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The Rocket Men: Gary, Lee and Chuck

This New Year’s eve on ViaRETRO is going to be about – well, rockets, of course: Here’s to rocket-driven vehicles and their drivers!

It has always been questionable to which extent you can actually call a rocket-driven wheeled vehicle for a “car”, but in today’s edition we are taking the concept even further to include aircraft and boats as well. It’s New Year’s eve, after all.

Rocket powered land vehicles have to the best of my knowledge never been used for anything other than to set speed records. Besides lacking the simple option of reversing, they frankly have so many disadvantages that they manage to make even a jet-motorised car seem practical in comparison. In principle, both engines obviously belong to the family of jet propulsion engines, but the one we commonly call a jet engine requires an input of atmospheric air (or rather the oxygen therein) for its combustion, while the rocket engine can do without: It carries the oxygen required for combustion along with the fuel, and a rocket engine therefore needs no air intake which of course lends it the advantage of being able to operate outside of the atmosphere.

Still, both reaction engines work according to the principles of Newton’s third law. Dear me! I didn’t take long for me to head of on a tangent…

The basic principles of reaction propulsion have been known for a thousand years, but only in the 1930s did they find an unreasonable use for it. The picture is from the sixties, and the engine is supposedly a RL-10 from a Saturn rocket.

So let’s just cut a long story short by stating that rocket engines, by sheer size and weight, are the most powerful engines mankind has invented. They are also among the most uneconomical, noisy and, as I said, impractical. But on the other hand, they are almost ideal for speed records, and today we will look at both land, water and air. However, let’s kick off with both feet still on terra firma

Unfortunately, this one is quite well known: In 1944, the German V2 rockets reached nearly 90 kilometers altitude and a 5,000 km/h topspeed. Luckily, precision was not their forte: More people died during their production, it is said. But just note on this sketch how much of the rocket’s load is fuel and not least how compact the actual engine is.

And let’s travel back in time too: To the years where speed records on land had the attention of the general public during the mid- and late sixties. Back then the battle for the land speed record was relentless, and when the piston engines had reached their limit (including how many of them you could stuff into a record car – see “Goldenrod”), the jet and rocket engines appeared. More often than not, the record hunters were not-too-well-off speed fanatics who bought end-of-life jets and used the engines – but not so Blue Flame: Its engine was a real rocket engine, purpose made and constructed by Reaction Dynamics, and the entire project was sponsored by The American Gas Association.

Now this is much more sympathetic and admirable, isn’t it? Unfortunately it was almost as dangerous! Blue Flame reached 1000 km/h in 1970.

The reason for the sponsorship was, of course, that Blue Flame used natural gas in its rocket engine. That, and also liquid oxygen and hydrogen peroxide, supposedly – and it was a very powerful engine: During tests it was found to deliver thrust of approximately 22,000 pounds, which to us gearheads can be converted into good old-fashioned horsepower and then equates to about 58,000! Blue Flame weighed just over two tons and looked like a missile on wheels. Needless to say, it was going to be fast. The record attempts, however, did not run smoothly, and only after almost one year of one postponement after the other, the record was finally set: On October 23, 1970, driver Gary Gabelich was noted for the astonishing record speed of 1001 km/h over a mile and 1014 km/h over a kilometer.

The driver was this fellow, Gary Gabelich. As you probably recognise, he didn’t really care about much, and often wore a feather on his helmet just as on this photo. Here he is in a drag boat.

Interestingly, Blue Flame could have run much faster: During the actual record runs, Reaction Dynamics had in fact throttled the engine down to about half the thrust of what it had run in the test bench. Gary Gabelich was convinced that on full power Blue Flame could have run over a hundred kilometers per hour faster – and he was willing to go ahead with the experiment too. However, the gas company was not: It almost goes without saying that the record attempts were quite dangerous, and they believed that a death would give them poor publicity. Blue Flame was therefore laid up, and the record was not beaten until some thirteen years later by Richard Noble. Incidentally, Gabelich died about the same time after having challenged his luck four times: Most of his acquaintances were allegedly convinced that he would never live to become an old man, and they were right. His four near-death-experiences were under various forms of drag racing – but the Grim Reaper eventually took him one day he was riding on a road motorcycle. Fast.

Blue Flame was the hottest thing on wheels in 1970. And the fastest.

One of Gabelich’s most serious accidents was in a drag boat, and if one were to seek something that was more dangerous than drag racing and land speed records in the old days, then the same discipline on water could be very relevant to bring up.

So let’s go straight to the Discovery II rocket boat, which in 1980 would make Lee Taylor the fastest man on water. He too had lived life dangerously (a water ski record in the sixties at 148 km/h is merely a small part of the story…), and many years earlier death had already been after him: In 1964, onboard the jet boat Hustler, he had misjudged the distance to land which was quite disastrous considering the approximate 300 km/h Hustler was able to reach. But not only did he impact land and survive it – he also survived the incredibly unsuccessful rescue attempt, where the helicopter crashed with the bruised and unconscious Taylor aboard!

This is a boat, namely the Discovery II – and the difference is obvious…

After that, Taylor went on to survive many intermediate years of drag racing on the water, and in 1980 he went for the record with Discovery II. It was the result of many, many years of preparation and supposedly 200,000 man hours by volunteers! Interestingly, the boat’s design was reportedly inspired by Blue Flame, and like car people discussing whether that was a car at all, sailors also discussed whether Discovery II was a boat. Practically speaking, a record attempt on water does not have much to do with normal sailing, and in many ways it is much more equal to flying very low. Just way more dangerous.

…as Discovery II floats.

The eventual record attempt was to take place on Lake Tahoe, which, at a few kilometers altitude up in the Sierra Mountains, had thinner air which enabled slightly higher speeds. Generally, the climatic conditions were good too, although varying water depths under certain weather conditions would sometimes generate particular whirls within the water. In any case, the main point here was that although the surface might look smooth and still, the water is actually very, very rarely completely flat. More importantly, it strikes as hard as concrete when you hit it at high speed.

The ugly side of that combination had become known to countless water speed record-drivers the hard way. Nevertheless, Discovery II was not equipped with life-saving gear (besides the hull being lined with floating foam), and Lee Taylor even called it a “zero defect”-design.

At maximum speed on the water it could just as well be a plane – and the consequences of a crash were also about equal.

In fact, Taylor had discussed that precise subject with Gary Gabelich the night before the record attempt, but according to Gabelich it was nothing that worried Taylor. He felt well prepared and convinced of the boat’s qualities. But Gabelich quoted him afterwards for the words “Either let me set the record, or let me check out with dignity”.

It was to be the latter. The record attempt looked good when he passed the starting point at about 400 km/h, but about halfway through the run as he passed the one kilometer time trap, the boat became unstable and two seconds later it literally disintegrated against the water surface. No rescue helicopter could have made any difference. The cause of the accident was not quite clear, but one must assume that Lee Taylor checked out immediately.

He did.

Our last rocket man for today is still with us: The Chuck Yeager-legend lies a few decades further back than the first two Gentlemen, and that alone made his world a more dangerous place. By now it should be obvious to everyone, that there are probably few things more dangerous than speed records on water – but flying fighter jets during World War II might just be one of them. And that’s what a very young Yeager did in various North American P51 fighters.

As the only one of today’s three rocket men, this fine Gentleman is still among us: Charles E. Yeager.

Yeager turned out to be a fabulously skilled pilot, both during his training and while stationed in Great Britain at the end of 1943: Even after an involuntary break after being shot down over France, he was noted for 11.5 shootings, five of them on one single mission. He was also one of the first pilots to take down one of the very fast Messerschmitt Me-262 jets, and despite him being such a threat for the Germans, he scores very highly in my eyes for not being proud of the war.

Yeager is probably best known in this pose: In front of his speed record mount, the rocket powered Bell X-1.

In contrast, he has every reason in the world to be proud of what he achieved after the war: His flying skills were already legendary shortly after the war, as was his unheard-of sight, which was claimed to be about twice as good as what is normally called “perfect vision”. That combination secured him a job as a test pilot, and that’s where he got the pleasure of rocket propulsion. Back then the speed of sound was the great barrier, both practically and theoretically: No Second World War aircraft had yet been near Mach 1, the speed of sound, during horizontal flight – although some had come close during prolonged dives. Only to experience alarming stability problems.

Yeager’s various aircraft were named Glamorous Glennis after his wife.

At the time, no one really knew what would happen once the airflow transitioned to supersonic – but something indicated that it would be dangerous. The experimental aircraft Bell X-1 was built to explore these boundaries the way you used to do back then before computer simulations: By doing it!

The purpose built aircraft looked like no other aircraft, but was roughly modeled on a Browning .50 caliber projectile (a size that is better known in Metric countries as 12.7 mm), which, at least, was known to be stable at supersonic speeds.

From this angle it is obvious that the X-1 pilot did not have an excellent view out. And, on a side note, he would have no opportunity to escape via catapult seat or similar.

However, confidence in the X-1 was no bigger than Bell’s own test pilot demanding a $ 150,000 pay for exceeding the speed of sound – while Yeager’s attempt at the Air Force probably barely triggered as much as a medal. On the other hand, it subsequently made Yeager a legend, for his attempt succeeded in 1947, when the X-1 flew at Mach 1.07 at an altitude of 45,000 feet or 13.7 kilometers.

It later emerged that two days before the record attempt, Yeager had broken a couple of ribs by falling from a horse. Fearing he would be taken off the mission, he only told his wife and close friend and fellow pilot Jack Ridley, got some painkillers from a veterinarian – but then discovered that the pain made him unable to secure the X-1 cockpit hatch! Using the end of a broomstick, Ridley rigged an extension into the cockpit and Yeager flew from the pain with the speed of sound. Truly the stuff of legends, isn’t it?

The X-1 was unable to take off as a normal plane and was therefore always dropped from a B29. No photos were made from the first secret tests – this is dated 1950.

What is not quite so well known, is that the X-1 did not leave it at that initial and marginal exceedance of the speed of sound. The following year, X-1 reached Mach 1.26, and a variant of the same design with a larger tank and therefore more burning time on the rocket engine (which in the first edition provided about 6,000 pounds of thrust) reached Mach 2.44 in 1953.

Yeager equally sat at the helm of this record flight which actually almost ended in tragedy. Because of the aircraft’s tail-heavy construction, it became unstable at this high speed and the small control surfaces made it almost impossible to correct. In a heroic rescue, Yeager plummeted towards the ground from an altitude of roughly 80,000 feet and only regained control at 29,000 feet after loosing all of 51,000 feet of altitude in about one minute. In the process, he even smashed the cockpit glass with his helmet during the fall. The scene is recreated in the movie “The Right Stuff”, which I saw years ago as a impressionable teenager. If you have not seen it, you definitely should.

This is what the Bell X-1 looks like in full flight.

The movie is based on Tom Wolfes’ equally excellent book of the same title, and I can’t remember which I came across first – probably the book, actually. In any case, I have ever since perceived Chuck Yeager as one of the toughest men the world has ever seen. Only many years later did I discover that motorsport of the fifties and sixties contained similar heroic stories and, not least, machinery which today appeals to me even more. But the first true hero is never forgotten, and mine was Charles Elwood Yeager.

And this is how a hero looks.


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