Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Travels Past: The Sound Barrier

In which we boldly go where but one man has been before

As Travels West readers (all six of you) may know, back in 1997 I covered the World Land Speed Record for a NY magazine and later wrote a profile of five-time record holder, Craig Breedlove for

I really enjoyed writing those pieces and telling the story afterward of watching a car break the sound barrier for the first time. But as liberal with the adjectives as I might be, I could never really capture what it was like. And I could only imagine, of course, what it was like to be the driver, Andy Green, inside the car, as he smashed through the old record to make a new one — 763 miles per hour. For a decade I've waited to see some film or get my hands on some DVD of this great event. Until now, the video below, which was taken from about where I was standing in the Black Rock Desert, was all I had.

Recently, however, a new set of videos has surfaced on YouTube that capture the thrill.

First, look at this short close-up clip of the car, ThrustSSC as it races across the desert. Put your headphones on and turn the sound up — you won't hear anything until you hear the sonic boom.

Now, take a look at this clip from inside the cockpit. In this 3 minute, 30-second clip, the car travels more than 13 miles, and from a dead stop. Notice how much English the driver has to put on the steering to keep the car going in a straight line. (If he goes too far out of "true" and hits a rock, he's almost certainly a dead man.) Feel the tension in his voice as the car nears the speed of sound, and as the car's twin jet turbines begin to scream.

Again, put your headphones on and turn it way up.

Remember Green struggling with the steering? In this clip, taken from the car's year tail fin, you'll see a white line ahead of the car. This is a chalk stripe that the ThrustSCC team laid down on the desert floor for Green to follow, like the lines on a highway. Notice the line seeming to weave wildly back and forth as Green nears 500 miles per hour. Lastly, see the vapor condensation form over the engine cowling as Green nears the speed of sound.

Take a look at this shot from the air. Notice that as the car nears the sound barrier, you can see a straight line in the dust that extends from both sides of the nose of the car. This is the shock wave that forms when a vehicle goes transonic. (No sound in this clip.)

Finally, here's a nice, long shot of the car as is comes up out of the desert mirage. (Also no sound).

Many thanks to PrivateCustard and FoxyGrandma333 for these great clips. You truly made my week.


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