For someone who holds the land speed record, Wg Cdr Andy Green doesn’t talk like a man in a hurry. He’ll happily go into the details of his latest project should you prod him, and will pepper his words with some Brit wit. That makes him exceedingly easy to chat with and very relatable. Just as well, because I had a whole machine gun worth of questions to fire at him.
Of course, we start off with tales of him breaking the speed of sound (1235kph!) in the Thrust SSC in 1997, a record that hasn’t been broken yet. But not before long, the conversation veers to the latest project he and what he calls ‘the best engineering team in the world’ are working on. It’s the Bloodhound SSC and the aim this time is to cross 1000mph, or 1600kph! To put things in perspective, even the most powerful fighter jets can’t fly that fast at ground level.
Interestingly, setting a new record is not the sole aim of the project. The other intent is rather noble. As Andy puts it, “The target audience is 12 years old and hasn’t quite realised how exciting engineering and science is yet. We want to bring the Bloodhound SSC alive to inspire them.” Inspiring the engineers of tomorrow is also what brought Andy to India, to speak about the attempt at the 2014 IET Lord Austin Lecture at Chennai and Bangalore.
Soon enough, we get talking about the scale of the challenge, both in terms of engineering and human requirements. “We’re going 400kph faster than the current record, which is the single largest percentage increase between attempts. It really is unknown, unproven territory,” Andy remarks. To get to the ludicrous speeds being attempted, the spacecraft-like Bloodhound SSC will rely on a jet engine (from a Eurofighter Typhoon) and a rocket that will be fired to power the car beyond 600kph. The hybrid rocket (one that uses a solid fuel and liquid oxidizer for combustion) to be used was tested recently and, to the team’s delight, produced even more power than expected. “There’s no such thing as too much power in a land speed record car!” Andy quips. The team has also got the wheels in place – made from forged aluminium, they weigh 100kg each and are designed to spin at 10,000rpm!
But looking at illustrations of the Bloodhound, I picture the cockpit to be very cramped. As I’m told, it’s not. Relative to race cars and fighter jets, that is. Andy designed the cockpit himself and has made it as close to those of the fighters he’s used to flying. As he explains, in the Bloodhound, he’s dealing with the same volume of data he would in a fighter and needs all the screens around. Of the things he has to monitor on the runs is info from three engines, coolant temperatures, feeds from the hydraulic systems and brakes and, of course, speed. Who said driving a land speed record car was ever going to be easy?
The actual run that will take Andy to 1600kph and across a 20km-long strip of hand-cleared flats at the test venue in Hakskeenpan, South Africa, will last all of two minutes. Summarising exactly what he’d do, Andy stressed on getting the firing of the rocket right – if he fails to get it right, he’ll either run out of rocket fuel too early or simply won’t go fast enough. That done, he’ll have to deploy the air brakes, parachutes and foot brake (in use under 300kph) and stop the car at just the right spot to enable the team prepare the car for a second run in the opposite direction within an hour. That’s an eligibility criterion necessary for record attempts that Andy and his crew could certainly do without, because “it’s like giving a pitstop to something as complicated as a space shuttle!”
The other challenge of the driving will be to keep the metal wheels pointed straight at all times. As Andy explained, “What we don’t know yet is how the car is going to handle. At low speeds (300kph!), we expect the wheels to grip like normal wheels and the car will steer like a normal car. At about 600kph, the wheels will start to plane across the surface so it will be like driving on a very slippery road. While fighting for control, I’ll also fire the rocket. At about 1000kph, the wheels will start generating their own shock waves, so a tiny input on the steering should be enough to change the car’s heading.”
The crazy numbers don’t stop there. Andy also made a casual reference to accelerating at 2g and decelerating at 3g. That’s building speed at the rate of 65kph per second and slowing down at 100kph per second. Incredible. So how is Andy preparing for the run? “The physical preparation effectively started 20 years ago, when I joined the Royal Air Force. I also fly aerobat planes”. His training program also includes getting onto a race track and competing in a Radical SR3 to learn how to judge grip available. He’s not the quickest man on track, but it’s something that doesn’t bother him.
Not wanting to make the mood somber, I left the question about safety for later in the meet. But without any hesitation, Andy dismissed my concerns. “If you’ve got the wheels on the ground and a car structure that’s strong enough, that’s your safety sorted.” For your information, the cockpit will be a 200kg carbonfibre monocoque. As for fire hazards, cutting oxidizer supply is enough to curtail ignition.
By the time the Bloodhound SSC crew is ready for a full-fledged record attempt, Andy and his team should have managed a few runs above 1000kph. So the day of reckoning, sometime in 2016, won’t be all that different for Andy, which would entail an early morning - “Land speed record making is just like being in the military. No matter what you do, you have to start at 5 in the morning,” laughs Andy. The invigorating conversation ends with Andy telling me about his daily ride, a Harley-Davidson Wide Glide, that’s as far removed from the Bloodhound SSC as can be.
But as much as his words make him sound normal, Andy Green is the unassuming superstar of the world of speed. And it only looks like the legend is set to grow still.
The India connection
You should be quite pleased to note that there is a bit of India to the Bloodhound SSC. Tata Steel is providing steel for the chassis assembly frame that will be used in the rear part of the car to house the rocket, jet engine and auxiliary engine. The auxiliary engine will also come from another Tata-owned company – Jaguar. The 543bhp, supercharged, five-litre Jaguar V8 will not be linked to wheels. Rather, it will power the car’s hydraulic functions and drive the oxidizer pump that will supply 800 litres of High Test Peroxide to the rocket in just under 20 seconds! This apart, Jaguar has also been involved in the cockpit’s development and has partnered to supply all support vehicles for the project.