Thursday 4th October 2012


Chris Harris joins the Bloodhound team for the engine test, comes away filled with patriotic fever

On the invitation, the location for the test looks strange - Newquay in Cornwall. This is understandable because its recent fame for hosting post-GCSE vomiting sessions clouds the memory of the fact that RAF St Mawgan is just a few miles from the centre of town.

I used to watch Vulcans on my summer holidays down here, so it actually seems rather fitting that the most inspirational engineering project since the days of those cold war bombers has chosen the place to test fire the hybrid rocket that will hopefully propel Bloodhound SSC beyond 1,000mph.

If PH made fuel pumps, etc...
If PH made fuel pumps, etc...
There was a live feed of the event yesterday, and I haven't shot my own video of the day because it just wasn't practical. Thankfully the Bloodhound team have released their own - see here. But I want to tell you what it was like to watch this bunch of intrepid Brits ignite the most powerful rocket to be fired on British soil in a quarter of a century.

The way the Bloodhound team presents itself to the outside world is perhaps the most appealing part of the project. They are a bunch of slightly unhinged Brits engaged in groundbreaking engineering, working with a tiny budget. They are, without ever forcing the message or trying too hard to evoke the spirit of times-gone-by, the modern embodiment of the gritty Brits we still celebrate and bemoan the loss of in WW2 films. Noble, Green and Daniel Jubb could live in Nissen huts at Bletchley Park. Especially Jubb.

You only realise how tainted you've become by modern PR and hospitality when you're ushered into a fighter hangar on an RAF base with not much idea what to expect. It's vaguely organised chaos, and that's the way it should be. Team members, sponsors and punters all beaming vast smiles and effusive greetings. In the corner there's hot tea and Cornish pasties. It's perfect, non-bling, no-nonsense England.

Messers Heath and Robinson just out of shot
Messers Heath and Robinson just out of shot
The health and safety briefing is delivered through a 36 watt home Karaoke set, but none of us cares if we can't hear what will happen to our epidermis if it gets showered with hydrogen peroxide. We just want to see and hear the rocket.

In groups we're taken over to the test building to see the rocket and fuel pump assembly - the pump being this year's 2.4-litre Cosworth V8 Formula One engine. It's a mess of tubes, wires and blocks of concrete, a time-warp environment from the pages of The Right Stuff - all it needs for Andy to change his name by deed poll to Yeager. It couldn't be more appealing if it tried.

Back in the main hanger Richard Noble again demonstrates that he is one of the world's finest motivational speakers and rings the bell for Bloodhound as an inspiration to a generation of young engineers. What he and his team would do an hour later was present the most exciting science lesson most children have ever seen.

True grit never had a friendlier face
True grit never had a friendlier face
The enormity of the task is underpinned by the paucity of funding: to date the project has used £8.8m, and it needs a further £3m to run as intended. These are large sums of money to an individual, but in the corporate world they're tiny. With what amounts to a small percentage of the marketing budget for a new car, Bloodhound is designing and building a car that will encounter unimaginable forces.

It's British ingenuity doing what it has always done best. I make no apologies for beating the UK plc. drum - yesterday felt like a real celebration for what this country is capable of.

The test itself was my desert island science lesson. Andy Green gave a quite brilliant layman's introduction to the technology involved, then talked us through the priming of the fuel system and then there was this noise.

We were in a thick-walled metal hangar 100m from the test site and the deep concrete foundations couldn't resist a light shimmy. At peak thrust of 14,200lb the noise is vast, but it's the transition from fuel pump to rocket ignition that sets it apart. The Cosworth V8 spins up to 16,600rpm on completely open headers, then some propellant is used because of the cold weather to help the rocket ignite as the oxidiser is pumped at the rate of a bathtub every three seconds through the silver catalyst and onto the solid fuel rocket.

You'll forgive Green's slightly intense stare...
You'll forgive Green's slightly intense stare...
The results are the dream of every physics teacher who ever struggled with the concentration levels of recalcitrant 14-year-old boy, a roll of ticker tape, and a pneumatic 14-year-old girl on the other side of the classroom.

As you know, the test went brilliantly. The rocket destroyed most of the cameras in the building and the two carbon plates left either side the exhaust nozzle, to test heat build-up at the rear of the vehicle, were nicely alight afterwards, indicating that they might have some thermal management issues at the arse end. But this was a day of learning, and no doubt the clever chaps are chomping through the data and preparing the next steps.

Every company, every sponsor and every individual involved in the project so far, and yesterday's test, should be immensely proud of what they have achieved.

If you feel inspired enough, you can donate here.


Engine test pic: Stefan Marjoram
Video: Olympus i-SPEED

Author: Chris Harris
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