The Pride of a Nation: The North American Eagle Land Speed Record Project
Nineteen years ago in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, a brave group from the United Kingdom, led by Richard Noble and RAF Wing Commander Andy Green, set a new land speed record. Noble and his group broke the sound barrier in the process. It was Noble’s second land speed record; he was the current record holder at the time, claiming it in 1982 with Thrust 2.
Regular readers will know Noble and Green are trying to break their existing record by aiming 1000 mph with Bloodhound SSC. But not everyone is content to let them set a new unopposed record. In fact, Ed Shadle believes it is his patriotic duty to claim the crown for the United States. He hopes to make it happen with the help of one of the most iconic planes in history: a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.
“I was traveling with a friend, and we started talking about the land speed record that the British had achieved,” Shadle told Ars. “We talked about it, and I said ‘why don’t some Americans jump on this thing?’ Meanwhile, Craig Breedlove had made that famous U-turn with the Spirit of America, then hung it up and said he wasn’t going to do it again. During the flight, we started to rationalize – what kind of fuselage were we going to make, how would we design this thing, and so on. “And so the North American eagle was born.
Shadle spent time in the US Air Force before a long career at IBM. He figured a Starfighter would meet his needs perfectly – if he could get his hands on one. Luckily, one of them ended up in Maine: a landfill relic that had spent much of its life as a fighter and research aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base in the Antelope Valley of California. .
“It was demilitarized and in bad shape,” Shadle told us. “It looked like he had come down a mountain. Our wives and girlfriends questioned our sanity.”
He and his small group of friends and supporters spent the next three years rebuilding the jet. They replaced the spars and reskinning the body. “We had to put in 5,000 rivets,” Shadle said. “And I learned quite a bit how to use the English wheel, shaping the parts to fit.”
The next step was to find a surplus General Electric J-79 engine, which happened in 2004. Without GE support, S&S Turbine Services in Canada stepped in to help run the engine. In the process, it was upgraded from a thrust of just 12,500 lbs to 19,000 lbs.
“It has the latest version of everything that came on the J-79,” Shadle told us, “and looking at our acceleration curves, at just 4.5 miles we could hit over 600 mph. as we can take a longer course, we should be able to push it beyond 600 mph. ”
Modding a Starfighter
While an F-104 was designed to go fast, the idea has always been that it would do so while flying through the air. Running a Starfighter on land meant devising a suspension system, as well as a way to slow the beast down after every race. (In order to set a speed record on land, one must complete two timed races: one in each direction, in less than an hour.) Robert Breidenthal, professor of aeronautics at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, provided basic airfoils of the F-104. He gave the North American Eagle team a rough idea of things like the proper angle of attack to prevent the vehicle from trying to take off or burrowing into a lake bed.
Next, the F-104 was laser scanned and an airflow analysis was performed. Lockheed passed on the original test data on the plane, revealing it should be stable at 1,000 mph. By calculations, “at over 630 mph you would actually have 800 pounds of lift on your nose,” Shadle explained. “But even then the weight up front is only around 4,400 lbs – that’s totally acceptable. We also have ducks up front to combat lift. At the rear we have fairings which are inverted fenders with wicker tickets on the back to control downforce. We get a bit of lift – which is always okay – but we can change that to make more downforce just by changing the angle of the wicker bills. ”
As Noble realized when designing Thrust 2, wheels with rubber tires were never going to be fit for a land speed record. The wheels on the North American Eagle are made of aluminum – made by a company called Uromet which typically makes roller coaster wheels – and measure around 1,000 mph. A combination of Kevlar-nylon parachute and magnetic brakes slows the vehicle down. Although they’ve only been tested up to around 400mph at this point, Shadle told us that with the water cooling system (which discharges 7 gallons of pressurized water onto the wheels for about 19 seconds ), the wheel temperatures were only 75 ° C (170 ° F). ).