Toward a New Land Speed Record: A Day in the Life of the North American Eagle “Turbojet Car”

4/5/10

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just four to five inches wider in diameter than the engine. The inlet geometry was perfect. It had a windshield that would hold at speeds of Mach 2.8. It housed an internal fuel tank that comfortably held 380 gallons of kerosene. It carried a jet engine that could be easily slid in and out of the back. And its aerodynamic engineering allowed it to reach speeds up to Mach 2.2. “We thought, why reinvent the wheel?” Zanghi said. “Once we figured out how to mount wheels on it, we decided to go get a 104.”

Technologically, the North American Eagle is outfitted with a borrowed engine from S&S Turbine Services, a Canadian company that specializes in overhauling aeroderivative gas turbines; high-speed parachutes designed to deploy at Mach 1 and above by a late team member who was then a NASA employee; and sensors from nose to tail that send information to the data acquisition system, allowing the crew to divide the entire car into 20 million data cells and analyze the speed and shock waves at every point of the vehicle.

“The North American Eagle is a rolling laboratory,” Zanghi said. “It’s like a little mission control center.”

Still, the most impressive components of the Eagle are the features that are truly state of the art: custom designed aluminum alloy wheels—the only kind in the world that can rotate at 900 mph—and high-powered magnetic brakes that work independently from one another, allowing Shadle to steer the car at 300 mph and stop at high speeds. The Eagle is the first vehicle in the world to utilize these developing technologies. “We’ve stopped at 400 mph using just the magnetic brakes, and they worked wonderfully. We’re very impressed with that technology,” said Shadle, who anticipates seeing the technology used in landing space shuttles or other aircraft that continually burn up brakes.

“With these, you don’t burn them up—you never even wear them out. They’re not good for below 30 to 40 mph, which is why we have a nose brake we use for final stopping, but when it comes to slowing down from higher speeds, they work really well,” he said.

North American Eagle at Spanaway Airport (photo by Thea Chard)By mid-morning, the crew had finished pumping the Eagle full of fuel and anchoring it between truck and tree. Shadle climbed into his orange one-piece jumpsuit and gathered the present crew and dozens of onlookers for a quick safety briefing. Shadle explained how the test would go: motor up, check for leaks, idle, shut down. Then they would restart, idle, push the Eagle to 100 percent, and then go into afterburn. For a man accustomed to going 400 mph, this engine burn must have been far from exciting, but it was a necessary step.

Shadle, the only member of the crew ever to drive the Eagle, has pushed the land bird just past 400 mph, but that is not enough to beat Noble and Green, who announced plans to build the Bloodhound SSC, a hybrid rocket and jet vehicle capable of going 1,000 mph, last November.

In order to set the new record and surpass its competitors, the North American Eagle will have to beat the previous record holders by one percent, meaning that it will need to be clocked at a speed of 770.7 mph for a distance of one mile, twice within a 60-minute time period (going in opposite directions). The two measurements, taken to ensure there is no tailwind advantage, are averaged to give a final speed. In order to push the Eagle even harder, the team has made a number of additions to the engine, including switching from a two-line to a four-line burner, allowing twice as much fuel to be pumped into the afterburner in the same amount of time, and adding about 2,000 more horsepower to the engine. For safety reasons, every change must be tested.

Shadle put on his helmet and started the Eagle up. It idled for a few minutes, then powered down. The crew gathered around the land bird, checking meters and making … Next Page »

Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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