With a shriek of tortured metal, Keith knew that something had gone horribly wrong. They had just emptied the air canister, turning the engine over. That’s when it all went wrong. The blades of pure titanium began to shoot out of the back of the car. He gazed in horror at what looked like sparklers, firing from the back of the engine. Keith knew that the danger of what he saw, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away. Off in the distance, he could barely hear someone yelling to run, to get away. It was at that moment that Cam ran up to the cockpit waving at Ed to shut it down. As the noise wound down, Keith could only stand there and wonder what had gone so horribly wrong.
“Crap!”, he yelled as he hit his knee against the belly of the car. That was going to hurt like nothing else, and he had no one to blame but himself. Keith was exhausted from a long day working on the Eagle, and wanted nothing more than to be done. When he and Ed had thought up the idea to build their own car, he had envisioned being able to really build the car how he wanted. What he hadn’t planned on was all of the mundane, and seemingly endless work that seemed to pile up. For every step forward, it felt like two steps back, as more and more problems came up.
Keith had just spent the day trying to run electrical wires through the belly of the beast. It had proven to be far more difficult than he had expected, trying to avoid getting in the way of everything else inside. Hitting his leg against the car was just careless, but coupled with his frustration, it was time to call it a day. He figured that he would end up needing Steve Green’s help, who had worked with them on a lot of the structural and design work. Keith knew he wasn’t going to accomplish anything more today.
It was right about then that Ed walked in, with a smile on his face, and what seemed like a skip in his step. Keith wasn’t really in the mood for such sunny optimism. Ed wasn’t about to walk away without telling him the good news though. As it turned out, the excitement on Ed’s face wasn’t misplaced. The Air Force was willing to provide a massive amount of F–104 parts, that they no longer had a use for, free of charge! And those parts were on their way. Despite what had seemed a near endless day, it was certainly looking a little brighter to Keith.
Christmas was always a fun day. The joy of being able to open up presents and find out what new toys you had to play with. Opening up all of the crates and going through all of the new parts that they had gotten was one of the closest experiences to Christmas that Keith had had in a long time. He was like a kid in a candy shop, having to look at every part, trinket, and tool that had come in. It made from a wonderful distraction from his trouble. The long hours at work, all of the trouble putting the car together, and from everything else. He put those thoughts out of his mind as he sorted through the boxes and crates that littered the hanger. He wondered if despite all the drudgery, maybe all of this was possible.
What struck next was something that no one saw coming, and would come to have a lasting impact on everything that they did. Ed had been called into a meeting with the Department of Defense. Despite all of the claims that they had nothing to worry about, Keith had a sinking feeling that couldn’t be silenced. There was little that he could do but wait though.
As it turned out, not everyone believed what they were planning to do with the car. They had questioned Ed about whether he was affiliated with extremist groups, as well as his intentions with a military jet fighter. While it was admittedly a tad suspicious to own a jet, the wings had long since been removed, and it would never fly again. What started that investigation remains unclear to this day, something that Keith would come to question for quite some time. The meeting with the DOD, turned interrogation, lasted close to four hours, until they were at last satisfied that they didn’t have any malicious intent.
Having heard the story from Ed, they sat in silence, both contemplating what to say. Keith knew that it had already consumed a good number of years, perhaps more than he cared to admit, and he wasn’t sure that he could continue. Turning to see the look in Ed’s eye though, all he saw was fire. A fire to fight on, to persevere through all of this. But for as much as Ed wanted that, Keith wasn’t sure that he was prepared to fight this. He had already spent most of the last few years consumed with his normal day job at Boeing, leaving little time for anything else. They walked away that day, with a promise to each other that they would come back with fresh eyes tomorrow, and to not give up hope.
Keith awoke with a start, trying to recall where he was. He then remembered that they were on their way to British Columbia, with the engine in tow, to have it tuned before it went into the car. It was the middle of summer, and sitting in the back seat, he could feel the wind from the open window whip through his hair, or at least what remained of it. There seemed to be just a little less each day, and no one would let him hear the end of it. Jon was in the passenger seat, with binoculars glued to his eyes, seemingly ecstatic over finally finding the bird that he had been searching for. At least Keith knew what had awoken him from his deep slumber. He was a bit drowsy, with this admittedly having been his first good rest in a long time.
That’s when it all started to come back to him, as if a nightmare that he wished only existed in his dreams. They had spent over a year under investigation, constantly being asked more questions about their intentions. It had taken a turn for the worse when the Air Force demanded the return of both the fuselage and all of the parts that they had provided. The fuselage they couldn’t possible part with, they had paid for it, it was theirs. The Air Force eventually relented after consideration that it no longer had wings, and would never be capable of flight again. The parts were an entirely different matter. They were still the property of the Air Force, and it was decided that they would be returned, if only to alleviate some of the pressure on the project.
Keith was nothing if not frustrated. With the mounting scrutiny, he had buried himself back in his day job. He had felt very alone, much like when his girlfriend of several years had walked out, only a week into the project. She had said that he was foolish to be sucked into helping out on the original project, and just plain stupid for having repeated it. Maybe he was, Keith couldn’t quite tell at the time, his thoughts were far too muddled.
All of that was years in the past though. They had made astounding progress since then, having rebuilt 90% of the body of the car. And the engine would be one of the final pieces that they needed to at last be able to test the car. This trip would give them that final piece. By putting the engine on a testbed, and firing it up, it could be finely tuned down to exactly what they needed to run it. As they turned down the driveway to S&S Turbine Services, Keith had a smile on his face knowing that he would finally get to hear the engine roar.
It was a cold day. No, cold didn’t describe it. The weather was freezing, and here they were, trying to fire the engine with it mounted inside of the car. After having tuned the engine in Canada earlier that year, they had hauled it back down and installed it. That ended up being a lot more work than anyone had anticipated, as the engine had to be perfectly aligned. If it was off by even a little bit, it had to be completely redone, which took hours each time. They had a goal though. They were going to fire the engine, connected to the car, before the end of the year. Unfortunately, it was December 30, 2004, and they only had two days left to make that happen. They had hauled the car out to Spanaway Airport, and tied it down to a large fir tree so it wouldn’t speed away.
As the start cart was connected to the car, the anticipation was growing among everyone present. It was almost electric, and Keith could feel it. He could almost taste it. After almost 7 years, they were finally going to start the North American Eagle. This would be a historic moment, and it would make every ounce of sweat worth it.
Though they were some distance away, Keith could hear what Ed was saying to his son, Cam. Ed was saying that if anything should go wrong, to get everyone as far away as possible, and to make sure that Elaine was taken care of. Ed climbed into the car, and began to don his helmet, but not before Keith had a chance to talk to him. They both knew what the other was thinking, the excitement, the nerves, this would mark a new stage on something that they had worked so hard on. So instead, Keith just said, “Good Luck”. Cam came up beside Keith, and got really to seal the canopy. Keith walked away to take his place alongside the car, a place where he could see everything unfold.
Early in the testing, a member of the team had discovered that the turbine section was not putting out enough air pressure to activate the fuel controller. It was outputting only around 3 PSI, when they needed close to 20 PSI to make it work. In their normal pioneering spirit, they had cobbled together a workaround. They had pressurized an air canister to 20 PSI, and would dump it through the engine so that it could move to internal power. What they didn’t know was that inside of the engine, a rivet had popped loose, freeing a support ring. When the engine finally turned over, that support ring dragged against the titanium turbine blades. Those blades in turn heated up, shearing themselves away from the center section.
It went down as a day to remember in North American Eagle history. It was the day that the engine had been torn to shreds. A day that should have brought the project to a screeching halt. But it didn’t. Instead, it only served to renew their commitment to what they believed could be done.