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
phone at his home in Lancaster, California on May 19, 2009.
Electric assigned me to go with Breedlove to Bonneville at the time
ended up breaking the record. Partly because, I think, it was a General
engine he was using and they kind of hoped they could keep GE out of
limelight if he got killed. My wife and I were both there, for about
it was quite a while. I think there were at least 27 runs before the
speed run. Then his wife got in the car and went 300 to set the women’s
wife took a movie of the thing and we finally sent it to Breedlove and
got it back. It was a 16 mm...I’ll say an 8 mm movie. It wasn’t very
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.
you mean in the 1990s, when he built a
think it was that period, right. He did build a racer and they
wind and it skidded on its side for a couple of miles. I haven’t heard
since. But I feel I know quite a bit about him. I’ve visited his shop
around him quite a bit. The wife he had then ended up marrying one of
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
in a couple cases, I may brag a little, I did make a difference. A
imagine you did. You were the jet guy.
he didn’t listen sometimes. But all in all, in the long haul...he’s an
extremely intelligent driver, no doubt about it.
me check your background. You were born
in 1922 in Nebraska?
you serve in WWII?
did you serve?
all over. I was a mapping pilot. Mapping pilots made maps. They’d fly
unknown territory and take photographs, and from the photographs maps
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
big push of the war was pretty well along and I didn’t do any combat
did do some work in South America, but I didn’t get to Europe.
later you went to work at GE, as a jet
were saying before that GE didn’t want
bad publicity if Craig got killed. Did they not want to give Craig the
without you there to tend it? To make sure that it worked correctly?
would say...Craig owned the engine. GE didn’t have a choice. He bought
a junkyard. So GE did they best they could to ensure that Craig did not
his life with a GE engine.
you employed by Craig?
I never got a dime. I was on GE’s payroll.
you were involved only in the 4-wheel
jet car, not the 3 wheeler?
the J-79 engine, I’ve read that the
car had two 55-gallon fuel tanks...
is not true. I don’t think it would have needed anywhere near that much
It just ran a couple of minutes. I do not believe it held anywhere near
much fuel. I would guess it would have been more like 30 gallons all
is that about what it took to make one
run, 30-odd gallons of fuel?
would guess considerably less than that. You only struck the engine
you’re ready to go, and when you’re ready to go, you go. And it only
a minute or so, two minutes, to make the run. The run is so brief. And
other end, when he finished the mile, he turned the engine off. At
left it on, but then they turned it off because it drank in less of the
and salt isn’t good for engines.
ask Bob to explain to me about the
afterburner it had was a single one. It could have any amount of
you wanted. Let’s stop and talk for a moment. The Pratt and Whitney
that time, the afterburner was either on or off. But the General
engine, you could use any amount of afterburner you wanted, so there
stages. But you could 20 percent afterburner up to 100 percent. Of
the case of a race car you always used all there was. But it was an
that, in theory, you could use any amount you wanted.
Craig use the afterburner very much when
you were there?
When they went there they didn’t think they would need it. They thought
could break the speed record without the afterburner. They didn’t
a drag race. The time you have to reach the speed is so brief, had you
the afterburner, it eventually would have reached a pretty impressive
but there weren’t that many miles of salt available. You had to have
afterburner so you could accelerate considerably faster. The
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
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
it was good for about 13,000 or 13,500 pounds of thrust at sea level.
engines got as high as 17,000. That engine was one of the weakest of
all of them.
said that the afterburner could be
increased from about 20 up to 100 percent. How much was Craig using?
he used it, he used all of it. He never used less than [that].
not clear on how that afterburner was
engaged. What sort of control was in the cockpit?
single throttle on his left side. About two-thirds of the throttle was
military power and above that was afterburner power. It was the same
simply went from military into afterburner.
there was no gas pedal on the floor...
was a hand throttle, more like in a
mention hearing something from George
Klass. Bob says the name doesn’t ring a bell, but that since those days
had a brain injury. But he added: I have a pretty good memory of most
George told me a story about standing next to Art Arfons’ car and
vibrations in the ground that felt different from the vibrations from
car, and that they figured there was something not quite right with Art
Did you have that experience?
was never near Art Arfons’ car. But the engines, until you get used to
there’s a substantial amount of vibration, and you kind of have to get
them to see what vibration is normal and what vibration is abnormal. It
fair amount of guts to stand it, to stand there and analyze it, and I
able to do that. In several cases I was right there with my hand on it.
no way to measure vibration. And of course vibration is bad news beyond
point. The whole engine vibrates about four-thousandths of an inch.
considered about the maximum you can tolerate. And believe when, when
got the engine turning at about eight thousand rpm, it’s quite a
feeling. But after a while, it sounds normal or it doesn’t sound normal.
far as I know, Craig didn’t have a substantial engine problem
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
engine back to idle, which is done very bluntly because you’ve gone
mile, the engine will sometimes...the stator vanes will lag more than
should and the engine is a violent stall. Now a violent compressor
doesn’t hurt the engine any, but the inlet on Craig’s rig was
damaged. If it did that every time you turned the main throttle off,
wouldn’t be able to turn around and make your return run. So it was
important we get that fixed. I don’t know if Craig even remembers this,
took a part of the fuel control off and reprogrammed it so the stator
a different program, and as a result we cured the destall stall. I
it the instant it happened. I knew how to fix it. And bless his heart,
me do it. He didn’t consult anybody else. He simply said, “If you can
start doing it.” And I did.
sounds like a crucial role you play.
think it was crucial. Now whether he recognizes that or not, I don’t
Craig got through the mile, is it
correct to say that he didn’t shut off the engine, but that he put it
he shut it off and sometimes he put ii in idle. At one time he turned
the salt, but we stopped doing that because it sucked too much salt
you mean turned around under his own
some cases he did. But he stopped doing that.
you were working on the J-79 when it
was running, did you wear ear plugs?
I should have, but I didn’t. So many people didn’t in those days, but I
have. We all should have. In fact, later on GE had a requirement...you
even be in the engine area if you didn’t have ear plugs in. I’m sure I
damage from it. I’m wearing hearing aids right now...It was foolish,
weren’t smart enough to know any better.
Arfons bought a J-79 that was in pretty
bad shape; a foreign object had passed through it and damaged some of
blades. I’ve read that he had to remove a number of blades. Could he
that engine with a number of the blades removed?
I don’t think...He took the blade off and put it on a regular anvil,
say, and bent it straight and put it back in the engine, and it’s
he got by with it.
you need all of the blades. You can run
it with some of them missing.
really can’t answer that. I would say, you might get by with taking a
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
those, they put them back in the engine.
many blades would there be all together
in a J-79?
wouldn’t want to make any guess. I believe it was a twelve-to-one
ratio, the compressed air was twelve times as dense as when it went
engine. I’m going to guess two or three hundred blades. Oh by the way,
talking about spinning blades. In a jet engine, the stationary blades
contribute almost as much to the total picture as the spinning blades.
that goes in is immediately whirled, rotated such that the stationary
and the spinning blades do an almost equal amount of compressing. This
generally recognized, but it’s true of all axial-flow engines. It goes
the compressor in a spiral. Most people don’t grasp that. But I had a
J-79 work. The company paid for me to get a lot of schooling on it.
if a foreign body passed through the
engine, it could damage the stationary blades just as much as the
blades. Is that correct?
And did, right. In fact, some air foils are almost identical, the
the stationary, because they’re doing the same kind of job.
I ask you about Craig Breedlove
himself. I’ve read that he could be a perfectionist to the point of
What were your feelings about Craig?
never sat down, eyeball to eyeball, with Craig. He kept people a little
a distance. For good reason, I think. He was a pretty damn good
and he didn’t waste words. When I consulted with him, he completely
me for what I knew. He didn’t question it or challenge it. If I said do
did it. But beyond that, we weren’t friends. We weren’t enemies either.
simply did not take time with me. He had enough other things to do,
and all that. And his wife was with him. She later divorced him and
engineer. So I didn’t get to know Craig. I don’t think I tried that
either. He didn’t really invite people to know him.
said earlier that you went to the salt
flats with your wife.
We stayed in a motel there. Same motel that Craig stayed at.
did she go along?
company was paying for it, and they agreed for her to be with me. They
trying to encourage me to do it. They didn’t have many engineers with
rod experience, and I’d had some exposure to hot rods. But on the other
had a lot of engineering knowledge that most hot rodders don’t have.
way up in the company came down to my boss at Edwards Air Force Base
“One of your guys is a hot rod nut,” and I was picked.
that where you were working for GE at the
time, at Edwards AFB?
answer is yes. At that time GE had two little...they had a branch at
Air Force Base and another at Mojave. I was at Edwards at the time. In
General Electric built four of the big hangars there at Edwards Air
GE had a completely unrelated business of building commercial
they got the contract.
the four-wheel car, Craig set, I
believe, three land speed records. Were you there for all of those?
answer is yes. Of course, Arfons later broke the one, more than six
but it was kind of a joke...
was it a joke?
Arfons only had one tenth of the skill, as far as preparing a car.
just a sheer guts situation, and took chances of getting killed. If he
trouble starting an engine, he lit a little bonfire and threw the fire
of the engine to start it. Things like that, that were silly and
Arfons got by with it. He had a lot of guts.
would use more of a drag racing
style; start closer to the measured mile and only take two miles or so
up speed, accelerating very, very hard. But Craig would use the full
to build up speed. What’s your take on that, from a jet engine
point of view. Was Arfons’ approach, for example, hard on the engine?
period that the engine was under power was so short that it really
any difference. These engines were made to run for hours and hours. So
only talking about a couple of minutes. It doesn’t make that much
But Craig’s was a much more conservative way. It’s kind of a toss-up.
that they both got by with it...you can’t argue. But Craig’s was
much more measured, engineering way to do it. And of course Arfons
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.
has a movie on the three-wheeled vehicle that he’ll show you. If
disparity...but it’s pretty well done.
there any memories from those times that
you’d like to share?
I’m taking a look here at the things that I felt I contributed. I told
about rescheduling the stator vanes so that we could fix the destall
soon as he found out the afterburner was required, he also found out
control of the afterburner, the fuel control, was not a part of the
we figured out...we ginned up a fuel control, which is just a tiny
valve...The afterburner requires a device to fire it off, called a
burner. The pilot burner gives fuel, and also has a spark plug. So I
them rig up the spark plug and the fuel to substitute for the part that
didn’t get with the engine, that was discarded by accident. So we did
up with a pilot burner, which was utterly essential for his work.
did tell you that the J-79 engine he had was a very early one. The
engines, the whole, the variable [indecipherable] system, was operated
fuel under pressure. But the engine that Craig had, the hydraulic
the same hydraulic fluid you have in the automatic transmission in your
they dropped that car transmission hydraulic system with the [J-79]
engine when they went to the dash 3.
about Art Arfons’ J-79 engine? Did you
know anything about it and how it compared to Craig’s?
don’t. I think it was about the same vintage, but I never saw it. Of
the stuff you read in the magazines has a certain amount of BS in there.
the afterburner, is it correct to say
that the afterburner shoots additional fuel into the exhaust coming out
After the fuel has gone through the engine, additional fuel is pumped
ignited, which increases the performance about 50 percent.
the fuel in the afterburner, is it
pumped in through a ring of nozzles?
many nozzles would there be?
a little ring...I’m having trouble picturing it and I really can’t
that...There were multiple nozzles. Of course, when the afterburner was
the exhaust nozzle had to move open to keep from over-temperaturing the
So the combination of the nozzle being automatic, or being
controlled, made it a fairly complex engine, where other engines were
simpler, which had just an on/off afterburner. Because you can modulate
J-79 afterburner, which was considered quite a better engine for a
the on/off nozzles.
afterburner as I am visualizing it is
almost like a collar that fits onto the back of the engine. Is that
it be removed or installed, like a
It’s quite simple. Just a row of bolts. Take the bolts off and it’s off.
you involved in the construction of the
car, when the J-79 was put into the car?
The first time I saw the car was at Bonneville. I later visit Craig’s
down in Inglewood, I believe it was. That was after Bonneville.
you remember anything about when you set
the record, the feelings, etc. Was there celebration, or were you all
it as really, quite a...we were ecstatic. We were really happy. I don’t
there was any drinking involved. If there was I wasn’t in on it. But
was a lot of happiness. And of course a lot of people, including
a lot of money into that program. Goodyear supplied the brakes and the
and the tires. I would say Goodyear had, I don’t know, maybe a quarter
in it, and in those days a quarter million was a lot of money.
there anyone on the Spirit team that you
were especially close to?
answer is no. I didn’t get acquainted with any of them. But the
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
half of the names on the list of
people on Craig’s team were involved in building the aluminum body.
had some real good metal people. And they had some pretty fancy
Metal shaping is quite an art.
the jet engine I have your name and one
other, Dick Compton, listed as a jet engine specialist. Does that name
don’t remember him.
about comparing the J-79 with the
earlier engine that both Craig and Art Arfons used, the J-47?
J-47 was most famous because a thousand B-47 bombers had J-47 engines
That contract was so big...I think 12,000 engines were built on
power the B-47s. And the famous F-86 fighter, they were all equipped
J-47 engine. So the J-47 was a famous engine. The J-47’s military power
about 4,000 pounds of thrust, maybe later five. The J-79 later engines
probably 8,000. So they were roughly twice as powerful. And the J-79
roughly only two-thirds the fuel consumption of the J-47.
So it was twice as powerful and used
It [the J-79] served well for so long. Of course it’s all obsolete now.
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
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
the F-4H, that later became the F-18. But anyway, there weren’t many
that used the J-79. For a while there was a Mach 2 bomber called the
that used the J-79, but they were pretty soon all retired. So the 79
become as popular as they thought that it would.
that time, 1964, 1965, was the J-79 about
as cutting edge a jet engine as there was?
There was nothing better.
was it superseded? In the 1970s?
Somewhere in the Seventies other engines came along. I wasn’t familiar
them. I retired in ’81. The only engine I know much about is the J-79.
been retired for 28 years, so in not very long I’ll have as many years
retirement as the 30 years I had at GE.
went on to say he is 87 now and has
trouble walking, so is in an electric wheelchair.
the J-79: It’s easy to
underestimate. It’s inherently a simple engine, but actually it’s
hell. Well let’s face it, there were probably a hundred engineers
that engine, or several hundred, when it was being developed. It was
you give me a clear understanding of
getting the J-79 going? What are the procedures to warm up the thing
normal engine in an F-104 airplane was started with an air turbine
There was no way that Breedlove could use one of those because the
was pretty sophisticated. So he decided that his engine would be
electrically. The engine was sent to the Ontario, California GE
and they invented [?] a special electric starter to this J-79 engine.
starters were from a J-47 engine that had been used, so they vented [?]
two J-47 starters. So answering your question, to start the engine, you
electric start cart that has a lot of wallop, that puts out a lot of 28
power, to power these electric starters. If you want to just test the
the guy mounts into the cockpit and pushes the button and signals to
electric power source and they push a button and it cranks the engine.
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.
fact, there’s only one engine control and that’s the throttle.
the engine is hooked up to the battery
does the starter in the cockpit and
signals to the guy at the battery cart and he turns it on, and that
once it’s turning Craig advances the
throttle to shoot fuel into the engine. Is that correct?
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
he got inside the engine and stretched out for a snooze.] Does that
realistic? Or do you think it’s a story?
think it’s a story.
the inside of an engine like that is not
a nice place to lie down.
No, that’d be kind of silly.
anybody ever interviewed you before
about your experiences on the Breedlove jet car?
don’t believe so.