There’s a blue-and-orange flash as a tall man dressed in an Alpinestars race suit strides into view with purpose. He’s straight-backed, close-cropped, with cool blue eyes. Wing Commander Andy Green is the fastest man on earth and, boy, does he look it.
He is the holder of the world land speed record, a mark he set in 1997 with the Thrust Supersonic Car (SSC), pushing that twin-jet machine through the sound barrier, to 763.035mph (1,228kph) over a measured mile, in the crystalline wastes of Nevada’s Black Rock desert. Now there’s a new goal: 1,000mph (1,609kph).
The first speed tests of Bloodhound SSC, the car created to reach that goal, are due to take place in 2015. They’ll take the car to 500mph, 600mph,700mph, then 800mph and a new land speed record. The full assault on 1,000mph is scheduled for 2016.
At a predicted peak of 1,050mph, Bloodhound will literally be travelling faster than a bullet. Its measured mile, the distance over which the record speed is timed, will be covered in 3.6 seconds.
And the man inside? Well, if his demeanour and evidently glacier-cool core are any guide, he’ll be well in control, engaged at a peak of mental intensity even this first-class maths graduate and combat veteran RAF fast-jet pilot may never before have experienced.
“It is,” Green says, “a very demanding and very focused job. You’re taking a car faster than it has ever been before and pushing the technology to a place it hasn’t been before. And however much preparation you do, there is a bit where we actually just need to go and test it.
But I’ll have a very clear mental picture of what I’m doing and how I’m trying to do it. If everything works as expected, that’s just great. We’ll just make a note and tick that off later on. But if I find the hydraulics have gone to zero and I press on anyway… that’s a pretty stupid idea.”
Green, 52, is the perfect technocrat test pilot for the digital age. As Chuck Yeager broke Mach 1 in his Bell X-1 rocket plane in 1947, he is said to have told his ground crew: “Make another note will ya? There’s something wrong with this ol’ machometer. It’s gone kinda screwy on me.” Yeager’s drawl will be replaced in Bloodhound by the clipped-English military reports of Green, a man used to delivering only essentials of information while flying combat missions. “This is a technical process, not an emotional one,” he says. “I’m a member of the engineering and development test team. In that respect, I am not a racing driver but a test pilot – developing test pilot skills, but in a car.”
He developed the ice in his veins during his military career. This is how he describes coming under attack by enemy missiles, while serving as an RAF commander in southern Iraq 20 years ago: “I’ve been shot at by much better people, with better weapons systems, frankly, so it wasn’t that much of a deal.”
He’ll need every shred of sang-froid when he and his team head for South Africa’s Northern Cape, to Hakskeenpan, where a land speed record strip measuring 19km by 500m (surrounded by a 300m safety zone) has been hand-cleared by local volunteers of hundreds of thousands of tiny stones, to create the smoothest surface possible.
Bloodhound, all 7.8 tonnes of jet-and-rocket-powered intent, looks like a military aircraft that’s lost its wings. Fitting, given that many of the crew are British military personnel seconded to the project from active service in hotspots such as Afghanistan.
Their training will serve them well, Green reckons, when they head south from the workaday industrial unit in the west of England near Bristol, where Bloodhound is being assembled, to the wide-open scorched desert that will become their home for several months. “In the military, we take our people to some pretty harsh places and ask them to do some pretty hard things,” says Green.
“They can be ripped out from their family at very short notice for a very long period of time. That’s physically, mentally and emotionally demanding, so they have to be looked after to make sure they are able to look after themselves. It’s no different here. We’ll go through exactly that next year when we get out to South Africa. A lot of them haven’t been out to the desert environment. So it’s going to be an interesting learning process for them.”
There’s a risk that Green’s tone, his frill-free military manner, might portray him as some kind of automaton. The truth is far from that. While no cuddly toy, he is not overbearing, arrogant or in any way high on his own supply.
Possessed of an almighty inner steel, yes, coupled with the battle-hardened self-confidence of those who thrive in the bullshit-free military. So why, given that he is a manifestly rational human being, would he undertake an adventure many would consider bonkers? The answer, for Green, lies in the science and his desire to inspire a generation of young minds. He cites the Bloodhound mission statement as the clearest possible insight into his own motivation: “To create a unique, high-technology project, focused around a 1,000mph world land speed record attempt. To share this engineering adventure with a global audience and inspire the next generation by bringing science, technology, engineering and mathematics to life in the most exciting way possible.”
Computer modelling can predict how Bloodhound will behave at 900mph and above, and of course it says “all will be well”. But only Green will experience the sensation of the machine taken to its limit. Only he will be in a position to react should anything go wrong.
“I’ve never been nervous flying fast jets,” he says. “It’s the same with Bloodhound. I understand every aspect of its design and the standards to which it’s been built. Why would I be worried?”
Land speed record-breakers aren’t like the rest of us. By way of relaxation, Green flies stunt planes to competitive standard, and thinks nothing of taking his engineers for ‘joyrides’, to help build team spirit. Those around him speak warmly of Green’s leadership qualities, unforced authority, and his softer side. An example of the latter comes when he hands Bloodhound communications director Richard Knight, in the middle of a conversation with someone else, a gift-wrapped box and card. “Just a little something for you and Lizzie,” he says. Barely a day earlier, Knight’s wife had given birth to a daughter.
This hint of humanity is a reminder that amid the scientific endeavour and talk of triumph of technology, a man will be at the heart of the machine when Bloodhound’s Rolex speedo trips from 999 to 1,000. A man in touch with normality, with a life unlike the violently noisy, info-loaded, hot, brutal, claustrophobic clamour of his bullet-beating manned missile mission.
“Are we all going to need a break at the end of it? Hell yes,” he says. “I’m very lucky, therefore, to have a fantastic wife who loves sailing nearly as much as I do. There’s nothing like cruising along at about five knots, slowing your brain down, while you go to some little harbour somewhere for a late lunch, with the boat parked up in front of the pub. And that’s just where I see myself in three years’ time.”