Posts Tagged ‘Jack Parsons’

INFINITY OVER ZERO by Cole Coonce: PART TWO: PICK YOUR PART

November 3, 2008
Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

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FAUSTIAN BARGAINS IN THE ROCKET AGE: SUMMONING PAN AS A MEANS TO TEUTONIC ENDS AND JET ASSISTED TAKE OFF (1939-1965)

November 3, 2008

“I figured that if the car went half as fast as his mouth, I was in trouble.” — Craig Breedlove, in reference to Bobby Tatroe and the Wingfoot Express II rocket car.

Neptune was actually the second rocket car built by Walt Arfons. The first was the Wingfoot Express II, a moniker originally hung on completely different set of hardware, a J46 powered jet car that set a LSR of 413 mph in 1964, (numbers surpassing Breedlove’s mark of 407 mph). The second Wingfoot Express was the first land speed car to use rockets and the only car to ever use JATO (jet assisted take off) bottles. Each ‘bottle’ was actually a solid fuel rocket and could only be used once at a cost of $1,000 each. Arfons started out with 15 mounted in the back, but that wasn’t enough thrust and Arfons installed an additional ten bottles. Officially, the car reached a speed of 476.6 mph one way in October of 1965.

The car was built sturdy enough to break the sound barrier — its ultimate goal — but the weight penalty of the structural reinforcement necessary to withstand supersonic pressure waves became its Achilles’ heel, as it tipped the scales at 6,500 lbs. On the run of 476 mph, driver Bobby Tatroe reported seeing 605 mph on the speedometer once, but this was in the middle of the run and by the time the Wingfoot Express entered the measured mile its rocket fuel was spent and it coasted impotently through the timing traps.

Fascinating was the taxonomy of the solid fuel rocket bottles themselves. These devices were originally the property of Aerojet-General Corp and were developed in the 40s by the notorious ‘Suicide Squad’ of Pasadena, a motley quartet of rocket scientists, whose members were linked to Guggenheim and Cal Tech. The chief engineer and designer of the solid fuel JATO system was the man who was the most infamous of the group, Jack (nee John) Parsons, a disciple of black magick, pagan practices and deviant sexuality, all of which were used as devices wired into his summoning of ‘Universal Knowledge.’ This supernatural wisdom was then harnessed and focused into test sessions at the The Devil’s Gate, a small rustic canyon adjacent to what is now the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In its original application, the JATO system was instrumental in generating enough lift to propel Allied bombers and hefty cargo planes into hostile skies, and was in fact crucial in hoisting the Army Air Corp — and by extension, the Allied Forces — to triumph in both the European and Pacific Theaters.

On the Salt Flats of Bonneville, Walt Arfons had no such luck with the Aerojet devices, however, and was never able to generate enough thrust to overcome the heft of his endeavors; he failed to claim the LSR with the JATO system; conversely, in an ironic twist of fate after his exile from the rocket science community, Parson was blown to molecular molasses in his home when he dropped a vial of hypergolic chemicals in 1952.

THE FUEL BAN (1959-1963)

November 3, 2008

”FBI agents descended on a Texas auto racing track last month looking for evidence that Timothy McVeigh bought a large quantity of powerful racing fuel before the Oklahoma City bombing, ABC reported Thursday night.

”Employees of VP Racing Fuels told the FBI that a man resembling McVeigh in 1994 paid $2,700 cash in Texas for nitromethane, ABC said.

”The chemical is an accelerant the government now believes may have been used to detonate the bomb that killed 168 people.“ — AP WIRE REPORT, 1996.

Even before jet-powered dragsters entered the mix, some independent track operators and the NHRA made no secret of their feelings about drag strip speeds getting out of control. The AA/Fuelers were unsafe.

The offender? The volatile fuel they burned: Nitromethane. Generically known as “Fuel.” Pop. Cackle. Liquid Horsepower. Joy Juice. The Yellow Stuff. The Sweet and Sour Sauce. CH3NO2. As acrid as it is punishing, when it reaches its flash point nitromethane is an angry serpent of a hydrocarbon and its practitioners are snake handlers who have taken it on faith that they won’t get bit — but they often are. Nitromethane is a monopropellant, which is a fancy way of saying that it carries its own oxygen, and therefore once it is lit or merely compressed it is as volatile as a downed high tension line dancing to and fro across the highway.

Ironically, unless under pressure, nitro is surprisingly docile as far as exotic fuels go, capable of taking out unsuspecting railroad boxcars only if under extreme duress. Mishaps off of the drag strip are rare, even when one factors in an incident of domestic terrorism a few years ago. But because of its instability (and the questionable stability of some of its handlers), nitro has developed quite an epic history and mythology, beginning with Italian rocket scientists and their experiments with it as early as 1929, followed by Russian rocket design teams testing a combination of kerosene and a nitromethane derivative a year later.

I tell BZ about the bizarre exploits of Jack Parsons, and how he would invoke pagan spirits before a rocket launch in the once-deserted, arid hills of Pasadena in what is now the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As early as 1937 Parsons already had listed tetranitromethane as a possible rocket propellant and by 1945 the company he helped charter, Aerojet, was seriously considering nitromethane as a fuel source for their rocket engines, but demurred in deference to hydrogen peroxide.

Beyond issues of safety, it could be argued that this kind of chemical warfare in an internal combustion was a little outside of the image the NHRA wanted to present to its corporate suitors… Violent explosions, speeds that scared the insurers. Nitromethane was banned.

So at NHRA meets dragsters burned gasoline instead of the devil’s hydrocarbon. Was this a red herring? Was this an excuse to cozy up to Sunoco as the official supplier of gasoline for the dragsters?

Not unlike the jet cars later, after their banishment from the NHRA the Top Fuel dragsters flourished at “outlaw” and unsanctioned tracks, where they proved to be wildly popular, case in point being the Smokers Meet, which began in 1959 and was the most popular event of them all…

The Fuel Ban. In fact, amidst cries and caterwauling of “collusion,” independent trade papers sided with the outlaws and mocked the drag strip establishment as “Druids.”

The Fuel Ban was an exercise in futility and beyond: Not unlike the theorem that states in order to make a bigger bang out of a firecracker all one has to do is wrap it tighter, the prohibition of exotic fuel in drag racing created an entire new scene that thrived and flourished on the contraband fuel. And it boomed loudest and burned brightest just north of Bakersfield…

If guns are outlawed only outlaws will own guns could be paraphrased as if nitromethane is banned, only the banned will race with nitromethane… and they did… just another manifestation of the “outlaw” culture insinuating itself into Eisenhower America and its forgotten nooks and crannies… while the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club took over podunk California farm towns like a Mongol horde; similarly, under the sanction of the Smokers Car Club, the renegade fueler guys gravitated to an abandoned surplus airstrip north of Bakersfield, known as Famoso. Nitro drag racers came there from all four points of the Continental US. The “Smokers Meets” were so wildly successful that the money was loaded in 55 gallon drums and the ticket booths ran out of tickets and began exchanging toilet paper for admission…

The vox populi had spoken with wallets. They wanted their nitro. (By 1964 NHRA reversed its position on the Fuel Ban.)

CLOUDS OF STAR FIRE (Bonneville, 1962)

November 2, 2008

“I remember
When I was a star
In the night
A moving, burning ember
Amid the bright Clouds of star fire
Going deathward To the womb”
—“Star,” Jack Parsons

September 10, 1962. It is a hot, gloomy Monday morning with a mercury sky. Everything is the color of a bleached and buried coin. Or a bullet left in the sun. During the past few days the Infinity team had been chipping away at various stress and leak tests, ensuring that the sleek machine that resembled nothing if not an avant-garde Russian MIG fighter plane was in superlative condition to claim the Land Speed Record. Many teams had espoused the notion that surpassing the 396 mph mark set in 1949 by Englishman John Cobb was a matter of patriotic pride, as for once the Americans would showcase their Yankee Ingenuity as well as its hearty guts and determination in a manner arguably not showcased since Henry Ford.

It had been such a bizarre trajectory to this moment, from “Dago” Palamides’ shop on the outskirts of the Oakland Airport to the boneyards of Tucson (Vic Elischer remembers the liberation of a J47-33 out of an F86D Fighter/Interceptor while Che Guevara scavenged for spare parts for a “Globemaster” cargo plane for use in the overthrow of the Batista government in Cuba — this is a year before the Bay of Pigs!) to Boeing Field in Seattle to the Bonneville Salt Flats…

The Untouchable had barnstormed up and down the West Coast with a coterie of drivers, first with Archie Liederbrand, next with Glen Leasher, who was fresh out of the cockpit of “Terrible Ted’s” Gotelli Speed Shop Special, Chrysler-powered fueler.

With Liederbrand driving, the Untouchable debuted in April, 1962 at Fontana and goes 209 mph, a track record. But this vehicle was really just a rolling test stand for the team. The real glory, prestige and payoff was at Bonneville, all they needed was another race car designed specifically for that task, as well as fresh bullet.

While fabricating the race car at Boeing Field in Seattle, Palamides and Leasher continued to match race the jet car and generate cash. Concurrently, airplane mechanics Loyd Osterberg and Jeri Sorm shaped and riveted the aluminum bodywork around the clock in attempt to have the car ready for Speed Week at Bonneville at the end of August.

One of the locals who grew up around Boeing Field tells me that Sorm is “a master tin man and aeronautics wizard. He grew up in Czechoslovakia before WW II and lived there during the war and when the Nazis held the country. When the Communists were in power, he escaped in the mid 50s — he flew out in a stolen plane.

“Jeri told me once, that anybody who had any complaints about this country should try living in a dictatorship, then under the Nazis – and then the Communists… he told me that ever since he came to this country he went out side every morning when he woke up and kissed the ground. He said we don’t appreciate what we’ve got.”

Sorm had no interest in race cars per se, but took on the project as an employee of Osterberg. Many nights one or the other would fall asleep in the fuselage of the unfinished vehicle only to be awakened by the other guy’s hammering or riveting.

Finally, Infinity is out on the Salt Flats. Breedlove is also there with his high-dollar operation, but cannot make anything work properly. Breedlove goes home.

Meanwhile Infinity, the intersection of hot rodding and aerospace, continues to ramp up its speeds during test runs. There is a disagreement about how much more r&d is needed, and unbeknownst to the other partners, Palamides and Leasher apparently conspire to make a record run on this morning.

As the car enters the measured mile, the left front wheel bearing seizes and locks, pulling the car off course. Then there is an explosion from an inlet/compressor stall in the jet engine, most likely the result of excessive yaw, at which point the car high sides. Then it rips into shrapnel, a torn metallic curtain… it is as if a piece of the sky folds into itself and then implodes like a dark star.

Glen Leasher was looking for Infinity. He found it — in an instant.

The biggest piece of his remains was his boot.