craig breedlove spirit of america


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Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction and fiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.


Bob Koken was a J-79 jet engine specialist with General Electric in the 1960s. In 1965 GE sent him out to the Bonneville Salt Flats to assist Craig Breedlove run "Spirit of America-Sonic One" for the land speed record. I interviewed Bob over the phone at his home in Lancaster, California on May 19, 2009.

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General Electric assigned me to go with Breedlove to Bonneville at the time when he ended up breaking the record. Partly because, I think, it was a General Electric engine he was using and they kind of hoped they could keep GE out of the limelight if he got killed. My wife and I were both there, for about six weeks, it was quite a while. I think there were at least 27 runs before the final speed run. Then his wife got in the car and went 300 to set the women’s speed record. My wife took a movie of the thing and we finally sent it to Breedlove and never got it back. It was a 16 mm...I’ll say an 8 mm movie. It wasn’t very good. Not very professional. Breedlove should have it. He wanted me to be with him on his next project, but I didn’t choose to do that.


Do you mean in the 1990s, when he built a new racer?


I think it was that period, right. He did build a racer and they misjudged the wind and it skidded on its side for a couple of miles. I haven’t heard from him since. But I feel I know quite a bit about him. I’ve visited his shop and been around him quite a bit. The wife he had then ended up marrying one of the engineers.


I was in some of the pictures, I guess, but the important thing was for me not to get in the pictures. The important thing was to help Breedlove all I could. And in a couple cases, I may brag a little, I did make a difference. A substantial difference.


I imagine you did. You were the jet guy.


Well, he didn’t listen sometimes. But all in all, in the long haul...he’s an extremely intelligent driver, no doubt about it.


Let me check your background. You were born in 1922 in Nebraska?


That’s correct.


Did you serve in WWII?




Where did you serve?

Oh, all over. I was a mapping pilot. Mapping pilots made maps. They’d fly over unknown territory and take photographs, and from the photographs maps were made. Most of my time was spent here in the US making maps for people who were training on [garbled], primarily. But I did a fair amount of fill-in work. The big push of the war was pretty well along and I didn’t do any combat work. I did do some work in South America, but I didn’t get to Europe.


And later you went to work at GE, as a jet engine specialist.




You were saying before that GE didn’t want bad publicity if Craig got killed. Did they not want to give Craig the engine without you there to tend it? To make sure that it worked correctly?


I would say...Craig owned the engine. GE didn’t have a choice. He bought if from a junkyard. So GE did they best they could to ensure that Craig did not lose his life with a GE engine.


Were you employed by Craig?


No, I never got a dime. I was on GE’s payroll.


And you were involved only in the 4-wheel jet car, not the 3 wheeler?


That is correct.


About the J-79 engine, I’ve read that the car had two 55-gallon fuel tanks...


That is not true. I don’t think it would have needed anywhere near that much fuel. It just ran a couple of minutes. I do not believe it held anywhere near that much fuel. I would guess it would have been more like 30 gallons all together. 30 or 40.


So is that about what it took to make one run, 30-odd gallons of fuel?


I would guess considerably less than that. You only struck the engine where you’re ready to go, and when you’re ready to go, you go. And it only took about a minute or so, two minutes, to make the run. The run is so brief. And at the other end, when he finished the mile, he turned the engine off. At first they left it on, but then they turned it off because it drank in less of the salt, and salt isn’t good for engines.


[I ask Bob to explain to me about the four-stage afterburner.]


The afterburner it had was a single one. It could have any amount of afterburner you wanted. Let’s stop and talk for a moment. The Pratt and Whitney engine at that time, the afterburner was either on or off. But the General Electric engine, you could use any amount of afterburner you wanted, so there were no stages. But you could 20 percent afterburner up to 100 percent. Of course, in the case of a race car you always used all there was. But it was an afterburner that, in theory, you could use any amount you wanted.


Did Craig use the afterburner very much when you were there?


Yes. When they went there they didn’t think they would need it. They thought they could break the speed record without the afterburner. They didn’t realize it’s a drag race. The time you have to reach the speed is so brief, had you not used the afterburner, it eventually would have reached a pretty impressive speed, but there weren’t that many miles of salt available. You had to have the afterburner so you could accelerate considerably faster. The afterburner adds about 50 percent to the thrust of the engine. Now, the engine he had was one of the earliest engines. That’s why it went to a junkyard. They only made probably about ten like that. It’s called a J-79 dash 2, and it was considerably different from the later engines and considerably less powerful. I’m guessing it was good for about 13,000 or 13,500 pounds of thrust at sea level. The later engines got as high as 17,000. That engine was one of the weakest of all of them.


You said that the afterburner could be increased from about 20 up to 100 percent. How much was Craig using?


When he used it, he used all of it. He never used less than [that].


I’m not clear on how that afterburner was engaged. What sort of control was in the cockpit?


A single throttle on his left side. About two-thirds of the throttle was full military power and above that was afterburner power. It was the same lever. He simply went from military into afterburner.


So there was no gas pedal on the floor...




There was a hand throttle, more like in a motor boat.




[I mention hearing something from George Klass. Bob says the name doesn’t ring a bell, but that since those days he’d had a brain injury. But he added: I have a pretty good memory of most of it.] George told me a story about standing next to Art Arfons’ car and feeling vibrations in the ground that felt different from the vibrations from Craig’s car, and that they figured there was something not quite right with Art car. Did you have that experience?


I was never near Art Arfons’ car. But the engines, until you get used to them, there’s a substantial amount of vibration, and you kind of have to get used to them to see what vibration is normal and what vibration is abnormal. It takes a fair amount of guts to stand it, to stand there and analyze it, and I would be able to do that. In several cases I was right there with my hand on it. We had no way to measure vibration. And of course vibration is bad news beyond some point. The whole engine vibrates about four-thousandths of an inch. That’s considered about the maximum you can tolerate. And believe when, when you’ve got the engine turning at about eight thousand rpm, it’s quite a buzzing feeling. But after a while, it sounds normal or it doesn’t sound normal.


As far as I know, Craig didn’t have a substantial engine problem throughout the entire time. But he did have something that’s very important. During one of the runs he had a de-stall stall. When you’re going full bore and you pull the engine back to idle, which is done very bluntly because you’ve gone through the mile, the engine will sometimes...the stator vanes will lag more than they should and the engine is a violent stall. Now a violent compressor stall doesn’t hurt the engine any, but the inlet on Craig’s rig was substantially damaged. If it did that every time you turned the main throttle off, you wouldn’t be able to turn around and make your return run. So it was very important we get that fixed. I don’t know if Craig even remembers this, but I took a part of the fuel control off and reprogrammed it so the stator vane had a different program, and as a result we cured the destall stall. I recognized it the instant it happened. I knew how to fix it. And bless his heart, Craig let me do it. He didn’t consult anybody else. He simply said, “If you can do it, start doing it.” And I did.


That sounds like a crucial role you play.


I think it was crucial. Now whether he recognizes that or not, I don’t know.


After Craig got through the mile, is it correct to say that he didn’t shut off the engine, but that he put it into idle?


Sometimes he shut it off and sometimes he put ii in idle. At one time he turned around on the salt, but we stopped doing that because it sucked too much salt into the engine.


Do you mean turned around under his own power?


In some cases he did. But he stopped doing that.


When you were working on the J-79 when it was running, did you wear ear plugs?


No. I should have, but I didn’t. So many people didn’t in those days, but I should have. We all should have. In fact, later on GE had a couldn’t even be in the engine area if you didn’t have ear plugs in. I’m sure I got some damage from it. I’m wearing hearing aids right now...It was foolish, but we weren’t smart enough to know any better.


Art Arfons bought a J-79 that was in pretty bad shape; a foreign object had passed through it and damaged some of the blades. I’ve read that he had to remove a number of blades. Could he have run that engine with a number of the blades removed?


No, I don’t think...He took the blade off and put it on a regular anvil, you might say, and bent it straight and put it back in the engine, and it’s surprising, he got by with it.


So you need all of the blades. You can run it with some of them missing.


I really can’t answer that. I would say, you might get by with taking a couple out. You would have some loss in performance, but he might not have cared. So I can’t answer that question. But he did manually bang some of them straight, and those, they put them back in the engine.


How many blades would there be all together in a J-79?


I wouldn’t want to make any guess. I believe it was a twelve-to-one compression ratio, the compressed air was twelve times as dense as when it went into the engine. I’m going to guess two or three hundred blades. Oh by the way, we keep talking about spinning blades. In a jet engine, the stationary blades contribute almost as much to the total picture as the spinning blades. The air that goes in is immediately whirled, rotated such that the stationary blades and the spinning blades do an almost equal amount of compressing. This is not generally recognized, but it’s true of all axial-flow engines. It goes through the compressor in a spiral. Most people don’t grasp that. But I had a lot of J-79 work. The company paid for me to get a lot of schooling on it.


So if a foreign body passed through the engine, it could damage the stationary blades just as much as the rotating blades. Is that correct?


Yes. And did, right. In fact, some air foils are almost identical, the rotating and the stationary, because they’re doing the same kind of job.


Could I ask you about Craig Breedlove himself. I’ve read that he could be a perfectionist to the point of being cranky. What were your feelings about Craig?


I never sat down, eyeball to eyeball, with Craig. He kept people a little bit at a distance. For good reason, I think. He was a pretty damn good publicity man, and he didn’t waste words. When I consulted with him, he completely respected me for what I knew. He didn’t question it or challenge it. If I said do it, he did it. But beyond that, we weren’t friends. We weren’t enemies either. He simply did not take time with me. He had enough other things to do, getting sleep and all that. And his wife was with him. She later divorced him and married the engineer. So I didn’t get to know Craig. I don’t think I tried that hard either. He didn’t really invite people to know him.


You said earlier that you went to the salt flats with your wife.


Yes. We stayed in a motel there. Same motel that Craig stayed at.


Why did she go along?


The company was paying for it, and they agreed for her to be with me. They were trying to encourage me to do it. They didn’t have many engineers with any hot rod experience, and I’d had some exposure to hot rods. But on the other hand I had a lot of engineering knowledge that most hot rodders don’t have. Somebody way up in the company came down to my boss at Edwards Air Force Base and said, “One of your guys is a hot rod nut,” and I was picked.


Is that where you were working for GE at the time, at Edwards AFB?


The answer is yes. At that time GE had two little...they had a branch at Edwards Air Force Base and another at Mojave. I was at Edwards at the time. In fact, General Electric built four of the big hangars there at Edwards Air Force Base. GE had a completely unrelated business of building commercial buildings, and they got the contract.


With the four-wheel car, Craig set, I believe, three land speed records. Were you there for all of those?


The answer is yes. Of course, Arfons later broke the one, more than six hundred, but it was kind of a joke...


Why was it a joke?


Well, Arfons only had one tenth of the skill, as far as preparing a car. Arfons was just a sheer guts situation, and took chances of getting killed. If he had trouble starting an engine, he lit a little bonfire and threw the fire in front of the engine to start it. Things like that, that were silly and foolish. But Arfons got by with it. He had a lot of guts.


Arfons would use more of a drag racing style; start closer to the measured mile and only take two miles or so to build up speed, accelerating very, very hard. But Craig would use the full five miles to build up speed. What’s your take on that, from a jet engine specialist’s point of view. Was Arfons’ approach, for example, hard on the engine?

The period that the engine was under power was so short that it really didn’t make any difference. These engines were made to run for hours and hours. So you’re only talking about a couple of minutes. It doesn’t make that much difference. But Craig’s was a much more conservative way. It’s kind of a toss-up. The fact that they both got by with can’t argue. But Craig’s was considered a much more measured, engineering way to do it. And of course Arfons bragged a little. So of the stuff he’s giving you is sheer bullshit. He wanted it to sound bold. And he was good at it. You know, all these hot rodders are pretty good bullshitters. And Craig has a movie on the three-wheeled vehicle that he’ll show you. If there’s any disparity...but it’s pretty well done.

Are there any memories from those times that you’d like to share?


Well, I’m taking a look here at the things that I felt I contributed. I told you about rescheduling the stator vanes so that we could fix the destall stall. As soon as he found out the afterburner was required, he also found out that the control of the afterburner, the fuel control, was not a part of the engine. So we figured out...we ginned up a fuel control, which is just a tiny needle valve...The afterburner requires a device to fire it off, called a pilot burner. The pilot burner gives fuel, and also has a spark plug. So I helped them rig up the spark plug and the fuel to substitute for the part that he didn’t get with the engine, that was discarded by accident. So we did fix him up with a pilot burner, which was utterly essential for his work.


I did tell you that the J-79 engine he had was a very early one. The later engines, the whole, the variable [indecipherable] system, was operated using fuel under pressure. But the engine that Craig had, the hydraulic system was the same hydraulic fluid you have in the automatic transmission in your car. So they dropped that car transmission hydraulic system with the [J-79] dash 2 engine when they went to the dash 3.


What about Art Arfons’ J-79 engine? Did you know anything about it and how it compared to Craig’s?


No I don’t. I think it was about the same vintage, but I never saw it. Of course, the stuff you read in the magazines has a certain amount of BS in there.


About the afterburner, is it correct to say that the afterburner shoots additional fuel into the exhaust coming out of the jet?


Yes. After the fuel has gone through the engine, additional fuel is pumped in and ignited, which increases the performance about 50 percent.


And the fuel in the afterburner, is it pumped in through a ring of nozzles?


That’s about right.


How many nozzles would there be?


There’s a little ring...I’m having trouble picturing it and I really can’t answer that...There were multiple nozzles. Of course, when the afterburner was fired, the exhaust nozzle had to move open to keep from over-temperaturing the engine. So the combination of the nozzle being automatic, or being automatically controlled, made it a fairly complex engine, where other engines were far simpler, which had just an on/off afterburner. Because you can modulate the J-79 afterburner, which was considered quite a better engine for a fighter than the on/off nozzles.


The afterburner as I am visualizing it is almost like a collar that fits onto the back of the engine. Is that correct?




Could it be removed or installed, like a collar?


Yes. It’s quite simple. Just a row of bolts. Take the bolts off and it’s off.


Were you involved in the construction of the car, when the J-79 was put into the car?


No. The first time I saw the car was at Bonneville. I later visit Craig’s shop, down in Inglewood, I believe it was. That was after Bonneville.


Do you remember anything about when you set the record, the feelings, etc. Was there celebration, or were you all just exhausted?


Oh, it as really, quite a...we were ecstatic. We were really happy. I don’t know if there was any drinking involved. If there was I wasn’t in on it. But boy, there was a lot of happiness. And of course a lot of people, including Goodyear, put a lot of money into that program. Goodyear supplied the brakes and the wheels and the tires. I would say Goodyear had, I don’t know, maybe a quarter million in it, and in those days a quarter million was a lot of money.


Was there anyone on the Spirit team that you were especially close to?


The answer is no. I didn’t get acquainted with any of them. But the engineer, [Nye Frank], Frank was a qualified engineer, I believe the only engineer in the bunch. He knew a lot about aerodynamics. I knew lot about jet engines, but I didn’t know anything about aerodynamics.


About half of the names on the list of people on Craig’s team were involved in building the aluminum body.


He had some real good metal people. And they had some pretty fancy equipment. Metal shaping is quite an art.


For the jet engine I have your name and one other, Dick Compton, listed as a jet engine specialist. Does that name ring a bell?


I don’t remember him.


What about comparing the J-79 with the earlier engine that both Craig and Art Arfons used, the J-47?


The J-47 was most famous because a thousand B-47 bombers had J-47 engines in them. That contract was so big...I think 12,000 engines were built on contract to power the B-47s. And the famous F-86 fighter, they were all equipped with the J-47 engine. So the J-47 was a famous engine. The J-47’s military power was about 4,000 pounds of thrust, maybe later five. The J-79 later engines were probably 8,000. So they were roughly twice as powerful. And the J-79 had roughly only two-thirds the fuel consumption of the J-47.


Wow. So it was twice as powerful and used less fuel.


Right. It [the J-79] served well for so long. Of course it’s all obsolete now. But at that time we were pretty proud of it. The J-79’s only real use was the F-104...I’m sorry, that’s not quite true...the F-104 was the first use of the J-79. And for a very short time, Macdonald, not Macdonald Douglas, but Macdonald, Macdonald made a twin-engine fighter using the J-79 which was called the F-4H, that later became the F-18. But anyway, there weren’t many airplanes that used the J-79. For a while there was a Mach 2 bomber called the Hustler that used the J-79, but they were pretty soon all retired. So the 79 didn’t become as popular as they thought that it would.


At that time, 1964, 1965, was the J-79 about as cutting edge a jet engine as there was?


Yes. There was nothing better.


When was it superseded? In the 1970s?


Yes. Somewhere in the Seventies other engines came along. I wasn’t familiar with them. I retired in ’81. The only engine I know much about is the J-79. I’ve been retired for 28 years, so in not very long I’ll have as many years of retirement as the 30 years I had at GE.


Bob went on to say he is 87 now and has trouble walking, so is in an electric wheelchair.


About the J-79: It’s easy to underestimate. It’s inherently a simple engine, but actually it’s complex as hell. Well let’s face it, there were probably a hundred engineers working on that engine, or several hundred, when it was being developed. It was that complicated.


Could you give me a clear understanding of getting the J-79 going? What are the procedures to warm up the thing and start it?


The normal engine in an F-104 airplane was started with an air turbine starter. There was no way that Breedlove could use one of those because the equipment was pretty sophisticated. So he decided that his engine would be started electrically. The engine was sent to the Ontario, California GE overhaul shop and they invented [?] a special electric starter to this J-79 engine. The starters were from a J-47 engine that had been used, so they vented [?] it with two J-47 starters. So answering your question, to start the engine, you get an electric start cart that has a lot of wallop, that puts out a lot of 28 volt power, to power these electric starters. If you want to just test the engine, the guy mounts into the cockpit and pushes the button and signals to the electric power source and they push a button and it cranks the engine. It cranks the engine to several hundred rpm, and then you open the throttle and it starts. It’s a pretty simple system. It’s an automatic starting system. In fact, there’s only one engine control and that’s the throttle.


So the engine is hooked up to the battery cart....




Craig does the starter in the cockpit and signals to the guy at the battery cart and he turns it on, and that gets the engine turning...




...and once it’s turning Craig advances the throttle to shoot fuel into the engine. Is that correct?




[I ask Bob about a story I  read in old newspapers about Art Arfons being out on the salt with his car. To escape the heat of the day, he got inside the engine and stretched out for a snooze.] Does that sound realistic? Or do you think it’s a story?


I think it’s a story.


So the inside of an engine like that is not a nice place to lie down.


Correct. No, that’d be kind of silly.


Has anybody ever interviewed you before about your experiences on the Breedlove jet car?


I don’t believe so.

speed duel land speed record

copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley