Buckle up for fastest ride ever
In 2016, Andy Green aims to drive at more than four football pitches a second as the world shares his cockpit, writes Steve Colquhoun.
The term "hero" gets bandied about a lot, but finding the genuine article is about as difficult as it is to locate unexplored frontiers in this digitally connected world.
Wing Commander Andy Green, OBE, is an unlikely embodiment of the former, with a charter to conquer the latter; to wit, the world's fastest man wants to go even faster and he wants to take us all for the ride.
Green, those with long memories might recall, is the man who drove the Thrust jet-powered car to the world land speed record of 1228km/h in 1997 on a dry lake bed in Nevada. That makes him the first - and still only - man to break
the sound barrier in a land-based vehicle.
His supersonic record has stood unchallenged for 15 years but now a new golden age for the land speed record looms as at least five teams from around the world hone a new breed of jet- and/or rocket-propelled cars.
The 50-year-old RAF fighter pilot is the star recruit of the Bloodhound program, which aims not just to smash through the current mark but to blast all the way to 1000mph (1609km/h) on a lake bed in South Africa in 2016. To put that in another context, if he succeeds, Green will be covering 450 metres a second.
The Englishman was in Australia this week as an ambassador for Bentley, with which he recently teamed to film a 300km/h pass on Utah's legendary Bonneville Salt Flats in the luxury-car maker's flagship, a V12-powered Mulsanne.
Although tall, tanned and handsome enough to appear somewhat heroic, Green defies the stereotype with the thoughtful demeanour and sharp observations of a college professor - albeit one with greater courage and steelier resolve an entire faculty could muster.
His determination lies not only in smashing his own record, but also in firing the imaginations of school students everywhere to open their eyes to "the magic of science and technology". He and Richard Noble, the fellow Brit behind the Bloodhound project and the successful Thrust program of 1997, plan to welcome the world into the cockpit of Bloodhound in what will become the world's largest communal science project.
Thousands of British schoolchildren are already following the program and millions more worldwide are expected to log in by the time Bloodhound finally lines up for its record attempt. In an unprecedented move, the team has made public every aspect of the car's design and engineering. During testing and record attempts it will stream live video from 16 onboard cameras and readings from numerous sensors.
Green even plans to talk to his web-based audience as he drives, describing all he is doing, feeling and seeing while Bloodhound rockets to speeds never before achieved. That's the plan, anyway.
Green enjoyed being one of the millions to watch Felix Baumgartner stage the world's highest skydive from the edge of space last year, when the world sat up and applauded the boundary-pushing feat in a manner rarely seen since the 1969 moon landing. Still, Green felt an opportunity was missed.
"Felix tripped and fell out of a balloon at 120,000 feet and got nine million [website] audience, because it was something exciting and challenging and unusual," he says. "I was a tiny bit disappointed. I was expecting him to have the camera on his shoulder and the commentary of him as he was jumping, saying what he was feeling or thinking.
"People going out and doing unusual things, especially if you can explain it really well to the audience, does just make life richer and more exciting. It enhances the human condition and I'm lucky to be able to contribute to a piece of that."
He and Noble will measure the ultimate success of the Bloodhound project not by the speed it attains, but by the number of impressionable young minds it reaches.
"If we get to 950m/h and we just can't get [to 1000], if there's something we just haven't foreseen, but we can say 'this is as fast as we'll go', then we've now got 10 million people saying 'cool, that's the answer to that' and we've achieved something massive.
"But if we get to 1000mph and no one even noticed, then we've failed."
Green says he will be "not a tiny bit" disappointed if the project falls short of 1000mph, as long as it succeeds in taking the world along for the journey.
"I'll be disappointed if we don't manage to reach out and at least explain to a global audience what an engineering adventure means to them, and at least allow them to experience a little bit of the magic of science and technology," he says.
"That's what we mean by an engineering adventure to capture a generation. Wherever you are in the world, if you've got 3 or 4G, you can look over my shoulder and mark my homework as I'm doing it at 1000m/h."
Green's enthusiasm for the project is infectious and he manages to parlay most attempts to find out what makes him tick into banter about the scale of the technical challenge (massive) facing the Bloodhound team or his hope (fervent) to inspire a new generation of schoolchildren to become scientists or engineers.
A question about whether he thinks about the consequences of a high-speed mishap becomes a lesson in preparation. "Have I thought about the various things that could go wrong? Yes. Do I lie around worrying about them? No. I lie around wondering what else we can do to mitigate all the various things so I don't have to lie around worrying about the consequences. That way, I've got answers to the questions before we get there."
But surely he acknowledges there is a level of risk involved in shoving back the boundaries of what's known to be possible?
"There's a level of risk in crossing the road," he says. "The whole point is, we're minimising that risk.
"I spent my career flying fast jets and there's a reason why they have ejection seats. However sophisticated the technology, stuff sometimes stops working. The advantage with a car is that I'm already in what's a safe place for a jet - on the runway. My car starts in the safe place that the jet is trying to get to, so it's just a case of being able to roll it to a stop reliably."
Bloodhound will have three separate braking mechanisms - one set of air brakes and two parachutes - each capable of washing off speed at a rate of 100km/h a second. That's akin to the sort of deceleration experienced in a high-speed car crash, albeit without the impact.
Has holding the title of "world's fastest man" changed Green's life over the past 15 years?
"It has and hasn't," he says. "Am I still in the air force? Yes. Do I still earn a military wage? Yes. Will I ever own a Bentley? No, much as I would love to, because they're gorgeous cars.
"But I was in New Zealand on the weekend talking to Bentley owners and a few journalists, and had the opportunity to borrow a Bentley. Nobody else where I work gets to drive a Bentley at the weekend, so I'm uniquely lucky."
Green says the real impact on his life has been the ability his fame affords to preach his own version of the gospel.
"I think the land speed record is one of the few remaining genuine adventures," he says. "That was an easy sell in the 1930s when Malcolm Campbell was doing it because they genuinely were some of the fastest people on earth.
"It's much more difficult to explain the technology now but we have a unique advantage now with YouTube, the internet, graphic animations and running live video from the car. We can start to bring it to life in a way that hasn't been possible.
"It is one of the greatest adventures and we have a way of telling that story that hasn't existed before."
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