Fifty years and a day after Chuck Yeager first broke through the sound barrier in the air, Andy Green, a British Royal Air Force fighter pilot, did it on the ground.
Defying fears that a car might take off, or perhaps explode, when it passed through the sound barrier, Green piloted Richard Noble's 10-ton Thrust SSC twice through a measured mile Wednesday on the desolate Black Rock Desert of Nevada at speeds of 759.333 mph and 766.609. Under a formula used by the U.S. Auto Club, the record was set at 763.035 mph.
The speed of sound varies according to weather and altitude. Officials calculated it at 748.11 at the time of Green's runs.
"It was a magic morning," Noble, 51, said of the jet-powered car he began developing five years ago to master the sound barrier.
"It's something we've worked hard for and now we can return home with a great feeling of satisfaction."
Craig Breedlove, a five-time holder of the land-speed record who had hoped to beat Noble's team to the sound barrier and return the record to the United States, watched the Thrust scream across the dry lake from a nearby hilltop.
"It was a beautiful run," said Breedlove, who has been sharing the 15-mile racing strip with Noble for the last month. "You could see the shock waves."
Breedlove said he planned to remain at Black Rock, about 125 miles north of Reno, and continue his quest for record speeds.
"Now we have a definite mark to shoot at," the 61-year-old American said. "The Brits are going home, so 763 is our target. We have plenty of power, more than enough to exceed that figure. It's just a matter of working our way up there.
"We have had only 20 runs in our program, they had more than 60 before they hit the record. The bar has quit moving up, so now it's our turn. We know we can get past 763."
Breedlove was the first to exceed 400 mph, 500 mph and 600 mph, but he had to watch as Green became the first over 700 last month.
Under a cloudless sky in the early morning, with only a whisper of a breeze, Green reached 759.333 mph on his first run. Fifty-five minutes later--five minutes under the allowable one-hour time limit--he turned the Thrust around and ran the opposite direction more than 7 mph faster.
Witnesses said it created a "muffled boom" at ground level as it passed through the sound barrier.
Marc Sampson, a member of Breedlove's team, witnessed the first run from a low-flying aircraft.
"There wasn't any sound we heard, but the most amazing thing occurred visually," Sampson said. "As the Thrust worked up to speed, a huge dust trail followed it. Then, when it reached the sound barrier, the dust cloud rose off the ground and followed the car until it passed out of the sound barrier, and then the cloud returned to the ground. I don't know what it means, but it was unbelievable to see."
The 763.035 speed bettered Green's three-week-old record of 714 mph, which had obliterated the 633.46 record set by Noble on Oct. 4, 1983 at Black Rock.
Noble had advertised for a young man to drive the Thrust and chose Green, 35, for the task.
"It is a huge achievement for the whole team and for Great Britain," the tall, thin pilot said after being hoisted on the shoulders of his crew.
Green had twice broken the sound barrier Monday, but problems with a parachute delayed the second run until the time limit had passed, so under international rules, it was unofficial. Wednesday's record must be ratified by the International Automobile Federation, but it is expected to be routine.
Ron Ayers, who designed the Thrust, said the huge black car would never run again for the record.
"It will sit in a museum," Ayers said. "We set a target five years ago and that's it. It achieved its objective."
The Thrust was powered by two 110,000-horsepower Rolls-Royce engines from a Phantom jet fighter. According to British publicity releases, it produced power the equal of 1,000 Ford Escorts or 141 Formula One cars.