The amazing 800 mile-an-hour man

Roger Bell talks to the pilot who will attempt to beat the world land-speed record this summer
To ask Andy Green why he wants to drive a seven-ton monster called Thrust SSC (which stands for supersonic car) to a new land speed record is to ask a dumb question. "Who would not wish to drive it?" he replies, as if being strapped into an 800mph missile is high on everyone's list of desirable recreations. "It's the challenge, the excitement. Britain has a great tradition of record breaking: Segrave, the Campbells, Thomas, Eyston, Cobb, Noble."

It is Richard Noble's unbeaten record of 633mph, set in Thrust 2 in 1983, that Flight Lieutenant Green, Tornado Pilot and Bosnia veteran, will be chasing late this summer at Black Rock, Nevada. "The opportunity to have a crack at it with such a professional team was too good to turn down." Noble, also the man behind Thrust SSC, is Green's hero and mentor. "He's an amazing guy. Noble knew nothing about jet flight. He was self-taught, pulled the Thrust 2 project together single-handedly, then drove the car himself."

Twelve years on, 33-year-old Andrew Green will replace him as driver. "When I read in a Sunday newspaper that Richard wouldn't be driving, I applied for the job." So did dozens of other hopefuls. They were whittled down from 32 to four - significantly all jet pilots - by a series of tortuous tests and Andrew was the man who finally got the job.

Success comes easily, it seems, when you've got 11 0-levels, four As, an honours degree in mathematics and best-student awards from flying training with the RAF. Green, you sense, is a born winner, a meritocrat who makes light of running the marathon in under three hours, or spending 20 hours in a heat chamber (it's hot at Black Rock) followed by gruelling mental and physical examination.

"I sharpened my reactions with a Gameboy computer game and a set of juggling balls," he recalls. To stay sharp, Green also flies a radio-controlled model helicopter - which requires dextrous hand-eye co-ordination.

"Thrust's handling characteristics will change as it speeds up," he says. "It will slide around like a car at first. Richard Noble found that Thrust 2 was like driving on ice up to 350mph. Any deviation from a straight line is exaggerated by the thrust of the engines. Transonic, it will fly like a fighter."

Although Thrust SSC accelerates four times as fast as a Tornado, Green will experience no blackout forces. "The main `g' in an aircraft is vertical. The blood rushes from your head when you turn. The forces in Thrust are all fore and aft." In an emergency stop, an ordinary car might generate 1g - enough to make you feel dizzy. When Green shuts Thrust's throttles at speed, he will experience 6g. "If my helmet becomes too heavy for my neck muscles to support, we'll build it into the seat."

Everything will happen so quickly that there's little margin for error. Says Green: "The whole run, from standstill to standstill, will be over in a minute. We will accelerate to l00mph in 4 seconds, and to 600mph in 16. We shouldn't need more than seven miles of the 15 available on the Black Rock desert." Green describes the surface of the alkaline mud flats as fine cement dust. "There's more drag than at the Bonneville Salt Flats but we have the power to overcome that."

Thrust SSC, under construction by G-Force Engineering in Fontwell, West Sussex, is powered by two Rolls-Royce Spey jet engines (as used by Phantom fighters) with a combined output of more than 100,000 horsepower - roughly the equivalent of 140 Fl racing cars. Noble and his team have two goals. The first is to retain for Britain the world land-speed record in the face of new Australian and American challenges. Woking-based McLaren is in the hunt, too, with its secretive Maverick - and a rumoured budget five times that of Thrust SCC's £5m.

The second goal, scheduled for next year, is to go supersonic - about 750 mph at Black Rock altitude, though there is talk of pushing on to 1000mph. "Each run we make will be a development run. We won't go through the sound barrier until we feel it's safe to do so."

Although sponsors are paying for the project (more than 80 companies have contributed services, products or cash) patriotism fuels it. "We're doing this for Britain and the British people," says Green. Thrust SSC will make several UK show appearances this summer before the record attempt. The first trials will probably be at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.

The seven-ton, 54-foot Thrust SSC is a twin-boom projectile of steel, aluminium, titanium and carbon-fibre composites. It has two braking systems - drag chutes at high speed, discs (from a Boeing 757 airliner) from about 400mph - tyreless aluminium wheels and a central foam-moulded seat for one brave driver. "As a Tornado pilot, I'm a high-speed control specialist. It's my job," says Green.

Green has had a major say in cockpit design. "It's more like that of a Phantom than a Tornado. The older Phantom's technology is simpler, more rugged. This car will have to work day in, day out in the heat for three months. Reliability is important. There are no black boxes, no wiring worries, just simple dials, needles and toggle switches." Is there any similarity between his everyday Toyota MR2 and Thrust SSC? "They've both got pedals and a steering wheel." It is irrelevant that Green has never raced a car, nor even driven one especially fast.

Ultimately, Thrust SSC's success, not to mention Green's life, depends on the designers and aerodynamicists getting their sums right. The driver has total faith them. "Ron Ayers [the car's design chief] has been working on the project for more than two years. The car has behind it the most sophisticated research ever done on a land speed record contender." Does he trust rear-wheel steering, notorious for sending supermarket trolleys into a spin at walking pace? "We have a converted rear-steer Mini that simulates the handling characteristics. The [G-Force] team is quite remarkable. They are craftsmen, working to aerospace quality."

Flight Lieutenant Andrew Green seems quite unfazed by the excitement. "My first love is flying fighters," he says. "I shall take two or three months off this summer for the record attempt, but after that it'll be back to work."

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