until 1992. In July, I had a meeting with Ken Norris, designer of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird car and boat. By good fortune I was late and so was Ron Ayers, ex-Chief Aerodynamicist of Missiles at BAC and now studying the Vickers Wind Tunnel reports on pre-war LSR cars. Ron was wondering why all the cars appeared to under-perform. Within a month we were trying to work out what had happened to Thrust2 and with that knowledge gained the only sensible progression forward.

“You’re designing a new LSR car I know it!” My long suffering wife Sally could see only another nine years of uncertainty, poverty, extreme financial and personal risk with no obvious reward.

On October 4th, the Thrust2 team met to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the record. I cornered Glynne Bowsher, designer of Thrust’s wheels and brakes. “You want 9-inch wide, 9000rpm wheels? Don’t tell me any more I’ll get started tomorrow!”

The ThrustSSC design started with two RB199 Tornado engines, a cockpit in the nose and butterfly tail. Another month’s work and we almost had the ThrustSCC final design. Ron bought a desktop computer and spent 550 man hours in a month creating the shape mathematically with 5,000 sets of co-ordinates. TSSC was never drawn until much later.

There was another opportunity on the horizon. Word had got around of the secret McLaren Maverick project. Then they rang for the Thrust2 video. Sensing McLaren’s explanation that it was to amuse sponsors was less than the whole truth, I agreed and did nothing. Three more frenzied McLaren calls, more promises but no action proved something serious was afoot in Woking.

The McLaren launch to journalists went ahead in December ’93. One recorded the presentation and the tape was in my player days later. They were not particularly friendly to TS SC and planned a. £25m programme. It was clear that there was no room for two LSR contenders. We’d have to beat them on design and technology – there was no way to challenge them on money or PR. So our organisation was incorporated as a company without the Thrust name and the team split into cells in London and the Midlands. There was no publicity at all during the research phase allowing McLaren the PR high ground without challenge. To all intents and purposes the ThrustSSC project had gone away.

Work funded by 40 companies – much of it by Castrol – pushed on at a tremendous rate. Ron was underway with his rocket programme at Pendine where a supersonic model burned 300 time-expired, 2-inch rockets. In parallel his Cray 92-based CFD programme carried out at Swansea University was evaluating the design’s aerodynamic performance. By May 1994, Ron was on a huge high. Against all the odds, the results of the programmes broadly tallied and where there was divergence it was as small as four per cent. He concluded that the design was safe and viable.

Always the master of understatement Ron said simply “We’d better build it.”

I had an agonising decision to make. It was clear we were going to launch the programme without a major sponsor.

To stay with Breedlove, the funding was going to be a nightmare. Early potentials were not interested the dream of a British supersonic success was of minimal interest among sponsors who preferred tennis and global yachts. I budgeted on 30,000 man hours for build in 12 months it took 100,000 hours and a two year daily battle against insolvency with survival horizons of often only 24 hours. The decision not to drive was the right one and great relief for Sally but it was seriously painful.

The June 3rd press launch was a huge success but no one asked if we had any money. The honest answer was ‘No!’ The company had no capital. Work started at G-Force in Fontwell, an outstanding organisation who most generously flexed the workforce according to our inability to pay.

Somehow Ron met up with Jeremy Bliss, who changed the entire Face of the project. Jeremy had worked with Lotus developing active ride for its F1 cars and then transferred to McLaren to be Ayrton Senna’s personal engineer. Highly skilled and with a hugely impressive grasp of diverse technologies and planning, Jeremy took on the entire systems work which involved the active ride, telemetry and recording 120 channels of data, myriad secondary systems and then the design change from torsion bar to hydraulic passive suspension.

The personal workload on Jeremy would have overwhelmed most engineers who would have insisted on an entire design department in support. Jeremy did it by himself and he saw it right through to Mach 1.02. So who would drive? I approached the DERA Centre for Human Sciences and met Professor Roger Green. He specialised in providing human data for the military and thought he had to find a Noble done. We explained we wanted to do better than that. Over 30 applicants were deterred by our PR team who tested resolve by suggesting the competition was too tough. The six month programme at Farmborough involved personality, medical and stress testing as Dunlop carbon brakes proved not to need a warm up. By 28th September we were at run 12 and 200mph.

A month later Breedlove reached 675mph but a crosswind and transonic effects rolled the car, it describing a 2-mile diameter semi-circle as it slowed. Breedlove was lucky to escape alive. The message was clear Mach 1 has to be taken seriously. The Spirit of America would take a year to rebuild.

Unable to finance a trip to Black Rock, we took Thrust SSC to the Al Jafr desert in Jordan which had been made available by His Majesty King Hussein. Although Al Jafr looked similar to Black Rock, it was harder, rougher and there were stones. It almost broke the team. In the six weeks spent preparing the desert, over 170 miles of track were cleared of stones, a back-breaking task in the hot sun. Thrust SCC took longer to prepare and there were just three runs before the desert flooded for the first time in five years.

The desert had showed problems with the rear wheel steering and directional stability. The last run was made on 21st November. We were in trouble. The British sponsors were unimpressed and there was no more money. A pragmatist would have quit but now the project’s Mach 1 Club came to our help. By making the project open to its members, we now had 3000 dedicated supporters. We never asked for donations, we simply charged for once only membership, open days and tried to provide an irresistible range of merchandise. It was our only source of finance until BTR joined as a main sponsor in Spring 1997. With the race with Breedlove in September, TSSC was in no condition to challenge, so it was back to Al Jafr, with Royal Jordanian again providing the fuel for the Heavy Lift Antonov. This time the machinery, under the management of Martyn Davidson, ran like clockwork. The team was on site for 13 days and made nine runs culminating in 540mph on the 4th June.

“The only decision was to return home and raise the finance for the showdown, $900,000 was needed. We had just 60 days to find it’ well as driving. Candidates, accompanied by Russell Brooks, drove a VW Golf rally car around a mud track at Saltburn. One entrant was a quiet Flight Lieutenant with 10 years as a fighter pilot. He’d been persuaded to enter by his girlfriend. Russell reported he started slower than everyone and just drove ever faster as he learned the track. He learned the brake points by looking at Russell’s right foot stab involuntarily at an imaginary brake pedal. The teamwork tests confirmed it Roger had found our driver. Andy Green threw himself into the project and was instrumental in getting permission for ThrustSCC to move from G-Force which it had outgrown. At Farnborough the workforce gained local and highly skilled volunteers and progress accelerated. On the 23rd September, ThrustSSC made its first run on the runway, bursting both front tyres when the

The desert was having a serious effect on the car and damaged the rear suspension brackets. The only decision to make was to return home and raise finance for the showdown: $900,000 was needed. We had just 60 days to find it.

Thus began one of the most extraordinary periods of the project. With team and car together, sponsorship prospects seemed exceptional. But they stayed away and we needed a miracle to get to the US. It came from the Internet. Under the management of Jeremy Davey, we had built an audience of 7 million and had made the very first electronic trades ever off the Net in the UK. So we appealed to them: help fuel the Antonov and we can continue. Soon fuel was being bought at 30,000 gallons a day by users in 100 countries. Castrol gave and loaned more money while readers of The Daily Telegraph started bringing in funds at £15,000 a day. Dailcin Chase and Sterling Software came in as sponsors. We loaded the Antonov at Stansted for the fifth time and landed at Reno, Nevada on September 3rd.

We couldn’t afford hotels so the team were based in rented apartments. The local restaurant put up its prices, so we set up breakfast and sandwich production in the Gerlach Community Centre. Andrew Noble had set up the US support machinery the previous month and with the loss of our vehicle sponsor we were lucky that our old Thrust2 friend, Dink Cryer of Carson City Dodge, provided the support vehicles. From the car manufacturers there was silence. Americans like Jack Frank and Dave Hackett joined the team and on arrival the course was set up. Enormous help was given by Tom Reviglio of Western Nevada who supported us in the way the UK sponsors had not. In just two days the Thrust desert site was ready.

At an early stage in the programme we’d agreed to share timekeepers with Breedlove but I found the Sports Car Club of America had little grasp of the situation, so brought in USAC’s Dave Petrali who had timed Thrust2. There were no more problems with time keeping.

Run 39 had us operational. Andy found the ride smooth but the car fishtailed more than in Jordan. On September 25th I lost my Land Speed Record as we reached 714.144mph. The 80mph jump from the Thrust2 record was the greatest in history.

By the 7th October speeds had reached Mach 0.98. The Spirit team never really seemed to get going. They seemed to manage by whim rather than checklist and the key operational sequencing which we had learned the hard way was never in evidence.

Now Sky started transmitting live to over 100 million viewers. CNN followed Sky’s lead and before long we had audiences approaching one billion. Almost everything we had promised would-be sponsors had come to pass. But they stayed away.

On the 13th we tried for the supersonic record. The FIA agreed to sanction a single or double supersonic pass as the first supersonic achievement or record. The runs were made at Mach 0.997 and 1.007 but not inside the requisite 60 minutes, due to ‘chute damage from the 40ft afterburner flames. But there was no doubt: we had gone supersonic.

Now to Wednesday, 15th October. Run 65 began at 09:09.21.698. By 550mph the car was 60ft out of line but Andy corrected it. As he accelerated he nearly had a bird strike. As the car entered the measured mile, it was an awe-inspiring sight, accelerating faster than you could believe in total silence. At the Press Pen there were no supersonic bangs but on the hills sharp cracks were heard and in Gerlach, houses were rocked and the post-mistress nearly had a heart attack. Mile Speed 759.33mph; Mach 1.015. Run 66 was away at 10:04.08.090. Andy reported Thrust SSC was much more stable up to 550mph, then anticipated the usual left yaw and Thrust went right! Again the heart-stopping moment as it raced across the mile in silence and disappeared. Mile 766.609mph; Mach 1.020. World Record: Mile 763.035mph; Kilo 760.343mph.

By the time I got back to base it was all over. Instinctively we decided not to run again. The Barrier was broken, the tension gone, the project complete. The biggest compliment came from the USAC timekeepers: they returned their fees for October 15th.

I was very glad, we had been running a huge risk. ThrustSSC would soon need a rebuild and the team was very tired. This was a prime time for accidents.

In summary, it was an astonishing achievement by a small and highly professional team. The key human factor, apart from Andy, was the Engineering Team who deliberately had no chief engineer and insisted on the highest standards of safety. Another crucial element was the operational organisation, developed by Martyn Davidson and completed by Adam Northcote-Wright. A huge part of the success was the work put in by the Mach 1 Club and merchandising teams and the unsung heroes who kept the team and the desert security operations running.

Like Thrust2 the project was thought impossible and not backed by big sponsors. But credit goes to Castrol, BTR and especially the Mach 1 Club and Internet which together created 20% of the revenue.

And the driver? Andy’s contract stated he could leave at any time. Thrust was experimental, complex, never easy to chive and often unstable. He drove it 66 times, officially supersonic four times but we believe the true figure is six. He never flinched from the job nor burdened us with emotional concern.

The last words of his report best sum it up: ‘Subjective feeling that rear-wheel steering should be limited to forkift trucks in future!’

And the future? ThrustSSC has raised the World Land Speed Record by 129.56mph and is the first car officially to go supersonic. Future challengers have to reach 770mph and that means safe supersonic performance before considering an attempt on the LSR. It is important to remember that, past Mach 1, aerodynamics are more predictable. I hope challengers will come as they have in the past and we don’t have to wait 14 years.

As for the ThrustSSC project, we now have to fight to clear substantial debts before it can be finally laid to rest.