Driver of converted jet aims for 800 mph.

Share story

Very few people aspire to drive a converted jet across the desert floor at over 800 mph.

But that’s Ed Shadle’s lifetime dream.

Shadle, a 76-year-old retired IBM computer systems engineer who lives in Spanaway, has spent the last two decades with his eyes on the horizon and his hands at the controls of the design, construction and piloting of the North American Eagle, a now-ground-bound vehicle that was once an Air Force F-104 Starfighter jet.

The North American Eagle is 56 feet long, weighs 14,000 pounds and is powered by a J-79 jet engine that develops 42,500 horsepower, the equivalent of 92 new Corvette Stingrays or 269 new Honda Civics.

Shadle’s quest for speed began in his hometown of Sumner in 1954, when he purchased a set of wheels for $5 to complete his Soap Box Derby racer. In 1957 he got his driver’s license, purchased a 1951 Studebaker and headed for the Friday night drag races at Puyallup’s Thun Field.  This was also where Ed first experienced leaving the ground to punch holes in the clouds.

In 1961 his fascination with flying led him to join the Air Force, where he learned the mechanics of decoding enemy communications.

Shadle began visiting Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in the late 1980s, and in 1989 he became the crew chief for Bud Jones’ car, which could reach dizzying speeds a few inches off the ground, or 20,000 feet in the air.

Shadle began to fancy the idea of personally setting the world ground-speed record, and has been in hot pursuit of that goal since 1999.

He and a group of volunteers began what they thought was going to be a five-year project to the successful record-breaking run. But changes in the economy, environmental restrictions and other obstacles have stretched the expected five years into 18.

Shadle has not been alone in the workshop for all of these years. His crew includes co-owner Steve Green, director of operations Keith Zanghi and crew chief Les Holm.

“Without these guys and the others on the team the possibility of reaching the record-setting goal would be impossible. They do this from the heart, not for any compensation. They cover all of their own expenses whenever we travel for trial runs or record attempts,” he says.

At this point the North American Eagle has to go faster than the record set by a British team in 1997. Shadle hopes to surpass 800 mph, but only 764 mph is needed to beat the British.

He and his crew have done everything possible in chasing the record but safety is their top concern.

There have been several bumps along the road over the long 18 years. Permission has been granted and then revoked to make a record attempt in the past, including a memorable experience at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

“We were about to begin a run when someone notified us that a person had parked on the course. They were right on the black line that is painted on the ground to guide the drivers. The person was from the Environmental Protection Agency and had been sent to inform us that the permission to attempt a record run had been canceled. It is fortunate that we didn’t make their acquaintance upon impact!” he says.

What does a world record-seeking driver do when not twisting a torque wrench or turning the Eagle’s steering wheel? The expenses of operation for the North American Eagle and the limited amount of funds available mean only one or two runs a year are possible.

“I’m just a typical retired guy that has enjoyed living in the Northwest for nearly 60 years,” Shadle says. “I like to putt around the neighborhood in my 1932, 1933 and 1964 Fords, haul things in my 1952 Chevrolet pickup and occasionally fly my Beechcraft Skipper aircraft. And I love to spend as much time as possible with my family.”

He has been married to Elaine for 55 years, and they have two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

So what is in the immediate future for Shadle’s team?

“In August, Velocity TV Network star Jessi Combs and I will each be behind the wheel attempting to set world records. She will try to exceed 600 mph and earn the title of ‘Fastest Woman on Earth,’ and I will attempt to break the British record by traveling faster than 763 mph,” he says.

When asked about his chances, he holds two fingertips close together and says, “We are just this far from getting it done.”