When Zanghi and Shadle started the Eagle project a decade ago, their car was a piece of military junk covered with graffiti and hardly recognizable as a former airplane. They bought it in 1998 for $28,000 from a surplus-aircraft dealer in Maine, hauled it cross-country to a hangar at the airport in Spanaway, Washington, and went to work turning the jet into a land speeder.In its day, the F-104 Starfighter was the fastest fighter in the U.S. Air Force’s Cold War stable, rated for more than twice the speed of sound. When they started modifying the plane more than a decade ago, Zanghi and Shadle found something under many layers of paint that seemed like an omen. “The tail number proved the airframe was from the very same F-104 used at Edwards Air Force Base as a chase aircraft for such secret test prototypes as the X15 and SR71,” Zanghi says. Turns out Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to travel faster than sound, flew that very plane. And, Zanghi adds, “the last three numbers were 763—the exact speed of Noble and Green’s record-breaking speed in the Thrust SSC.” He winks at me. “We knew then it was divine intervention.”
Transforming the plane into a viable land-speed vehicle took 10 years of steady wrenchwork. They replaced 40 percent of the body panels and approximately 5,000 rivets. They had to round up technical sponsors to supply the stuff you need to operate at supersonic speeds but can’t find at the local auto-parts store. The braking system, designed by the Washington State company LEVX, uses rare-earth magnets strong enough to slow the car from 400 mph to a stop in two miles. Then there’s Steve Wallace’s elaborate Wi-Fi telematics system, with antenna towers installed along the run course. A network of sensors on the car sends a mountain of real-time data on air pressure, acceleration, suspension compression and more to the antennas along the track. Wallace monitors the data collection from his mobile command center, a Subaru Baja decked out with a wireless router, a flurry of antennas and, on the passenger seat, his laptop. Later, he’ll use the data collected on these test runs to improve a digital model of the Eagle car, which, like the Bloodhound team, he’ll feed into computational fluid-dynamics software. Eagle got free supercomputing time at the U.S. government’s National Center for Computational Sciences in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in exchange for sharing their data.
The showdown between the two teams is set for next year, but both crews will have to double down to make their deadlines.
In June, Noble wrote on his blog that Bloodhound is burning through almost $170,000 a month just for the engineering operation, and the aerodynamics team is still working on the design for the back end of the car. Also behind schedule is a huge installation in the Mojave Desert where the British team will test-fire the full-scale thrust rocket. “It’s an excruciatingly slow process breaking the record,” Noble says. “You do a little, go back, and do a little more. It requires enormous patience. It’s among the slowest, fastest things you can do.”
Eagle has had setbacks of its own. The team had planned to do its high-speed test runs at Edwards Air Force Base in California; nearby Rogers Dry Lake, best known as a landing strip for the space shuttle, provides both the expanse and smoothness ideal for high speeds—far better than the conditions at Black Rock. But this time, the team couldn’t afford the $25,000 fee the Air Force was charging to use the lakebed. That led them to Black Rock, where a permit they secured from the Bureau of Land Management cleared them for four days of testing. On Thursday afternoon they were still at it, working to get in one good run before they packed up and returned to Washington.
The Eagle team was exhausted, yet spirits were up. The fireball from the earlier run (known as a “hot start”) did no noticeable damage, but they wanted to find a longer, smoother spot for their final run. A couple of hours searching the lakebed on Wednesday afternoon yielded more room to stretch out, an open 4.25-mile stretch on the playa’s northeast end. The team towed the car about an hour and a half deeper onto the parched lakebed. The ground crew again swarmed around to prep the car for the launch that everyone hoped would meet the week’s goal of one good 500mph run.
The crew rolled in the huffer cart and kick-started the J79. Shadle’s son Cameron fired a signal flare. Shadle throttled forward, and the Eagle quickly disappeared in a plume of ginger-colored desert dust. Shadle throttled up to 100 percent at the one-mile mark. The car gathered speed, turbine wailing and dust rising in its wake. A deep rumble echoed across the playa as Eagle accelerated into the 200mph range, then 300, then 350...
And then it was over. Shadle threw the chute as the Eagle streaked past the end line. Following along were the team’s two safety trucks, loaded with firefighting equipment, and Wallace’s techno-Subaru. The activity didn’t stop. Eagle’s turnaround crew was on the move, and in 40 minutes they had prepped the car for another run, something they would need to be able to do come record-attempt day. But the run exposed a problem. A wiring mistake meant there wasn’t enough juice to fire off the J79’s afterburner, which extracts more power from the turbine by igniting the exhaust gases. Without the afterburner, Eagle was held to a modest 350 mph.
Back at the camp, Shadle began packing up the team’s dust-covered gear. He was pleased with the day’s results. The Eagle’s high-speed parachute worked flawlessly, and the team’s turnaround time was more than quick enough to meet the FIA’s rules. If they had been going for the record, they would have another 20 minutes to play with. They made 80 percent of their goal for the week, and they would have the rest of the year to make up the last 20 percent—the 500mph-plus runs—that will keep them on schedule for a record attempt next year.
By nightfall, the Eagle team caravan—two 18-wheelers, six RVs, Wallace’s Subaru and one land-speed car packed away in a trailer—were on the move, headed back to their day jobs, where they would spend their idle moments obsessing over the wiring problem, the logistics of the next run, and what it might feel like to one day bring the obscure, moneyless title of land-speed record holder home.single page
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