The day I broke the land speed record
In this article: Former record holder Richard Noble recounts his memories of taking Thrust II transonic in the Utah deserts back in 1983
It’s 4am on 4th October 1983 and I’m still awake. The motel room is cluttered with the Noble family: my wife Sally and our children, Miranda and Genevieve, who have come along to experience this unique moment. The team has decided that today is world record day.
In one corner of the room is my driving gear: a Panotex fireproof suit, a pilot’s helmet from a Harrier Jump Jet, an oxygen mask and carbon-fibre straps to stop my arms flailing around in the event of a very high-speed accident.
Black Rock Desert
It doesn’t seem any different to our normal days. The team heads out into Utah’s Black Rock Desert with the jet-propelled Thrust2, and we take it to more than 620mph. It has become a strange kind of daily routine to keep pushing the speed up towards Gary Gabelich’s 1970 land speed record of 622.407mph.
But this time it’s different. The engineers have said that we’re clear to go for the ultimate target. Our designer John Ackroyd and team manager Ken Norris (the man behind Donald Campbell’s Bluebird vehicles) have made the big decision, and we’re going to take the longest fullpower run up that the desert geography will allow. Only then will we know how fast Thrust2 can really go.
To beat the record, we’ll need to clock an average of at least 629mph over two “flying mile” passes. That’s 922 ft per second from a rolling start. It’s also more than 80% of the speed of sound, which means the car will technically be transonic. Airflow over the curved body panels will be supersonic, and we’ll reach Mach 1.4 over my cockpit.
We’re using solid aluminium wheels because making tyres that can handle these speeds is almost impossible. This design wouldn’t work on the famous Bonneville Salt Flats, but the wheels are perfect for the alkali desert at Black Rock.
Ackroyd’s design is built around the upper jet engine installation from a Lightning F.6 Mach 2 fighter plane. The Lightning uses two Rolls-Royce Avon 302 engines and weighs 12.5 tonnes when empty. We have just one engine, but Thrust2 still weighs four tonnes. To get the speed, we have to run the engine at temperatures and turbine speeds way above the military maximums. Ackroyd has decided to run the car during the hottest part of the day, which is when the speed of sound is at its highest. The associated increase in drag will allow us to run faster. The car is designed for 650mph – that’s 950ft per second.
The car is unlike anything else on Earth. The cockpit looks like a fighter plane’s. The wheel brakes are good for 200mph, and the brake pedal is on the left, with the all-important footrest on the far left. Most important are the armrests, which enable safe steering inputs under high G.
Push to the first stage on the throttle and you open the high-pressure fuel cock to allow fuel into the combustion chambers. Push further and you open the throttle as far as the detent. Push a little harder again and with the pedal to the floor you get full afterburner, along with a huge 40ft tail of flame and a noise that can be heard 20 miles away. That’s 35,000 horsepower at peak speed.
The all-important parachute brakes are activated from the steering wheel. The high-speed chute comes out on 100ft of stretchy two-inch nylon braid. Anything else simply breaks. Thankfully, the supersonic parachutes are reliable because they were developed as a key part of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme.
Unsurprisingly, the car is a beast. It’s happiest when it’s either accelerating or decelerating violently, and it doesn’t like any form of cruising.
By midday, Thrust2 is positioned at the north end of the 13-mile course. I can’t see more than 2.5 miles ahead, so a light aircraft flies up and down to ensure there’s no stray traffic. Suddenly, the engine decides it’s not going to start – a fuse has blown in the ignition circuit – so we have to sit and wait until it’s fixed.
Finally, the huge Rolls-Royce engine rumbles into life alongside my left shoulder and settles down into a fast idle. The oil pressure light goes out. The aircraft makes one final pass and we get clearance to go. With my left foot on the brake and my right on the throttle, I accelerate the huge engine to 92% maximum revs and hold it there for checks. Any faster and the car would start moving on fully locked wheels.
Once the checks are clear, I lift off the brakes and put the throttle to the floor, applying maximum afterburner. The engine always seems surprised by this treatment but it responds immediately. We’re away, accelerating at 2G.
Unfortunately, the course at the north end is draggy, and this affects our average speed over the mile as a whole. It comes in at just 624.421mph – still the best yet. We’re very marginal for the record, and if we don’t get it today we will probably never run again. Time to go again.
The turnaround team jumps into action immediately – refuelling, checking, repacking the parachute, rearming the charges and connecting up the Palouste turbine starter, while the plane makes further course checks. We’re away again before the deadline.
This time, the course is much harder and I can feel the difference. Once we’re above 300mph, the tailfins give us very straight tracking, but I’m still putting in steering corrections. The journey from 300mph to 500mph is boring, but above 600 the car is pure magic. It’s a very relaxed drive, and at this speed I can see every detail on the track and watch the supersonic shock waves build on the engine housing and the wheel arches. We’re through the measured mile in just over 5.6 seconds. The parachute brake is its usual violent self, helping us lose speed at a rate of 120mph per second. It’s boring back at 400mph and I feel I ought to get out and walk. The wheel brakes kick in at 200mph and I bring Thrust2 to a halt.
Before the quick response team can get alongside the car, we hear the numbers over the radio: “I have the times. That’s 642.971mph for the mile and together that’s a new record of 633.468mph. Congratulations.”
But the best part was yet to come. Thrust2 had actually peaked at a top speed of 650.88mph.