Trying to describe the North American Eagle to someone that has never seen it, is one of the hardest things to ever do. Sure, it’s easy when it’s right in front of people to spew facts about the car, mainly because they’re not really interested in what it is that you’re telling them. It’s when it comes down to describing what the project really is, without the car there, that you stumble over your own words. There are so many incredible things about this project that it makes it difficult to start.
Perhaps the reason that it is so difficult to answer the question of “What is the North American Eagle”, is because I’m still trying to answer that myself. Of course at the base of it all is a dream to break the World Land Speed Record of 763 MPH, set in 1997 by the British built Thrust SSC. But beyond that basic descriptor, is the underlying reality that this project is built upon a combination of technology, both old and new, and is using it to push the boundaries of what may seem possible. I won’t pretend to be an expert in all aspects of this project, or even to have a good answer to what this project really is. But I do want to share what it means to push the boundaries of speed.
Started in 1998, the North American Eagle was the brain child of Ed Shadle (Driver) and Keith Zanghi (Director of Ops). They originally met on another project, not so dissimilar to this one, that also had the mission of breaking the World Land Speed Record. This dream however, was shattered in 1997 when the British designed Thrust SSC set a new record of 763 MPH. After receiving the news, on the flight back from California, Ed and Keith kicked around an idea. It was a crazy idea, but one that became a dream, evolving into a reality.
That flight gave birth to the idea that they might start their own project, building a brand new vehicle with a brand new team, to “one-up” the British and the record they had set. Of course, they never could have possibly imagined that it would grow to what it has. One of the major considerations was the design that would make such an idea possible. While building from the ground up was certainly a possibility, it was not necessarily the most feasible of options. Especially when you considered that it would have required years of development work before any piece of the car ever began to come together, it’s understandable why an alternative was chosen.
At this point of the story is when the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter makes its entrance. Instead of designing from the ground up, Ed and Keith began their search for an existing airframe that could be retrofitted with the necessary modifications, while still not having to do the majority of the design work on their own. The F-104 was a natural choice because of it’s simplistic frame and it’s ability to attain speeds over Mach 2 while in the air. While early searches yielded results, the problem was that the majority of those aircraft were largely in working order, and thus had a significant price tag attached to them. What they eventually came across was an aircraft that was largely torn down to it’s bare shell, covered in graffiti, and hardly even resembled it’s former flight condition. However, in this case, the price was right.
It cost $5000 to have that airframe shipped across the United States to Washington State, where it would largely reside for the remainder of its life. When the once brilliant aircraft rolled in to Spanaway Airport on a flat bed truck, destroyed down to the very bones, the consensus quickly became that Ed and Keith had lost their minds. It seemed an impossible project that would never amount to much of anything.
The project certainly did not die at that point, although there were certainly more than a few bumps along the road. One day, while scraping layers of paint from the aircraft, Ed got down the base level of the aircraft, and found a tail number: 56–0763. The joke is often that divine intervention must have been involved, because the tail number ended in 763, the current World Land Speed Record. What could be more befitting? Wanting to discover more about the history of this vehicle, he sent the serial number along to the Air Force to see what information could be found on it. What he got back was surprising to say the least.
As it turned out, the aircraft had been stationed at Edwards Air Force Base most of it’s life, serving as a chase aircraft for some of the most amazing aircraft in our history, including the X-15. Not only that, but 56–0763 was also flown by a legion of pilots, such as Scott Crossfield, that were legendary in their own time.
Over the next few years, Ed and Keith slowly rebuilt the entire aircraft. Today as it stands, over 97% of the surface area of the Eagle was built by hand and is not original, though much of the interior frame is. While we often say that the wings of the vehicle were chopped off, in reality, they were never attached when the aircraft arrived in Washington. There were of course more than a few bumps and bruises along the way. In one of the early tests of the engine, when fired, it spewed turbine blades across the tarmac. No one was hurt, but it was certainly a testament to just how dangerous this endeavor could be. Needless to say, the engine was completely rebuilt, and has since not experienced such a problem.
A project on this scale always ends up presenting issues and challenges that certainly could never have been foreseen. It also gives way to solutions that have amazing applications, but you would have never imagined even existed.
Perhaps two of the coolest pieces of tech that are clearly visible on the car are the aluminum wheels and magnetic brakes. If you consider the brakes on your every day car, when you slow down, they generate a lot of friction and heat. Now that works fine when you are slowing down from 60 MPH, or even faster in some cases. But when you take a vehicle that is actively traveling over 300 MPH, regular friction based brakes are essentially shredded from the intense heat that is generated. It makes them a poor fit for a project such as this that regularly exceeds such speeds. Instead we turned to a magnetic braking system that generates no friction, but instead uses powerful rare-earth magnets to bring the car to a stop. The other piece of this jigsaw puzzle is the aluminum wheels. Regular rubber based wheels suffer from a similar problem in that over 350 MPH, the centripetal forces will tear the wheels out from under you. Using forged 7000-series Aluminum, each wheel is custom built for the single purpose of breaking the world record. The wheels are all rated to about 900 MPH, and each costs close to $20,000 to manufacture.
The technology that really makes such a feat possible is not what you see on the surface, but what is underneath. When traveling at close to the speed of sound across the ground, you begin to build up high pressure zones of air across the car. The danger of such high pressure zones cannot be understated. But to make sure that the car continues to remain safe during travel, we need to be able to make decisions based upon actual data, not just instinct. So we installed an array of sensors throughout the car to measure a variety of different things from across the vehicle.
Once the data is actually captured, it is in turn uploaded to the Microsoft Cloud, where it is immediately torn apart and analyzed before the vehicle even has time to cool down. What’s key about this is that a network of computers can do far more with this massive collection of data than a human ever could. It can also make predictions based off models that, when done by hand, would take an extended period of time. This analysis of the data means that in turn, we can make decisions faster while out in the field, and push the car just a little further.
Doing something like this means that we are constantly pushing to go faster, to do better, and above all, dream a little bigger. How this plays out, no one can really say yet. But what I can say for certain, is that for every person on this team, we have a love for what we do. With that passion, we hope to inspire others to follow their dreams.