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A brief history: The fastest plane, boat and car [video]

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A brief history of the world's fastest airplane, boat and car. Complete with 1970s video footage.

Faster is better? Some think this is how progress ought to be defined. Philosophical questions aside, it’s been a human and animal quest since the beginning of time. When chased by a predator we all think go fast, and go faster.

Here’s a brief history of vehicles that broke the sound barrier, or are still working on it:

AIRPLANE
Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was a reconnaissance aircraft that has held the record for the fastest air-breathing manned plane since the 1970s. (See photo above.) The record was set at 2,193 mph by Eldon Joersz and George Morgan in 1976 near Beale Air Force Base, California.

The Blackbird flew at three times the speed of sound, at altitudes above 80,000 feet and served the U.S. Air Force from 1964 through to 1998. If the pilot detected a surface-to-air missile, the directive was to simply accelerate and outrun the missile. Pilots wear a full pressure suit to survive such low-pressure environments. At that altitude the air outside the plane plummets to -70 degrees F but at mach 3 the kinetic energy heats up the plane to 800 degrees F. The blackbird’s frame is titanium and painted with a heat-emitting black paint.

The plane’s turbo jets with afterburners produce 34,000 pounds of thrust. The Blackbird has been long retired, except for two planes that are on loan to NASA for research on high altitude flying.

BOAT
The record for the fastest boat is pretty old as well. Set back in 1978 by Ken Warby when he got a 27-foot jet-powered hydroplane up to an average speed of 317.60 mph. The “Spirit of Australia” performed this feat over a one kilometer straight away in Blowering Dam, New South Wales, Australia. Warby built the hydroplane in his backyard just outside Sydney.

Since then attempts have been more than challenging. Lee Taylor tried to break the record in 1980 with his rocket-boat, Discovery II. The rocket engine burned hydrogen peroxide fuel, that produced 8,000 pounds of thrust. On November 13, 1980 in Lake Tahoe, Discovery II made it to nearly 270 mph when it slammed into a swell and then veered to the left and disintegrated, disappearing within seconds.

Then in 1989 on Jackson Lake, in Florida, Craig Arfons drove a jet hydroplane, the Rain-X Record Challenger. It had a thrust-to-weight ratio that experts thought might give as much as a 200 mph advantage over The Spirit of Australia. Arfon got it up to 263 mph when it caught air and flew, and then began to cartwheel across the top of the stone flat water. Arfons' parachute could not open and he was killed when his boat shattered over the surface of the lake.

CAR
The world record for fastest land vehicle is a bit more recent.

In 1997 the British jet-car ThrustSSC cracked the first and only supersonic world land speed record reaching an average speed 763.035mph, based on two runs by Andy Green across Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. It was the first car to break the sound barrier.

The ThrustSCC was powered by two Rolls Royce Spey turbofan engines salvaged from a Phantom jet fighter. The engines are capable of producing a net of 50,000 pounds of thrust, and it burns through almost five gallons of fuel per second.

To control a vehicle at 750 mph the ThrustSCC has two front wheels and staggered rear wheels that steer the car. There are no tires, only discs of aluminum.

The biggest concern when reaching such intense speeds is the possibility of becoming airborne (or being driven into the ground.) When a vehicle reaches supersonic speeds air rushes over different regions of the car at different speeds producing pressure that impacts lift and drag.

Currently the new Bloodhound SSC—driven by Andy Green again—is aiming to break the land speed record with a car powered by a jet engine designed to hit 1,000 mph. It intends to be a hybrid, combining a rocket with an EJ200 jet engine from a Typhoon fighter and a Cosworth Formula 1 racing engine. Mixing a rocket, a jet and a car engine will require extreme engineering, and surprisingly the details of the challenge are publicly available here.

The team is seeking $15 mil in funding to complete construction by the end of 2012. New record attempts will start sometime in early 2013.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure