The day a driver broke the sound barrier at 764mph... in a car

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This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

A deafening crack rang out across the Black Rock desert in Nevada as British driver Andy Green broke the land speed record - and the sound barrier. 

Green became the first human being to break the sound barrier on land almost exactly 50 years after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the air in an experimental Bell X-1 jet. 

British driver Andy Green kneels while posing for a picture
British driver Andy Green celebrates after breaking the sound barrier and reaching 764mph. Source: Getty Images

On this day 24 years ago, 15 October 1997, Green beat a land speed record he himself had set in Thrust of 714.144mph on September 25.

The Thrust SSC looked like an upside-down fighter plane, and was powered by two Rolls Royce engines as it hit 764.168mph, 6mph above the speed of sound. 

Andy Green - a square-jawed RAF squadron leader who honed his reactions juggling and playing video games, said, "I didn't feel or hear the sound barrier being broken, but everybody else heard two enormous cracks as we went through it.

Thrust SCC land speed car move across the desert with trail of smoke behind it
Andy Green of Great Britain drives his Thrust SCC land speed car during the Land Speed Challenge in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Source: Getty Images/Allsport

"I could literally see the shock waves being formed. I put my foot down flat both ways. We pretty much pushed it to the limit."

Green later said, “The sonic boom produced by Thrust was so powerful that 10 miles off the end of the track, the local town of Gerlach was experiencing what they thought were earthquakes…”

The SSC Thrust prepares to take off November 16, 1996 on the Al-Jafr desert in Jordan. RAF Lt. Andy Green will attempt to break the speed of sound without leaving the ground. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Liaison)
The SSC Thrust in 1996 on the Al-Jafr desert in Jordan. Source: Scott Peterson/Liaison

Some had predicted that breaking the sound barrier in a car was impossible and that it would somersault down the track. 

But Green said that driving Thrust - which burns 240 gallons of kerosene a minute - would be ‘safer than crossing the road’.

Green described the difficulty of trying to steer Thrust as like trying to balance a pencil on top of a finger. 

The entire 14 mile track on alkaline salt flats had been meticulously searched for stones before Thrust fired up its engines. 

Green had served in Bosnia before taking on the record attempt and was chosen for the job out of 32 candidates. 

 Andy Green talks to the press during the Supersonic World Land Speed Record Challenge
Thrust SSC Car pilot Andy Green talks to the press during the Supersonic World Land Speed Record Challenge at Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nevada. Source: Allsport

He prepared for his drive by taking hot baths twice daily, to help him cope with the immense heat in Thrust’s driving seat. 

In the final run, Green couldn’t use the car’s two braking parachutes, because they were damaged by the heat from the car’s afterburners. 

The car finally came to a stop one and a half miles past the end of the 13-mile track.

The rules of land speed records stipulate that a car must make two runs at record speed in opposite directions within one hour. 

Green, a speed fanatic who enjoyed riding bobsleds on the Cresta Run in his spare time, said, 'It's human nature to push back the bounds of what is possible, of what has been achieved, in the same way that people want to, for the first time ever, climb Everest, go supersonic in the air or walk on the Moon.' 

Prime Minister Tony Blair phoned Thrust team leader Richard Noble - who had himself set a land speed record of 633.46mph in 1983, and said, "It's a triumph for Thrust which the nation can share and take pride in."

In recent years, Andy Green (now a Wing Commander in the RAF, and still in the Air Force’s Cresta Run team) has been involved in the Bloodhound project, which aims to push a car to more than 1,000mph. 

Andy Green, the driver, gets into the jet-propelled British Bloodhound LSR (Land Speed Record) car for a high-speed run on November 14, 2019, during preliminary tests at Hakskeenpan in the Northern Cape Province. - Bloodhound LSR is a UK-based endeavour to set a new land speed record
Andy Green, the driver, gets into the jet-propelled British Bloodhound LSR (Land Speed Record) car for a high-speed run on November 14, 2019. Source: RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images

The car, which has been tested on tracks in South Africa, is so fast that, Green says, the tricky part is trying to hit the brakes before he runs out of track. 

The three engines - one from a Eurofighter Typhoon - generate thrust equivalent to 180 Formula 1 cars. 

At present, the Bloodhound project is seeking investors, but is “still very much a live project”, the team said in August this year. 

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