A minute figure in the lonely vastness of the Bonneville Salt Flats, Craig Breedlove pulled on a blue-and-silver crash helmet and slipped into the cockpit of Spirit of America. His J-47 jet engine shrieked. The blue, three-wheeled projectile spurted forward, like a cork popped from an immense champagne bottle. Salt spray streamed high behind Spirit's 38-foot, four-ton fuselage.
In the pits at each end of Bonneville's 11-mile land-speed course, officials, crewmen and newsmen tensed for walkie-talkie bulletins from the timers' stand at the midcourse measured mile. "He's in the mile," said the walkie-talkie. Seconds later: "He's through the mile." The next flash should have been, "He's popped his chutes," It never came. Breedlove had just pushed the land record to the astonishing speed of 526.28 mph, but now, unable to steer or brake Spirit, he evidently was hurtling toward certain death.
Traveling at perhaps 400 mph, Spirit yawed crazily downcourse. In swift terrible seconds it screamed off the firm speed strip and onto mucky ground adjacent. It hit and splintered a wooden utility pole, shot up an incline, soared over a six-foot dike and finally nosed down, three miles off course, in a canal of salt water 18 feet deep.
Marvelously lucky to be alive, Breedlove might then have drowned but for the dexterity with which he swept off the canopy above him and loosened his safety harness. He floated out of the cockpit and swam 10 feet to the dike. An ambulance arrived. Anxious crewmen gathered.
"My God, I'm glad to be back on land," cried Breedlove, soaking wet but unhurt. To crewman Bill Neely he called, "I'm all right, Baby. What's my speed?" Bill did not know. "I kept thinking," said Breedlove, " 'if I have to go, I may as well have the record.' "
As everyone knew who had followed this month's remarkable jet-set news from Bonneville, Breedlove had already lost and regained the record. First had come Tom Green in Walt Arfons' Wing-foot Express, to beat Breedlove's 1963 record, 407 mph, by 6 mph. Three days later Walt's brother Art, driving the Green Monster, did 434 (SI, Oct. 12). Last Tuesday, 48 hours before his ultimate triumph and near disaster, Breedlove had punched back with a 468.
Struggling now to contain himself, Breedlove heard Chief Timer Joe Petralli report his speed in the measured mile as 539.92. Averaged with his 513.33 mph first run of the day, Petralli said, Breedlove had a new record of 526.28—the first over 500 mph and a phenomenal increase of 119 mph in one year.
A kind of jubilant hysteria seized him. "Do I qualify for the hydro-speed record, too?" he demanded. He embraced his father, Norman, and blurted, "Dad, I bent my machine. Look." Behind them only Spirit's tail was visible. The rest was submerged.
Breedlove had to be coaxed into the ambulance. Still feeling waggish, he took a last look at Spirit and cracked to Driver Ted Gillette, "Let me crank it up and back it out of there."
At Wendover, a dreary hamlet 10 miles distant, it took Breedlove half an hour to convince the doctors that he was absolutely undamaged. By nightfall the jet car had been pulled out and Breedlove's mood had changed to one of untypical soul-searching.