Posts Tagged ‘al jafr’


November 3, 2008

(Al Jafr Desert, 1996)

“If there is a divine purpose in Jafr, it is that God has placed it on earth as a warning of what hell is like.” Howard Kent, publicist for Lawrence of Arabia.

It hasn’t rained in five years.

If it weren’t so dry, this burnt orange topography would weep from the sheer weight of its own isolation. The desert is motion in suspension and a set of quarantined coordinates whose desolation is inversely proportional to the outrageous expanse of nothingness.

Periodically – and apropos of not much – the winds gust and the sands pan across the hereafter; this is the Universe’s small way of letting this uninhabitable Outback know it hasn’t been forgotten about entirely.

But a lack of cosmic movement is the cruelest gesture of all. The silence confirms this sentiment.

Wild camels stare down spontaneous dust storms. After the winds die down, the next interruption to the parched and tedious desolation is the motorized fluttering of Bedouins crossing the desert in battered white Japanese pickup trucks. The murmur and obliquely reverberant rhythm of the camels is barely audible under the gear grinding and fishtailing of Muslims in mini-pickups. The marauding rumbling fades as the camels slowly scatter and the desert dwellers disappear into the their own dust.

When the commotion settles, the only sound remaining is the lonely brooding of bleached phosphate rock and the sulking of stone in what is the universe’s driest and least efficient echo chamber.

A Russian Antonov cargo plane unloads its burden at a military air strip not so many miles away. The Antonov is the size of an interstellar mothership. Its 75 tons of freight is an absolute Noah’s Ark of arcane hardware and machinery: diesel 6-wheeled Supacats, a fire-fighting Jaguar XJR, a portable Airshelta hangar, microlight aeroplanes and Thrust SSC, a twin-engined jet car that weighs 10 tons.

It is an ant farm of forklifts and traffic control. It is a military operation where nobody dies. In this part of the world, nobody dying is a refreshing change.

Terra firma dissolves into a horizon of dust. It buttresses a heavy, two-toned sky nine times taller than the playa itself. The dusky blues and grays of the sky hint at how cruel and unforgiving this place really is… in the center of the sky, a billowing sun is burning orange. The grays and oranges of the sky and landscape co-exist as a sort of dialectic with the two-tones hammered into a third element. A synthesis.

Despite an integration of color, there is no syllogism here, nothing to be inferred or projected, no cubed or exponential meaning extrapolated from the two elements of harsh light.

It is. It just is. The synthesis is zero. The sum, product, and exponent of the synthesis is zero. It is an anti-syllogism. Which sounds like silence, of course.

A renegade truck out of Iraq breaks the quiet. It scurries across the desert like a cockroach on a bleached snooker table. The trucker’s freight is contraband of one sort or another… it could be guns, black tar heroin or black market petrol. More than likely tobacco is the payload. Whatever the substance, it makes no never mind to the Sun as it continues its cynical sentry. Black globs of diesel exhaust puff and then dissipate, swallowed by a swollen sky.

It gets quiet again.

Off in the perimeter white smoke and dust complement a subsonic thrum breaking the silence while slowly changing pitch. The noise source is the jet car.

Eventually, flames pulse and belch out of a pair of Spey 202 jet engines. The engines are mounted on either side of the fuselage giving the race car the appearance of a spaceship on wheels. The vapors that buoy the flame are eye-watering. It doesn’t sting, so much as it sours. The fearsome and leviathan silver engine burns a cheap fuel with a smell like cooked cough syrup. The jet spools up and up and up, reaching a whine that would shatter the wall of Jericho. The higher the pitch, the higher the decibels and the sicker the smell.

A group of mechanics and engineers crowds around the spaceship with wheels and performs a series of synchronized leak tests on the jet engines. The vehicle is 54 feet long, tips the scales at 10 tons, and has a surface composed of steel, carbon fibre and titanium. The men and women are sharply attired – matching khaki trousers, a variety of team polo shirts (red, yellow, gray, black), blue coveralls, tan colored boots, identical post-industrial sunglasses and green and red bomber jackets – and are a calm contrast to the chaotic pressurized air that billows out of the beastly, demonic jet engines’ exhaust opening. In all the futzing, occasionally one of the engineers checks the time on a wristwatch with a SSC Machmeter as the face. The needles on the timepiece point to Mach 1, which represents high noon, natch.

They purge the afterburners on either of the jet engines. PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH … (beat) … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH goes one… 22,500 fucking lbs. of thrust at each belch of either afterburner … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH … (beat) … PPPHHHWWWWUUUUHHHHHH goes the other… 110,000 fucking horsepower total… “This is one horny machine,” one crew member mutters… On the horizon, a fleet of Land Rovers retro-fitted with machine guns zooms toward the makeshift but immaculate compound in a flying wedge formation. The automobiles attract minimal dust, as the swirling pool of disturbed air puts the Rovers in a high pressure cocoon. It is like the winds know that inside one of these vehicles are some very important Muslims and the dust parts accordingly. Flags mounted to the skin of the automobiles buffet in the turbulence. The closer the cars come, the more frenzied the disturbance. The vortex summons Biblical stories, lost cities and civilizations, and Lawrence of Arabia. T.E. Lawrence was the last romantic vestige of British Imperialism here, but the caustic purging of Spey 202s conjures up the Empire’s latest and perhaps final attempt at National pride. Thrust SSC. The Supersonic Car.

It is utterly atavistic.

The jet exhaust and the choreographed human commotion, the dust of the caravan and its flagellation of flags swirl into a single entity.

Before the military Muslims depart, the senior officer offers to cordon off the British Operation with the Land Rovers… and to shoot anybody who might get in the way.


November 3, 2008

“The inertia of any system is the result of the interaction of that system with the rest of the universe. In other words, every particle in the universe ultimately has an effect on every other particle.” – Ernst Mach, Mach’s Principle of Inertia (1893)

You are in either Bonneville, Black Rock, or perhaps Al Jafr. Pick one. While meditating on the desolation, you assume that space is merely emptiness. An absolute void. The desert merely nods in the affirmative.

Your inference is wrong. The desert lies. You are not the first to be hornswoggled by such supposedly empirical observation…

Ernst Mach – the man who uncovered the mystery of the speed of sound – was an empiricist and a logician. A logical positivist. He presupposed that space is merely emptiness. The Void. The Quantum Vacuum. He was wrong.

Space is loaded with stuff that won’t glow in the dark in any way that astronomers can spot.

This stuff is loaded with a so much mass that its gravitational field tugs and affects the velocity of everything else in the universe (including Land Speed racers).

Even though the mathematics of the day insisted upon the presence of a form of mass that instruments could not and (cannot) detect, Mach insisted that space was empty. If you couldn’t see the matter within the space, nothing was there. (He also insisted that the atom existed only as an abstraction, but that is another riff altogether and tangential to this one … )

Space has to have mass for inertia to tug on heavenly bodies. It takes the form of dark matter. The Mach Principle states that inertia depends on the reciprocal interaction of bodies, however distant; in other words, a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by another force.

Dark matter is stuff the cosmologists of Mach’s day could not see; suffice it to say there is enough gas and dust that the vacuum as a condition of complete and absolute void does not exist.

Despite what the physics and the math of the day indicated had to be there, Ernst Mach made no never mind for the stuff in between the heavenly bodies – a pretty big snafu, cosmologically speaking.

Not even Einstein was able to suss out the Laws that truly guide (and guide us through) the Cosmos…

Dark matter: The entropy and chaos of the cosmos… Its presence was undetected, yet its gravitational pull tugs on all things. It is entropy that guides us, and it is entropy that acts as a force that slows us down… entropy equals inertia, and entropy is a force that acts counter to the infinite… and yields the finite…

The devil lurks in the entropy that tugs on our every thought and action like so much dark matter; he lurks in the banality that is Life on Planet Earth.

Yes, “every particle in the universe ultimately has an effect on every other particle.”

Specks of dust and pockets of gas gravitate towards a darkness so black we cannot see it and whose magnitude is so massive we cannot come to terms with how to measure it. The stuff we cannot see and don’t know how to measure made Einstein blink and made Ernst Mach draw a line in the sands of epistemology.

Ernst Mach is synonymous with “inertia.” But his own tug and resistance was not gravitational, it was intellectual.

The desert bleaches everything white as stone. It is a blank slate, according to a friend of mine who used to work in a junkyard. What the empiricists call “tabla rasa.” On a meta-level, perhaps my friend is right. The desert rarely puts up an argument. But it ain’t empty. And it puts up more resistance to human endeavor than the pull of a dark star on a cosmic body or spaceship set on warp speed.

By extension, a blank slate is perfect tableaux upon which one can foist his dreams. It is the perfect setting for the Land Speed Record. It is also the perfect setting for failure.


November 2, 2008


Pick Your Part

Pick Your Part


November 2, 2008

In 1983 Richard Noble turned 633 mph at Black Rock and reclaimed the LSR for Great Britain in his Thrust 2 jet car, taking it away from the late Gary Gabelich, who clocked a 2-way speed average of 622 mph in a hydrogen-peroxide powered rocket in 1970. Noble’s conquest struck a raw nerve in Craig Breedlove’s craw – and in his sense of patriotism. As Noble had tea and crumpets with the Queen, Breedlove immediately began drawing eyelid diagrams of a third-generation Spirit of America he felt was sleek enough to not only enable him to procure the LSR but also slip through the last great barrier: Mach 1.

But to sell his dream to America and to his sponsors, Craig needed an adversary like Ike needed Khrushchev. So he approached the then-LSR record holder, Noble, and confided in him his aspirations towards conquering the Sound Barrier. Noble took the bait. Immediately both men jettisoned their relatively prosaic lives – Breedlove was now a realtor, Noble was now marketing recreational aircraft – and focused all of their energies towards their new goal.

A funny thing happened en route to the epochal “Duel In the Desert ‘97” in the Great American Southwest, however…

You see, both Breedlove and Noble had ambition but were lacking three other elements critical to his success: 1)Venture capital; 2) A crew; 3) A design for a vehicle that would somehow subvert the laws of physics and aerodynamics as applied to the turbulence inherent in supersonic travel – forces which would most likely launch and/or shred the vehicle and its driver. For in a steed traveling at that speed some of the pressure and shock waves which would envelop the vehicle would have no way to diffuse themselves as they hit the floor and then reverberated UNDER the vehicle, acting like a 750 mph catapult. As Noble himself described it, “At Mach 1, you’re either on the ground or you’re ten miles in the air at a force of 40 g’s.” Blimey.

So, yeah, Noble sets off to meet the esteemed Ken Norris, co-designer of Donald Campbell’s revolutionary Bluebird CN7 LSR machine, to explain his plight, i.e. that he had the “want to’s” real bad but no design team nor plan. And in a crucial and profound stroke of luck, Norris’ earlier appointment, Ron Ayers (a retired guided missile designer from the Brit military-industrial complex who is as renowned in his field as Noble and Norris are in theirs), is caught in crosstown traffic and arrives at Norris’ digs the same moment as Noble.

Before the chance encounter with Noble, Ayers had no desire to design a Mach 1 motorcar (and very little interest in motorsports in general). “My immediate reaction was to distance myself from the project,” is how the elderly, erudite, avuncular aerodynamicist recalls the moment that Noble pitched him the project. “To drive at supersonic speeds would clearly be extremely dangerous, and indeed, it could well be impossible. I pointed out to Richard that even keeping the car on the ground would be extraordinarily difficult.” But Noble knew fresh meat when he saw it, and commenced dog-and-pony-showing his way into Ayers’ id and sense of purpose. Suffice it to say, Ayers became the Thrust SuperSonic Car’s first conscript – and its prime architect.

Indeed, the next day Ayers went to his garden, got out a pad and pencil and began free associating… “How can we keep a motorcar stable as it passes from the transonic to supersonic speeds…” Ayers continued to sketch and Thrust began to take shape. “… it will need two jet engines, not for thrust but for weight, drag and downforce… they will have to live on either side of the cockpit…” His approach to cannonballing through the turbulence of Mach 1 was an aerodynamic application tantamount to the bigger hammer method. “… we will not finesse this per se, but punch through the sonic barrier… the center of gravity must be forward, but no so fore that it actually burrows into the desert floor and resurfaces in Eurasia…” “Everything that isn’t lift is downforce…” The only logical shape this beast could assume was the bastard, mutant spawn of the Batmobile and Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird spyplane – i.e., the gnarliest, baddest contraption to attack the jet stream since the Cold War ended. It was gorgeous.

And for all its designed inefficiency, it was practical. Richard Noble concurred emphatically with Ayers’ take on attacking Mach 1. “The key thing in this is stability,” he told me out on the playa. “Anybody can stick a jet engine on a chassis and light the fuse. Ron and I sketched out something and we thought, ‘My God, this is really rather good. This could work very well. Right: twins engines, aluminum wheels’ and then Ken (Norris) says, ‘There is no room for steering’ – and it started to build from there.”

(You can imagine the conversation amongst SSC’s design team: “Yeah, Ron it’s bitchin’ – but where do we put the torsion bars?” In an epiphany, SSC Chief Mechanical Designer Glynne Bowsher – one of a succession of aerospace hitters hornswoggled by Noble and intrigued by the notion of breaking the sound barrier on land – concludes that in order to shoehorn a steering system between the framerails, SSC must turn by the two in-line rear wheels. Talk about form follows function…)

Thrust SSC was housed in a spare hangar in Farnborough, UK, the locale of the what, in essence, is the British Skunk Works (in other words, the hangars for her Royal Majesty’s stealth and supersonic aerospace programs). Suffice it to say, the bulk of the SSC engineers who became intoxicated with Noble’s dream already knew where Farnborough’s commissary was well before Noble approached them for help…

As the design came to life at Farnborough Airfield, Noble canvassed the breadth of the Jolly ‘Ol, banging on boardroom doors for financial support and hosting seminars at campuses and air shows in order to recruit a pit crew. Interestingly, his stirring pitches appealed to the hoi polloi more so than the suits in the corridors of power. The hoi polloi formed the Mach 1 club – “give us a few quid, drop what you’re doing and come with us to America to break the sound barrier” – and was another indispensable element to the Thrust SSC’s eventual success.

And finally, another crucial element was in place. That is, Noble’s choice for a shoe: A softspoken-yet-buff, dashing, Royal Air Force pilot named Andy Green whose physique, psyche, and demeanor were ideal for the project. Indeed, Andy Green could have been culled straight outta’ Central Casting. The team was in place.

And after some Computational Fluid Dynamics and rocket-sled testing “confirmed” (at least in the virtual sense) Ayers’ theories on supersonic travel, the vehicle was completed. But before the conquering of Mach 1 in America was to commence, the team trudged off to an RAF air base in the Al Jafr desert in Jordan during November of ’96 for some shakedown runs, with the blessing of ol’ King Hussein. Testing the synergy of all systems on this technological marvel commenced: Computerized suspension, telemetry, satellite uplinks, communications, aluminum wheels, rear wheel steer, twin Spey 202 turbofan engines, support vehicles, etc.

(The active suspension was perhaps the most crucial piece of software and hardware. Calculations by some of SSC’s engineers warned that if the vehicle’s angle of attack relative to the earth’s surface varied by even one quarter of a degree, driver Andy Green would have been launched upwards of 1000 feet… a potential altitude that would have dwarfed Paula “Miss STP” Murphy’s mimicking of a moon shot in 1972.)

All that was left was empiricism.

All systems seemed to be speaking to each other, but a full dress rehearsal for the upcoming mission in the Black Rock desert would have to wait for then came the prerequisite trial, error, and anguish that, if you study your motorsports history, seems to accompany all LSR efforts. In a Middle Eastern desert that is dryer than microwaved kitty litter, it rained. And rained. And flooded.

Indeed, as Ron Ayers related in retrospect: “According to the weather statistics, November should have the ideal combination of moderate temperature, low wind, low precipitation, and few dust storms.” It was, in fact, quite the antithesis. The Thrust SSCer’s arrival at this arid Middle Eastern desert was akin to fording a river: At the air base where Thrust was stationed the flooding was moving so fast that it appeared to be pushing stones ahead of it. Finally, Glynne Bowsher pointed out that the stones were actually floating camel droppings…