Top Run: Rocketing Toward Mach 1 on Wheels
AL-JAFR DESERT, JORDAN
The jet fighter pilot worms his way into the cockpit of the missile-like vehicle, then waits for the wind to die down.
Inside, British Royal Air Force pilot Andy Green can't see over two turbojet engines that sit like fat torpedoes on either side of him.
With chiseled features and a professional look of stern concentration, he waits in his ThrustSSC on the compacted, flat sands of Jordan's southern desert.
His machine is a contender to be the world's fastest car. It could even be the first to break the sound barrier on land - if it can survive the jolt of a sonic boom.
This would make pilot Green the next Chuck Yeager, the man whose airplane first pierced the sound barrier in 1947.
Hitting Mach 1 is one of the last frontiers - for daredevils and engineers alike. And the ThrustSSC is the most sophisticated vehicle yet to test the limit of man's ability to propel himself across - rather than above - the face of the earth.
If successful, the Thrust team will fend off a challenge from a US team that was making headway on Nevada's salt flats until its car spun out at an unsustainable 675 m.p.h. last month, leaving the driver unharmed.
No one knows how a vehicle will handle when it pierces the sound barrier, which is 760 m.p.h. at sea level.
But it could be like trying to drive through the middle of a thunderclap.
Conflicting pressures will buffet the machine, testing the design as well as the driver's ability to keep control and prevent accidental take-off.
At these high speeds even the slightest of deviations - or an unseen pebble or a gust of wind - could spell disaster.
The team is now running test trials to gather data on the car and the desert from 142 computerized on-board sensors. When the wind drops, the car's latent potential comes alive.
"The SSC is armed," crackles a radio, as an engineer loads explosive charges in the tail that will deploy the brake parachutes. Slowing down the 9-ton vehicle on the desert is a bigger problem than hitting top speed.
There is a rush of activity, and final fuel hoses are pulled from the fuselage.
The two Rolls Royce Spey engines, salvaged from scrapped Phantom jet fighters, have a combined power of 55,000 pounds of thrust, or 110,000 horsepower. They have as much pickup as 1,000 Ford Escorts or a large warship.
Ignited like rockets, the engines scream to life.
Watching closely is Richard Noble, the British head of the project who has held the world land-speed record of 637 m.p.h. since 1983. With tousled graying hair and faded mechanic's suit, he is the dean of the because-it's-there school of ever-increasing speed records.
This project is the culmination of a lifetime spent in experimental vehicles and aviation. He says he read his first book on rocket propulsion when he was 10 years old. Next week the Thrust team will try to break Mr. Noble's record, then move toward the ultimate Mach-1 prize.
But today Noble stands alone near the Thrust, appreciating the majesty of his car in this desert. It was built to withstand speeds above 850 m.p.h., and may be able to hit 1,000 m.p.h. - if it can get through Mach 1 intact.
The jet engines reach a crescendo, the earth shakes, and the ThrustSSC roars toward the horizon on its 30-second test run, leaving in its wake thick clouds of dust.
The Thrust is far more complex than the car Noble drove into the record books in 1983. In those days, he says, it was simply a question of building the fastest car you could - with little help from computers or wind tunnels - and pushing the accelerator all the way to the floor.
"That [car] was one of the last of the dangerous ones," Noble says. Now the focus is "making a safe car go fast."
The race for the record has been fierce, however. Using a different design, the American team, led by Craig Breedlove, mounted a credible challenge until a gust of wind picked it up at high speed. The Spirit of America came to rest three miles down the road, and won't be repaired until next year.
Like Noble, Mr. Breedlove is no stranger to land-speed records. In the 1960s and '70s he was the first to break the 400, 500, and 600 m.p.h. marks.
But an insight into the humor that drives both men came when Breedlove crashed at more than 400 m.p.h. in the 1960s. His car reportedly smashed a telephone pole, ripped along an embankment, and came to a stop in a ditch. When rescue workers got to him, the story goes, he was sitting unhurt atop the wreckage: "For my next trick," he said, "I will light myself on fire."
The American and British designs, however, couldn't be more different, pointing to opposing philosophies regarding car and driver at the sound barrier. The Thrust, for example, is nearly twice the weight of the Spirit of America; it has a flat bottom compared with the v-shaped American design, which is meant to slice through sonic shock waves. "Breedlove believes lighter is better, but then he is unstable," says Noble. "Stability is the problem, so I wanted the Thrust to be wide and stable."
The 10-mile track in the Jordanian desert is long enough for the world record, but not Mach 1. That attempt will come next year in Nevada.
Thrust has strong corporate backing and drums up interest with a web site (http://thrustssc.digital.co.uk). They've also sold 20,000 models. But Noble knows the risks of failure: There may not be enough cash to proceed. "I have two aims," says Noble. "To break the sound barrier, and keep this machine out of a museum, so that we can keep working."
RAF pilot Green has been training on a special simulator created by Britain's Defense Research Agency. Now the desert beckons. "It's like flying a jet on a windy day: the same bumps, and pushing to the limit," he says.
When he hits Mach-1, will it affect the ThrustSSC? "We believe not," he says. "And we're going to prove it."