Jessi Combs and the crash of the North American Eagle Project car

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car, post crash - 3

Jessi Combs"It may seem a little crazy to walk directly into the line of fire... those who are willing, are those who achieve great things.

People say I’m crazy. I say thank you ;)"

-- Jessi Combs, Twitter, August 24, 2019, 3 days before her death

I recently watched the 2022 documentary, The Fastest Woman On Earth, about the extraordinary life and heart-breaking death of 39 year old Jessi Combs while attempting to break her own land speed record. Her story really touched me.

I don't recall knowing of Jessi prior to the film, but she seems to have been quite popular and very well liked, as well as extraordinarily motivated and talented. She apparently excelled at multiple professions including fabrication, welding, mechanics and race car driving with a variety of vehicles.

Jessi lived in a world dominated by men and probably left quite a few damaged egos in her wake, but also many who respected her for her remarkable talent. She tells us that she loved going fast and being an inspiration for women around the world, made possible in part by her presence in many television shows including Xtreme 4x4, Two Guys Garage, All Girls Garage, Heels On Wheels, Overhaulin', The List and MythBusters. There was, and is, something quite magnetic about her genuine personality.

North American Eagle Project car
The North American Eagle Project car
Jessi Combs in the North American Eagle Project car
Jessi Combs, born July 27, 1980, died August 27, 2019
Jessi Combs watches crew work on the North American Eagle Project car
Jessi lies under the North American Eagle Project car as it is being worked on

If you haven't yet seen The Fastest Woman On Earth or aren't aware of her story, the short version is that Jessi died while driving a jet engine powered "car" on the Alvord Desert in Oregon on August 27, 2019. The 18,780 lb. thrust North American Eagle (NAE) Project car, first owned by Ed Shadle (deceased), was built to break the all-time land speed record of 763 mph at the time. During the build-up to a record breaking run, Jessi and others made in excess of 40 runs in the vehicle over a period of nearly 2 decades. Jessi's involvement in the project as a driver culminated with an official 522.783 mph run and a top speed in excess of 550 mph. That final run however ended in a horrific, fiery crash and an abrupt end of her life due to what appears to be a combination of a mechanical failure and a serious design flaw which prevented the vehicle from slowing sufficiently before it ran off the end of the Alvord Desert track and exploded into pieces.

The following image shows the state of the vehicle when it was first purchased from an aircraft junkyard for approximately $25,000 U.S.. During an interview Ed Shadle stated that the aircraft was "about 2 weeks away from becoming a beer can".

North American Eagle Project car, origin
The North American Eagle Project vehicle started out as an F-104 military jet aircraft

One of the better documentaries regarding how the North American Eagle land speed project took shape was produced by KBTC Public Television in 2016.

Video: The North American Eagle - KBTC Public Television (2016)

Here's the approximate specifications of the vehicle:

CHASSIS Extensively modified F-104A-10 Lockheed Skunk Works Starfighter, tail no. 56-0763
LENGTH 56 ft.
WEIGHT 13,000 lb.
ENGINE Model: General Electric LM - 1500 Turbojet
Dimensions: 17 ft. L x 3 ft. D
Weight: 3,600 lb.
Output: 18,780 lb. thrust (~52,000 hp)
Fuel consumption: 40 gal./min. @ idle, 90 gal./min. @ full afterburner
WHEELS (5) solid billet aluminum
BRAKING magnetic wheel brakes, parachutes, air/speed brakes

The The Fastest Woman On Earth documentary, while absolutely well-worth watching in my opinion, left me a bit disappointed regarding the sequence of events that led to the crash, particularly why one or both parachutes were deployed while the engine was still throttled up, causing them to burn. Considering Jessi's overall experience with racing, mechanics, safety, and this vehicle specifically, and considering the sorted mechanical history of the experimental NEP vehicle, i suspect it is supremely unlikely that Jessi intentionally or accidentally deployed the parachutes while the engine was still burning and therefore i think it's logical to surmise that a design or mechanical failure was the more likely cause of the crash. We are told by investigators that the ultimate cause of the crash was a failure of the nose wheel as a result of it hitting an unidentified object and fragmenting, however that explanation doesn't seem to account for the early deployment of the parachutes. We'll soon explore another potentially contributing factor that, based on the evidence i reviewed, may fill in some of the blanks.

The extremely violent nature of the crash transformed the vehicle into a twisted pile of junk and burning jet fuel. Thankfully Jessi appears to have died quickly of a blunt force head trauma prior to the fire. The following image was captured immediately after impact with the uneven terrain past the end of the track and in it we see a black cloud of burning jet fuel beginning to rise in the distance.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car crash - explosion
Moments after Jessi's crash black smoke can be seen rising in the distance
Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car, post crash - 3
Shortly after the crash, rescue and NAE team members arrive at the scene

In the following image we see an upside-down wheel near the front of the vehicle (right side). I can't be certain what wheel this is, but it seems it may be the nose wheel, as though the bottom part of the front of the vehicle had peeled back over the top of the structure. Notably a fragment of the wheel is missing.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car, post crash - 4
The wreckage is almost unrecognizable

There are several points of interest that drew me to Jessi's life, one of them being the unflinching integrity she carried to her death despite being fully aware of what she was facing. The documentary gives us a reasonably uninterrupted view from a camera mounted to the canopy behind Jessi's left shoulder and from this perspective we can observe her actions and behavior early in the run before all hell broke loose, as well as after when she almost certainly knew she was facing an abrupt and violent end to her life. What struck me about her behavior is that there was no visible change; she held her composure completely, right up to the moment of her death. In the following image Jessi is perhaps two seconds from disaster. We see she's at the end of the track where bushes begin to dot the dried desert mud. Her head is upright as she surely anticipates what is about to unfold.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car crash - 1
Seconds from disaster, the NEA vehicle exceeds the length of the track

The following sequence of images, captured from the film, occur within the space of approximately 1 second. This next image shows the first visible sign of the fuselage being breached as the cabin begins to fill with dust and dirt. Jessi's head begins moving forward at this time.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car crash - 2
Dirt and debris is forced into the cockpit as the fuselage is breached

Just milliseconds later her head slams violently forward, presumably into the console which resulted in the blunt force head trauma.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car crash - 3
Jessi's head appears to strike the console

Nearly as fast as her head was slammed forward it returns again to an upright position, but we can see that her helmet visor is apparently no longer attached as evidenced by the flailing straps that held it in place. This rapid sequence of her head slamming forward and back would occur twice before the canopy, and with it the camera, detaches from the fuselage whereupon we lose all sight of her.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car crash - 4
Jessi's body momentarily returns to an upright position

In the next image her body seems to be positioned substantially lower than normal in the vehicle. The camera perspective hasn't changed significantly and the canopy is still attached to the fuselage, thus i can only guess that it is at this moment when the fuselage is further compromised as a result of repeated impacts with the uneven terrain. From this point onward the camera view is completely obscured by dust and debris until the canopy finally detaches from the fuselage and begins tumbling through the air.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car crash - 5
The fuselage appears to be coming apart rapidly at this point

The vehicle retained the original F-104 ejection seat and some people have questioned why Jessi didn't utilize it. I believe part of the answer is that the F-104 apparently wasn't equipped with an ejection mechanism that could be activated at ground level whilst still providing a potential for survival. The other part of the answer could be that it was disabled, which would be the safe and logical choice if the first part of the answer is true. Nevertheless, it seems a bit odd to me that the seat would be retained unless it was an integral part of the vehicle or it served multiple purposes. An ejection seat is certainly much heavier than a typical racing seat, however i believe it did contain the breathing apparatus which supplied the gas to the face mask worn by the vehicles drivers.

Jessi Combs in the North American Eagle Project car - ejection seat
The F-104 ejection seat was retained in the final design of the NAE vehicle

I threw this image in only because the Microsoft branding caught my attention. I have to wonder what role Microsoft may have played in the development of the North American Eagle Project car and what it was they were researching.

Jessi Combs in the North American Eagle Project car - 2
Note the Microsoft branding

It is very apparent that a strong and unusual vibration appeared around the time Jessi throttled down the engine sometime after the 6 mile mark. In the documentary we see the camera mounted in front of her swivel in its mount as a result and we are told that the source of the vibration was the nose wheel coming into contact with an object, perhaps a rock, after which multiple pieces of it broke off which would have thrown it terribly out of balance. We are also told that the nose wheel "collapsed" at one point however this is not explained. From information available in the film it is not clear to me why wheel fragments were apparently found along the 5 mile section, yet the vibration didn't seem to surface until around the 6 mile mark after Jessie throttled down the engine.

Most disappointing from a forensic point of view is that the film provides no answer nor clue as to what caused the parachute(s) to deploy early, nor is any of the crucial telemetry data revealed even though the storage media (a Solid State Disk) on which the data resided was found unscathed, still plugged in to the computer main board.

Around the 6 mile mark, after reaching a speed in excess of 550 mph, Jessi is casually told to "shut it down" but there is apparently no acknowledgment from her. When the vehicle doesn't appear to be slowing the voice becomes distinctly agitated and forceful and Jessie is again ordered to initiate the shut-down process. A second or so later Jessi replies with "copy that" and that's the last we hear from her. Whether she received or ignored the first order is not known. Whether the film editors decided to not include further communications from her due to content, or whether she made no further attempts to communicate is also unknown, however such communications, if made, could provide vital clues as to what went so terribly wrong.

In this next image we see what appears to be one of the burned parachutes found along the track, though we don't know where other than it was apparently found miles before the crash site. Oddly no mention is made of the 2nd parachute. Pay particular attention to the red color of the tether line as this provides us with a potentially vital clue as to why the parachute was deployed early and thus why the vehicle did not slow sufficiently before reaching the end of the track.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car, post crash - parachute
One of the burnt parachutes and its tether

Indeed there were crucial design flaws with the vehicle, not the least of which was the decision to modify an F-104 Lockheed Starfighter military aircraft for surface use and not include a proper roll cage to protect the driver. Braking, steering, parachute deployment and other critical problems plagued the project. Jessi came close to catastrophe in 2016 when both parachutes failed to deploy. She also experienced problems steering the vehicle at that time which may have been due to the hydraulic fluid overheating and boiling. Jessi appeared to be shaken to the core as a result of the parachute failures and later described the incident during an interview as being her "sketchiest moment in a car". Earlier during that same session one of the parachutes failed to deploy for another driver.

The following image is from Jessi's 2016 run that nearly ended in a disaster. At the end of the track there are bushes and the ground becomes very uneven. Crossing this terrain at speed is potentially a death sentence. From the wheel tracks, as well as from the featured image of this page, we can see that the vehicle had 5 wheels; 1 nose wheel, 2 mid wheels and 2 rear wheels, all machined from solid billet aluminum. We can see the faint imprints left by the mid wheels despite being partially covered by debris scattered by the nose wheel (the imprints between the mid and outer-most rear wheel tracks are tire tracks from another vehicle).

Jessi Combs on the desert after a run in the North American Eagle Project car
Jessi stands at the end of a previous run that nearly ended in disaster

The 2 mid wheels were attached to swing arms that were forced downward by 500 lb. force springs according to the builders. The fact that these wheels existed at all reveals another questionable decision to use an aircraft fuselage as a basis for a land speed record vehicle. The load of a fixed wing aircraft is supported by its wings and without the wings the load of the fuselage had to be shifted to the nose and the tail, much further away from the strongest part of the structure. It seems quite probable that the purpose of the 2 spring-loaded mid wheels was to compensate for the missing wings, however given that the vehicle weighed around 13,000 lbs. and the mid wheels supported only about 1,000 lbs., the fuselage could have been subjected to substantial flexing and thus prone to fracturing. One possible reason for the seemingly negligible amount of weight supported by the mid wheels is that steering the vehicle might become more difficult had they supported more weight and so i suspect a compromise may have been made. The mid wheels, unlike the other wheels, appear to have been smooth along their circumference which i suspect was to help with steering by allowing them to slide sideways.

In the following image we see another crucial design flaw and possibly the one which provides us with the reason for the crash. The parachute tethers were left exposed to debris kicked up by the the nose and two mid wheels, all of which are located in front of the parachutes. We can clearly see in videos that the parachute tethers were being battered by debris kicked up by the wheels as they forged shallow trenches in the dried mud. Surely others involved in the project must have recognized this potentially fatal problem and so why no one corrected it over the approximate 20 year span of the project is unknown. Again note the two markedly different colors of the parachute tethers, the left one being red.

North American Eagle Project car, rear view
From the rear we see the parachute canisters and the tethers

In the film we learn that the aluminum nose wheel of the car fractured, presumably after contacting something along the track, perhaps an embedded rock which may not have been noticed by those responsible for clearing the track. Multiple pieces of the nose wheel were found along the 5 mile section of the track we are told.

North American Eagle Project car - wheel fragment
A fragment of one of the aluminum wheels of the NAE vehicle, found along the 5 mile segment of the track

More debris was found scattered elsewhere along the track, miles before the crash site which is well off in the distance.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car, post crash - debris
More debris from the NAE vehicle found strewn along the track

In this image we see that the parachutes were secured in their canisters by 4 straps which apparently snapped together to form a cross over the parachute canister end caps. The force from whatever mechanism was used to deploy the parachutes would cause the snaps to pop open as they were forced out of the canisters. This is not an uncommon affair for securing these types of parachutes so far as i'm aware.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car, post crash - 2
The parachutes were secured in their canisters by straps

As we noted earlier, the left-side parachute tether was red in color and part of this tether was found well before the crash site, however in the image below we see a portion of what appears to be this same red tether thus indicating it had been severed long before the crash. Unless the tether was previously compromised by desert sand and debris striking it, or by some other condition or force, it is highly unlikely that it would have broken in its midst from excessive drag of the parachute being deployed at an excessive speed. The most likely point of failure in the system would likely be where the tether terminates, or the parachute itself, and given that the parachute we see in the film is completely burned, it is probably safe to assume that it provided little or no drag force, further reinforcing that the tether was severed by other means. Also we do not hear Jessi make any mention of one or both parachutes being deployed early which indicates that she apparently wasn't aware that one or both had deployed. As previously mentioned, the film makers fail to reveal what happened to the 2nd parachute.

Jessi Combs - North American Eagle Project car, post crash - 1
Here we see what appears to be the remainder of one of the parachute tethers

As you may have surmised by now, the obvious question left unanswered and untouched by the documentary is whether one or both parachute tethers were impacted by fragments from the the nose and/or mid wheels, the force of which presumably could have both dislodged one or both of the parachutes as well as cut their tethers. Was the seemingly reckless decision to leave the tethers exposed to the air stream a contributing factor in Jessi's death, or possibly the sole reason for it? Given that presumably little or no stress was applied to the red parachute tether due to the parachute being burned, i can think of no other logical reason for it breaking as it did and that, in my mind, points to negligence as being the ultimate reason for the crash, not the failure of the nose wheel.

According to others far more knowledgeable than i regarding land speed record vehicles, this "car" would have never passed a required safety inspection in order to run at a safer site like the Bonneville Salt Flats where room is more abundant, one reason being the exposed parachute tethers, and therefore the team was forced to utilize potentially more dangerous tracks including the one in the Alvord Desert which was clearly too short for a vehicle with a history of critical problems traveling several hundred miles per hour.

In the end it isn't particularly difficult for me to place the bulk of the blame for the crash on the vehicle owners and designers for Jessi Combs' death, and i think they absolutely deserve a slice of that blame, however given her extensive experience with racing and safety, and having been warned to not drive this vehicle, and given that she apparently had a premonition of what was to happen in a dream, it is ultimately only Jessi that is to blame for choosing to undertake such a risk. Accepting that risk was entirely her decision however and as someone who has carelessly risked my own life on multiple occasions, i can understand why she choose to do so. As Jessi implied, one has not lived a full life if it was a life lived free of risk.

I don't want to undercut the people who worked on this project more than necessary. Those i have seen in various videos seem like good people and they certainly did not treat Jessi as a sacrificial lamb. Ed Shadle, the original owner and primary driver of the vehicle before he died, had gone substantially faster in the NAE than Jessi ever had. There was indeed a massive amount of thought, engineering, hardship, sweat and money that was poured into the North American Eagle project, however in my opinion they started with a very flawed concept. Aircraft are designed to be light, not to survive crashes, and given the many critical mechanical failures that were experienced over the years, you have to wonder if a catastrophic end wasn't set in stone at the outset. That said, if you remove all the risk, what's the point in going fast?

As previously mentioned, i don't believe i ever knew of Jessi until i watched The Fastest Woman On Earth and yet i'll miss the light she emanated, as will so many others. In my research for this article i ran across several people who knew and/or worked with her, or who were, or are currently involved in land speed racing and in nearly every case they wished that she rest in peace. Bullshit. I don't think Jessi will rest at all. I think she'll go faster!

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