In 1979, Stan Barrett lit the blue touch paper and sat back on his journey towards the sound barrier. In his own words he explains why he beat Andy Green and ThrustSSC to Mach One
It is now close to 20 years since I sat strapped into the tiny cockpit of a multi-thousand horsepower rocket car, about to ignite enough power to light a small city in an effort to go faster than any man on earth. Nearly two decades since I broke the speed of sound at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the birthplace of supersonic travel in the air and now on the deck.
I can remember vividly that cold December morning in 1979, as I peered out of the windshield down the fuselage of the rocket to the vast dry lake bed in front of me. All around me the Budweiser Rocket’s designer Bill Fredrick and crew chief Kirk Swanson busied themselves with the task of arming the vehicle for its sternest test.
As we counted down, it was time to say a prayer – “Lord, into thy hands I commit myself’ – that usually ended on the count of two, then away I went. That’s a moment that I felt close to the Lord.
I could hardly focus as the car accelerated away from the line. The half-mile markers looked like telegraph poles due to the tremendous buffeting as the car roared down the course and I could barely distinguish them as I fired the Sidewinder missile booster engine.
Then all I could yell was “Wow!” as the phenomenal acceleration kicked in with that boost of power. About five seconds later, I felt some real hard buffeting and then a short period of smoothing out as the car passed through the speed of sound. Then it felt like I had driven straight into a wall, as the mass of air pressure I had pushed through caught up with me as the engines quit. They call this compressibility, but I didn’t know what had hit me – I thought I had lost my parachute. But I managed to purge the engine, fire the chutes, and slow the car enough for me to apply the brakes.
Bill Fredrick and the Rocket’s owner Hal Needham had always dreamed of breaking the sound barrier on land. We had just clone it.
In August 1962, Bill had arrived at the Bonneville Salt Flats with ‘Valkyrie I’, his first jet-powered car. Driven by Chuck Hatcher and a young Gary Gabelich, the project was a great disappointment to Fredrick, for insurance problems following the death of Glenn Leasher in the jet-powered ‘Infinity’ robbed his team of any serious runs on the salt.
Forced back to the drawing board Bill began working on the speed of sound project in 1972, when he debuted his first rocket car, the 12,900 horsepower ‘Courage of Australia’, driven by Vic Wilson.
Next came the `SMI Motivator’, another rocket-powered machine, which Fredrick made available to two drivers: a 28-year-old part Irish, half-Cherokee lady from Corpus Christi, Texts, named Kitty O’Neil and legendary Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham, a partner of O’Neil’s husband, Duffy Hambleton.
Under the terms of her contract O’Neil was to drive the ‘Motivator’ to a new women’s record, while Hal went for the speed of sound. Needham’s sponsor had paid out more than $75,000 to get him the drive, but after a high-speed foray on Mud Lane at Tonopah in Nevada, he run out of lake and into the sage brush on the surrounding desert, vowing never to drive the car again. So the search began for a new sponsor and driver.
I had worked as a stunt man for Hal for 14 years and when he told me about plans to develop a new two-stage rocket-powered vehicle to exceed Gabelich’s then standing mark of 622.407mph set in 1970, I knew I was the man for the task. When I was a youngster growing up in my home town of St Louis, Missouri, I used to daydream about guys such as Chuck Yeager and Charles Lindbergh and what contribution I might make to American history. What’s more Needham revealed that he wasn’t going just for the land speed record, but aimed to push the envelope to break the speed of sound for the first time in a land-bound vehicle.
I knew vaguely that both Hal and Kitty had driven a similar car to this back in 1976. Sure, Hal had run out of lake, but nothing bad had really happened to them – and the new car was to be far more refined…
The new backer of Bill and Hal’s ‘Project Speed of Sound’ was billionaire August A Busch III, head of the Anheuser-Busch brewery empire out of my home town of St Louis. The sponsorship pledge was quite specific: we want the speed of sound. The new thoroughbred was appropriately dubbed the ‘Budweiser Rocket’ car.
While supersonic aerodynamic theories had to be used, Bill Fredrick has always maintained that the vehicle was based on a simple design concept. ‘You design for the smallest amount of frontal area and the largest amount of power available. That’s why we had three wheels instead of four, nothing to do with breaching the rules; it means a smaller frontal area and it’s more stable at high speeds.’
The dimensions he began with were the size of the human body. As a result the car’s fuselage section was only 20 inches wide and 24 inches high. Even at the top of the cockpit canopy it rose to only 39 inches. The vehicle, all 39ft 2in of it, rode on a revolutionary new concept in high-speed tyre design pioneered by Fredrick: solid forged aluminium, a practice now commonplace in all land speed record vehicles, including ThrustSSC and Craig Breedlove’s latest ‘Spirit of America’ car. We had four of them at $26,000 – three to use and one spare.
For the engine Bill chose the hybrid Romatec V4 rocket system, combining both liquid and solid fuel propellants and producing over 24,000 pounds of thrust or 48,000 horsepower. It worked by filtering hydrogen peroxide through a silver catalyst pack. The chemical would then decompose, producing superheated steam and oxygen well in excess of 1,370 degrees Celsius. That heat erodes the polybutadienc solid fuel rings which automatically ignite as soon as they become gaseous.
In attempting to exceed the speed of sound, the main problem that had faced the aircraft industry was one of designing for the airflow encountered at transonic speeds, and in providing sufficient thrust for the aircraft to accelerate through the transonic region, with its attendant drag rise. ThrustSSC’s driver Andy Green will have hands-on experience of this factor. In order to break through that drag and go supersonic, Fredrick added a further 12,000 horsepower from a US Navy Sidewinder missile.
When Hal asked me to drive the Budweiser Rocket, I followed a very punishing training schedule of 500 sit ups and a 10-mile run every day in the mountains high above my home in Bishop, California.
To prepare my body for the tremendous g-loading that I would encounter in the car, I was tested in the centrifuge at the University of Southern California.
Inside the car I would be accelerating faster than any other human being in a land-bound vehicle. During the speed of sound run I was subjected to an estimated 4g of force, or four times my body weight, pulling 5g when I hit the Sidewinder booster at 600mph.
The original course we planned to use on the Bonneville Salt Flats had to be abandoned because I was breaking through the thin layer of salt into the clay, the wheels leaping off the ground as the car tricycled down the course. The buffeting was so great that the cockpit hatch opened at over 600mph.
Permission to use the lakes at Edwards came in December and we resumed the sound barrier attempt on the site where Chuck Yeager became the first man to attain the speed of sound 32 years earlier, flying ‘Glamorous Glennis’ to 670mph. Yeager supported our project from the beginning – he is an incredible man. Shortly after I broke the speed of sound he went on record saying, “Having been involved in supersonic research since the days of the X-1 rocket plane, which I flew on the first supersonic flight on October 14, 1947, there is no doubt in my mind that the rocket car exceeded the speed of sound on its run on December 17, 1979.”
I reached a terminal speed of 739.66mph or Mach 1.0106, even though I ran out of fuel some 200-400 feet before the lights. We had 734mph indicated on the radar, 739mph on air speed. We had unquestionably broken the speed of sound. The Rocket is now in the Smithsonian Institution, the most visited museum in the world. Its collection contains some of the most important craft in history, craft that were designed by men and women who have expanded the frontiers of science, and that museum doesn’t display bogus cars.
The supersonic run on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards was the culmination of three months work and 18 attempts, which began at Bonneville in September when I broke the previous timed speed on land, set by Gary Gabelich in ‘The Blue Flame’. Gary held the World Land Speed Record and my run was only in one direction so I wouldn’t have posted it as a new record, despite what critics of the project wrote at the time.
A reporter on the Los Angeles Times stated we weren’t going to abide by the rules set down by the FIA, claiming that my land speed record attempt must be made under them or their appropriate agent’s watchful eye. Then Craig Breedlove started to discredit our project in an effort to promote his own, even though for many years all he had was a mockup. Talking supersonic is one thing, driving it is quite another.
I think it is very tacky to try and cast shadows of doubt or take away from another’s accomplishment in an attempt to aid one’s own interest, but that seems to be the way certain individuals live. I’ll pray for him. Britain’s Andy Green and Richard Noble have never directly criticised our project, although I sure wish they would accept that their car was not the first to break the speed of sound on land. Nevertheless, their record was a tremendous achievement.
My supersonic run was sanctioned by the International Hot Rod Association, scrutinised by Earl Flander. He used three sets of timing traps, which were placed 52.8ft or 1/100th of a mile apart. They had special sensors which were accurate to a millionth of a second. I mean these things were real accurate.
The speed of sound run was also monitored by Edward’s state-of-the-art accelerometer, in addition to the car’s own telemetry equipment manned by Earl Williams, Ray Van Aiken and Joe Sargent, the people who ran NASA’s computers for Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 lunar landing mission in 1969.
When Chuck Yeager first shattered the speed of sound back in 1947 in the Bell X-1, there were no rules, and his accomplishment spawned supersonic flight and took man to the stars and beyond. ‘Project Speed of Sound’ was a high-technology, scientific and engineering achievement. There are no rules for breaking the sound barrier— only a World Land Speed Record beyond the speed of sound has to be sanctioned by the FIA to be ‘official’.
I was once asked during a CBS interview about the risks involved in driving a rocket car. I replied that it’s a pretty calculated risk or I wouldn’t get in the car. What may seem like a risk to someone else, may not seem like one to me. I knew where the boundaries were, I had a good sense of what would work and what wouldn’t work. With those speeds and the energy being developed, I knew I would be in big trouble ill had an accident. But I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt, and I certainly wasn’t afraid of dying. I was as prepared to die as I was to live.
We really pushed the envelope up there at Edwards. I guess those guys who have cast doubt on the veracity of our speed resent taking second place. We can all be winners in different races, which is why I spend as much time as I can spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.
Mark Twain once wrote, “Someday, when man can go 700 miles an hour, he’ll again long to go seven miles an hour.” For some this may not be the case, but then again I have been there and beyond.