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The Bloodhound Project 9. To create something special

9. To create something special

Wednesday, 10 June, 2009

Thursday, 2nd July 2009 

Listen up, because you read it here first. Today I sat in BLOODHOUND before Andy Green had even seen in.  And I did it at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

And I want to tell you that I drove it up the track, firing the rocket in tiny bursts, to the applause of a hundred thousand people chanting: “Let Lecomber drive it!”

I want to tell you that. However…..

However, honesty compels me to say it is not entirely true. In fact it is something of a fairly top class porky-pie. 

But I really did sit in BLOODHOUND ahead of Andy Green. And have fibreglass slurry all over my butt to prove it.

The BLOODHOUND in question is of course the full-scale model – the ‘Show Car’ in team parlance – the creation of which has been a saga in itself, which we will come to shortly. But let me first set the scene.

Thursday 2nd July 2009 is a day which has remarkably tropical ambitions by British standards. The average temperature is nudging 30 deg C, and the average Englishman or woman is wilting in the heat more than slightly. Nonetheless a goodly number of the BLOODHOUND genius-level Design Team have abandoned their drawing boards – sorry, computer screens – and pitched up on this final preparation day for the cheerfully Satanic gathering which is the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Despite the heat there exists something of a holiday atmosphere as we all potter about the large marquee-cum-temporary-hangar which will house the BLOODHOOUND display. 

Well – the large and largely empty marquee-cum-temporary-hangar. Seeing as how at the moment there is no BLOODHOUND display. 

Which I confess I find a trifle disconcerting, since the exhibition build-up period has been going on for several days now and the whole fandango is due to open to the public at the ungodly hour of 0700 tomorrow morning. When I look at the marquees surrounding us I see cars and motorcycles all in place and polished, people gently lifting dust-sheets and unpeeling carpet-protectors, and sales executives practising drinking Champagne just in case it should become a dutiful necessity over the next three days of the Festival. 

While we…. well, we are rattling about in a void. We await the arrival of the Show Car (which is not ‘real’) and the EJ200 jet (which very definitely is real). 

Three o’clock comes around. Conor La Grue’s mobile bleeps. The BLOODHOUND lorry is at the Number One entrance to Goodwood!  

The Show Car arrives at Goodwood - not complete because this is only the front half of it. On the lorry, though, the EJ200 jet is roughly where it will be in the finished BLOODHOUND. Then the finished car - with nose-cone and rear wheels - will be too long for the biggest artic trailer.

It is not, in fact, late. It is, in fact, if anything a few minutes ahead of its ETA. Which, since the 44-ton artic lorry has had to drive to the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol to pick up the EJ200, then proceed to the Isle of Wight to pick up the Show Car – involving a two-way ferry trip, since your average 44-ton artic is a trifle apt to sink if you try driving it across the Solent – is very good going indeed. Especially since Goodwood, although lovely, is by my own recent experience a complete swine to get to from any direction whatsoever by road. Easy enough by air, which is the only way I’ve ever gone to Goodwood until today, but by road it’s one of those destinations which sort of keeps moving around in a small circle while you try to get the bloody place nailed down in spite of all them little AA signs designed to confuse you.

So the lorry’s done well. And the whole team looks highly relaxed about it. And if I find myself looking at my watch and thinking this is the most daring example of JIT – Just In Time – delivery I have ever seen, everyone else seems perfectly happy. The BLOODHOUND team have ordained it thus, and thus it is happening…..

There is a further story behind that, but again we will come to it.

The marquees at Goodwood are situated around what seem like endless loops of temporary metal trackway, and in order to avoid instant vehicular head-on coagulation there is a strict one-way system in force. This is not going to apply to the BLOODHOUND lorry, however, since by now there are so many exhibits dotted about the joint that any attempt to get a 44-toner around the obstacle course can only result in crushing two Ferraris, one Bugatti and nine golf carts, which could conceivably lead to criticism. So the endlessly amiable Goodwood officials halt the flow temporarily while our lorry comes in backwards in the neatest demonstration of artic reversing in a confined space I have ever witnessed. Clearly the driver, one Graham Lockwood, is a highly competent guy. Which is heartening to know, because BLOODHOUND is going to be seeing a lot more of G Lockwood in the years to come…..

There follows a most intricate mechanical dance featuring the Show Car, the jet, and the biggest fork-lift truck I have ever seen, driven by a top Goodwood executive who is looking most un-executive-like as he melts in the sun, but has quite obviously qualified for a BA Hons in precision forking as a sideline. 

The problem is that there is space, but not much space. So the jet has to be lifted out of the trailer first, deposited just out of the way, then the Show Car lifted out, set down on its four castors, manhandled around through 90 degrees – which blocks the trackway again – and finally inserted backwards into the marquee up an 18 inch step. 

It's not heavy", said Conor La Grue. Lying through his teeth....

"It’s not that heavy”, states Conor La Grue with such hearty conviction that he can only be lying through his teeth. But sure enough about six young and athletic people are enough to manhandle it in through the door with only minor symptoms of heatstroke and apoplexy. 

“That’s that”, says Conor, still unreasonably hearty. “Now, is everyone warm enough?”

We all look at him sourly. Yes, everyone is warm enough. 

“Well”, says Conor. “Now we need someone to get inside it to un-bolt the castors, bolt up the wheels, screw on the wings, and finally bolt the nose-cone on. Nothing difficult”.

Most of the assembled company are around six foot and muscular. I am 5’ 4” and not muscular, so my contribution so far has been fairly unnoticeable. Moreover, just looking at the thing it is perfectly obvious that a small person is going to fit inside the sharp end very much more readily than the sturdy figure of Mark Chapman or the young King Kong of Conor La Grue. And speculative eyes are turning my way……

“I’ll go”, I say.

“It could be a trifle warm…..”, mentions Conor cheerfully.

Well, you don’t say. 

In BLOODHOUND before Andy Green! Pity about a certain pool of fibre-glass slurry....

Sitting halfway up the fuselage, breathing in the heavy acrid stench of only-just-cured fibreglass, it is not a ‘trifle warm’. It is bloody hot. Really bloody hot. Also the finest engineering team in the world have seen fit to equip me with adjustable spanners – adjustable spanners, fer Chrissake, which have been banned from my own toolbox for three decades – and these spanners slip in my hands partly through sweat and partly due to the fact that I have just put both hands into little pools of fibreglass slurry in each side of the shell which it so happens I didn’t notice in the dim light. And around about this time it slowly becomes apparent that there is this third pool of slurry in which I am sitting…..

Never mind. I am sitting inside BLOODHOUND!  Before Wing Commander A. Green ever got a look-in!  

I utter a whee-wham for the jet engine, a roooar for the rocket, and a brrrmm for the APU piston engine.  I do however take care to do all this very softly lest the Team hear me and send for the people with the white coats and the quiet soothing voices.

The last job is to bolt on the nose-cone. For this the bolter – me – lies prone in the sharp end, is given a lantern – which is of course exactly what you need in this temperature – just before the boltees push on the nose, which immediately shuts off whatever little natural light there ever was in the first place. Which is why you have the lantern. The temperature soars instantly. I call out instructions to wriggle the bloody nose about so I can get the bloody bolts in, but nobody on the outside can quite make out what I’m saying……

And then someone pokes his head around the back door and says: “Brian, come out. You’ve been there long enough”.

My instinct is to say “F*** off, I’ll finish the bloody job”, but what little brain I have left suggests that he might actually have a point. I wriggle backwards, taking about a century to get out of the thing. 

A while and about a gallon of water later I can take sensible stock of the Show Car. Marcus Wake, the youngest of the Team, snaked in after me and fixed the nose-cone in about ten minutes, assisted from the outside especially by this lorry driver Graham Lockwood, who is beginning to show signs of being one of those super-capable people who just materialise wherever there is a problem – and fix it. He ain’t never gonna be a designer of BLOODHOUND, but is one of those people you almost instinctively rely on. 

And the Show Car? 

Well, hell, except in one or two very minor details the Show Car is an absolute work of art. Other exhibitors wandering in remark on how large it is. My own reaction – probably prompted by familiarity with the wooden mock-up at UWE, which sits considerably higher off the ground and for some reason looks much more massive – is how small it is. 

Which, of course, is how it should be. We come back to the ideal Land Speed Record car shape, which is a javelin. An unachievable javelin, because quite apart from anything else it is sort of customary to have wheels on a car, which perforce means that bits have to stick out. But compared to the frontal area of Thrust2 or ThrustSSC – why then yes, BLOODHOUND is indeed a javelin. Okay, the Show Car in its present state truncates at only a bit over half the length of the final BLOODHOUND – but the overriding impression to me is that this could be the front end of a supersonic fighter jet. Which prompts the random thought that no aircraft manufacturer has ever yet designed a jet to do Mach 1.4 with the undercarriage down. And that similarly no such jet has ever been designed to crack Mach 1.4 at an altitude of six inches….

Sitting on a packing case I also reflect that the Show Car is in fact a sort of advance microcosm of the whole BLOODHOUND project. So many fantastic people have been involved in such a short time-span.

Starting with Mike Horne and his son Chris. Mike is 70 years old going on 25, and a major Guru of composite structures both aquatic and land-born. He was heavily involved in Thrust 2, and in his ‘retirement’ Richard Noble approached him in April this year and asked if he could produce the Show Car in the nice easy time-span of – just eight weeks. 

Noble swinging the hypnotic watch is a force to be either reckoned with or avoided by a small margin – say, two or three continents – but Mike has a high regard for Richard. “Thank God there are still people around like him who actually do things”, he told me recently.

Well, thank somebody there are still people like Mike and Chris Horne around, too. They worked 15 hours a day for two months to produce the Show Car in time for Goodwood. And having personally had some experience of composite structures I have to say the result is absolutely superb – far, far beyond the minimum requirement for a quick mock-up in the here-and-now.  In one hundred years time that Show Car will be sitting in some museum – and nothing will have moved one millimetre from this day when I was sitting in the fibreglass slurry. 

This in two months, starting from scratch. 

Well, in fact, in less than two months because the thing had to be delivered to Aero Composites (a branch of Britten Norman, also fortuitously based on the Isle of Wight) to be painted. Aero Composites are a Product Sponsor, and will also be painting the real BLOODHOUND.

Now I used to fly BN Islanders occasionally in the very long-ago – and I can certainly tell you that no Islander was ever turned out in showroom condition in eight days, which is how long Aero Composites had the Show Car for. Painting is inevitably a long job for the obvious reason that you have to let each coat dry before applying the next one, so eight days is…. well, practically supersonic, if you’ll pardon the unintentional pun. The schedule was so tight that Conor was down in the Isle of Wight last night personally applying the adhesive decals of the sponsors. Just in time…..

Mike Horne is not among those present today for the good and adequate reason that he is shortly departing to Edwards Air Force Base in the US of A to attend the British Steam Car land speed record attempt – Mike having fabricated the front end of the car.

And then there is STP, who at a very late stage put their hands in their pockets under the persuasive gun of BLOODHOUND’s Tony Parraman and provided the marquee-cum-hangar and various flags and accoutrements. And Akzo Nobel who provided the paint. And then Lord March of Goodwood who donated the pitch – again looking down the rifling of Tony P’s most persuasive organising. Indeed that rifling has been much in evidence these last few weeks, that same young Parraman having been charged with ensuring that ‘just in time’ never translated into ‘just too late’. 

Graham and Julie Lockwood - "can-do" people who BLOODHOUND is going to see more of....

And then there is this Graham Lockwood and his lovely, cheery wife Julie. Graham quit a highly-paid executive job three years ago in order to start up his own road haulage company based in Wigan and imaginatively named G & J Lockwood. This has been highly successful – to the extent that Graham has volunteered to provide, as a sponsor, the transportation needs of BLOODHOUND wherever it goes – be it Africa, America, or some site on the moon maybe.

In a momentary lull I have the temerity to ask Graham what sort of budget he might have in mind for this extraordinarily open-ended commitment.

“Boodget?” he says in broad practical Wigan-ese. “What bloody boodget? What it takes to get job done, that’s what. Here, ‘ave a cooppa tea….”

A BLOODHOUND person. A whole bunch of BLOODHOUND people.

The Festival of Speed was a resounding success. The next morning, along with almost all of the Team, Richard Noble and Andy Green turned up and spent the next three days talking themselves hoarse passing on the message as a tidal wave of people flooded through the marquee. Every BLOODHOUND team member was involved in selling like hell because at this stage of the game any money is most definitely good money. Guesses at the takings in merchandise and 1K memberships vary at this early point, but the highest estimate – Richard’s, unsurprisingly – is about  £11,000.  Rather chillingly, this will fund the enterprise for maybe three whole days. Okay, there is more money in the bank than that, but it sorta brings it home….

One heroine of the weekend was Andy Green’s vivacious wife Emma – a career eye specialist by vocation, but also it seems a sort of supersales-person on the side. Emma signed up more than half of the 220-odd new members of the !K Club who joined at Goodwood.

Okay. Nobody knows yet how important Goodwood may or may not turn out to have been. Nobody knows how many people filed through the marquee, because nobody had a moment of time for such a trivial task as counting heads. Likewise nobody knows how many quiet but all-powerful CEOs there may have been in the crowd who might later pick up a phone….

Nor is there any knowledge of something much more important. Nobody knows how many kids came out of there with at least a vague impression that there is such a thing as determination in their tied-down modern world. That there are people like Noble and Green who you can actually talk to. And that it is possible to create something entirely special…..

Nobody knows about those kids. Not yet, they don’t…