Toward a New Land Speed Record: A Day in the Life of the North American Eagle “Turbojet Car”
It was just after 10 a.m. on a hazy spring morning as Ed Shadle drove a trailer the size of a semi-truck to the far end of the Spanaway Airport, a quarter-mile active airstrip located 15 miles south of Tacoma, WA. A handful of his 44-person crew, which includes his son Cam and eight-year-old grandson Alex, had already arrived and were busy setting up for the day—a table of coffee and donut holes for the crew and onlookers, a Subaru converted into a mobile data acquisition center, and several barrels of fuel at the ready.
For Shadle, 68, and his partner and co-owner of the North American Eagle, Keith Zanghi, 55, the day’s engine test was just one stop along a more than 11-year journey to build the fastest land vehicle in the world. The goal: 800 miles per hour.
Shadle and his crew, all based in Washington state, were busy lowering the Eagle, a 56-foot-long tubular car forged out of the fuselage of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, from the trailer. The nose and tail cones had been removed for transport, reducing the car to 48 feet in length—just short enough to fit inside the trailer. Other crew members busily prepared the steel cables that would anchor the car to two gravel-filled trucks, weighing 80,000 lbs in all, and to a nearby tree with deep roots—a “safety precaution,” the crew said. This setup procedure was nothing new for them.
“We’ve probably been out to this airport maybe 25 times, and we tie up to our favorite tree back there,” Zanghi said. “Luckily it’s not raining. It could be worse.”
For both Shadle and Zanghi, the thirst for speed was born out of a love of drag racing at an early age. And naturally, like any “typical teenager of that era,” as Shadle calls himself, drag racing led to more racing at higher speeds, and eventually, flight.
“For me, it started back when I was just a kid back in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s. My uncles were all back from World War II and they got into stock car racing—the old jalopies running on dirt tracks. And of course we used to go to the races, so I’d hang out in the pits and watch my hero uncles,” Shadle said. “My first drag race on a real strip was at an airport. We raced on Friday nights for 50 cents and you could race all night.” Later, in his 20s, Shadle joined the Air Force and developed his career as a pilot.
“Just like Ed, we all grew up with the space program. The Mercury astronauts were my heroes—the Gemini and Apollo [as well]. All I did was build model airplanes when I was a kid,” Zanghi said.
The shared passion for flight, speed, and all the machinery behind them brought Shadle and Zanghi together in the 1990s when they both found themselves on a team working to build a vehicle that could break the land speed record. They were beat out, however, by Great Britain’s Richard Noble and Andy Green, who in 1997 achieved the current record of 763.1 mph with the ThrustSSC.
“At that time, the record was 633 mph, which is about 140 mph below the speed of sound, so we were building a car that was designed to go sub-sonic.” Zanghi said. When the British team broke the record, their car went supersonic. “As soon as that happened, we knew our car was obsolete,” he said.
When their project folded, Shadle and Zanghi decided to team up on a brand new endeavor, and in 1999 they bought the Eagle’s junked F-104 fuselage, without wings, for $25,000. The single-engine supersonic interceptor had its heyday flying with the U.S Air Force from the late 1950s to the late 1960s.
According to Zanghi, the F-104 had the ideal shape for land speed racing. The body was 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.
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 adjustments. The process repeated a few times. It was clear there was a problem—we were later informed that the fuel pumps were malfunctioning. The team got to work to fix this issue, but by mid-afternoon the Eagle had not been able to fully start up.
The Eagle has a number of sponsors (including Intel, Lenovo, and Olympus); some provide financial support, but most donate in-kind by outfitting the car with technology. In contrast, their main competitors, the Bloodhound project, have strong financial support from a number of academic and corporate sponsors.
Shadle, a retired IBM field engineer, estimated that he and Zanghi have put at least a few hundred thousand dollars of their own money into the project over the years. Many of the team members, including Zanghi, work for Boeing alongside their involvement with the Eagle. “We’re weekend warriors, so to speak. We all have full-time jobs or part-time job combinations and what not,” said Jon Higley, the project’s crew lead, webmaster, and chief information officer and educational affairs director.
Over the past decade, the crew and their families have invested uncountable nights, weekends, and money from their own pockets into building, testing, and running the Eagle. Why? For the love of the sport, they said. “There is no purse. It’s purely the satisfaction and gratification of having achieved a long-term goal through engineering and science application,” Higley said.
And they keep coming back. Shadle’s wife, Elaine, has long called the Eagle Ed’s “red-headed girlfriend.” “I almost divorced him over this,” she said, half laughing, as she watched him power up the Eagle for the fifth time that day.
The team never did get the Eagle fully motored up that Saturday. “That’s what testing is for,” Zanghi said. They would go back to the hanger, take out the engine, spend a few nights during the week fixing the fuel pumps, and be back at the Spanaway Airport the following weekend. (For an account of an earlier test session, see Luke’s article in the Seattle Times from 2005.)
“A lot of this is a labor of love,” Shadle said. If everything goes according to plan, the North American Eagle team will be traveling to the Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California in June to test the car at speeds in the mid-500 mph range. “We need to make sure we’re safe before we can go faster than that. Once we know we can go 550 to 600, and everything is smooth and very controllable, then we can look at going much faster,” Shadle said.
Once they run successfully at 600 mph, the team will go for the speed record—before the end of this year, Shadle hopes. “Of course it all hinges on two things we have very little control over—one is revenue, and the other is Mother Nature. We deal with it as we go. It’s a matter of problem solving all the way,” he said. “You discover problems like this that we’re experiencing today and you figure it out and you fix it, and then you move on to something else.”