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One of the things I’ve done for years is tell my son stories about – well, I call them “Stupid things that Papa did when he was little” stories. The goal of these was in some ways to make sure he realized I was human and could make mistakes, but also that if you looked at something just right – no matter what it was, you’d find some humor in it. And… hopefully… a lesson.
I’d always figured I’d had a relatively quiet childhood, but the other night, I was telling him one of these stories, and his jaw dropped,
“How did you survive to be old enough to breed?”
Of course, me telling him the story as history, and then him repeating it back to me as stupidity, make for some incredible laughs, as well as lessons on what not to do, and precisely how not to do it…
So with that… A Saab story.
Over the years, I’ve owned a small herd of Saabs, and I’ve learned that you cannot have a Saab without having a story to go with it.
In my case, I’ve come to the conclusion that the stories far, far outnumber the cars, but that’s okay. As long as the Saabs last, the stories last longer.
When I was growing up – I had a 1967 Saab 96 with a 3 cylinder, 2 stroke, 850 cc monster of an engine. Monster? Monstrette? Monstlette? – Beats the heck out of me what you’d call it – this was in the days when the high school car to be seen in was a Chevy Camaro with a 350 cubic inch V-8 engine. Anything less and you weren’t part of the “in” crowd…
My car had a 3 cylinder, 46 cubic inch engine.
A two stroke.
You mixed the oil with the gas.
Like an outboard.
Oh, I wasn’t part of the “in” crowd. I was so far from the “in” crowd I couldn’t even see it.
The car was built with an integral roll cage so strong that one of the ads they used to have on TV showed them rolling the car down a hill – sideways, and then having a guy drive off in it.
It was like driving the result of an illicit liaison between a Sherman tank and a chainsaw.
So I had some friends who also drove some cars that weren’t Camaros (heck, given what I was driving, NONE of my friends had Camaros) – one was a buddy who drove a 1965 Dodge Dart, and since his dad ran the local propane dealership – that car ran on – you guessed it – propane.
So my buddy Bert and I would, as teenagers the world over do, spend weekend evenings driving aimlessly, burning oil and gas (in my car) or propane (in his) – and one day, he mentioned to me this railroad crossing, that if hit at the right speed, would get you airborne.
Now on this particular crossing, that was advisable. The rail bed was several feet higher than the road bed, so the pavement climbed steeply up to the rails, crossed them, then went down the other side.
Sherpas guarded this crossing.
Now given that trains weigh more than cars, the rail bed had actually sunk quite a bit – so crossing over meant climbing up to greet the Sherpas, then going down into the rough no-man’s land that was the rails, climbing back up from the rails to the top of other side, then finally back down. It was kind of like crawling over the crater of a volcano.
It could tear the suspension out from under your car if you did it slow.
If you did it a little faster, you’d sail right over the crater that was the tracks, land on the other side, and it would be this wonderfully gentle jump.
We didn’t do it just a “little” faster.
Oh, one additional piece of information here is that this road ended up at a T intersection, and you have to imagine that the arms of the T are sagging a bit, as the top part of the T was in the middle of a curve. Big picture what this means is that it was a blind intersection.
You will see this material again.
So my buddy Bert tells me about this railroad crossing – and how, if you cross it “juuuust right” you catch air. Not just the “oh, we’re flying over the volcano” air, but “Wave bye bye to the Sherpas” air.
Then he suggested that he and I take the Saab out there that evening and jump it. (and, given the adventures he and I had already had in the Saab, this suggestion was not out of the ordinary)
So we headed out there.
Something to remember about country roads is that in the summer they’re often paved with ‘poor man’s asphalt’ which consists of a mixture of oil poured on the road followed by lots of gravel Eventually, enough cars drive over it , and enough of the oil evaporates that the oil and gravel slowly transform into pavement. Until that happens, it’s just a bunch of very loose, light colored rocks, each one looking for its own personal windshield to hit.
We headed out 507 heading south, hung a left on 336th, and I accelerated to get to the crossing.
It wasn’t very exciting – in large part because I couldn’t see much of it (it was getting dark), and I wasn’t going fast enough, Bert assured me that hitting the ramp from the other side was much, much better.
About that “going fast enough” bit – from the intersection to the crossing is 528 feet. The acceleration of a two stroke Saab, while it sounded like the engine was absolutely screaming, was not what one would call head snapping.
So we headed further up the road, up a hill to a spot where I could turn around.
Now Bert had said that to land properly after jumping the tracks, you had to hit the gas just as you hit the ramp up the crossing, to lift the front end off the ground. That might have worked with his rear wheel drive Dart, but the front end of my front wheel drive Saab wasn’t going to go up when I hit the gas, it was just going to go faster. Not by much, but still, faster.
He wanted me to hit the tracks at 60 mph. (Please note: the fact that the speed limit’s 35 is completely irrelevant here.)
So I came roaring (such as one does with a 3 cylinder engine) down the hill toward the , – well, the engine wasn’t roaring, it was screaming, it was the pavement that was roaring with the noise of the tires on that gravel. I made it up to 60, and instead of seeing a road in front of me at the place of the crossing – that white crushed gravel in my headlights –looked like I was driving straight toward a white wall… I’d slowed to 50, and Bert wanted me to hit the gas to go faster.
I left it at 50, and we did, indeed, hit it.
The car, and the seats, rocketed up and hit us like airplane ejector seats.
The roar of the pavement was gone, many feet below us.
And the sudden silence, as we found ourselves floating up against the seatbelts, was deafening.
We waved at the Sherpas as we went by.
We looked across at birds that had been flying overhead.
We looked down at our houses – both of them – four miles in either direction from where we were.
We could see airplanes in the pattern at McChord AFB.
We looked at each other, not fully comprehending that we had both become passengers in a physics experiment.
Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling.
“Have we hit yet?”
“I don’t think so.”
And then we did hit, and all the roaring came back, along with the sound later identified as my freshly rebuilt exhaust system plowing a furrow into the road.
And we bounced.
Zero G Silence.
And hit again.
Three times, and by the time the wheels stayed on the pavement long enough for the brakes to start being useful, that T intersection was getting awfully close.
I stood on the brake pedal.
Now the Saabs of that era had a rudimentary antilock brake system. They were designed so that if you did what I was doing (standing on the brake pedal) – after so much pressure had been applied – a check-valve under the back seat wouldn’t let the back brakes take any more, and all the rest of the braking would go to the front wheels. The logic of this was that if the back wheels locked up, the car could spin (anyone ever having done a handbrake turn knows how this works). In this case, I stood on the brakes till the FRONT wheels locked up, let go, stood on them again, they locked up again, stood on them a third time, but by now the stop sign at the intersection was getting awfully close – and I had to turn right or left.
Straight forward was not an option. There was (and actually still is) a large tree on the other side of the intersection.
The stop sign whipped past, I spun the wheel to the right. Bert says we went up on two wheels. I don’t know, I was hanging on to the wheel for dear life, and all I knew was that while for the last few seconds had been all about deceleration to either stop before crashing, or slow down enough to make the turn, now it was literally a race for our lives in acceleration, because we had no idea what was coming up over the little hill from the left side of the T intersection. Whatever it was, could have been a motorcycle, could have been a logging truck, or anything in between, it would have been doing at least 55 mph – the speed limit on 507 there at the time.
Since we were so blatantly running a stop sign without even the remotest chance of actually stopping , any other traffic would have had no warning of the little red jellybean of a Saab suddenly appearing in a cloud of blue smoke in front of them. As hard as I’d been standing on the brake pedal before the stop sign, I now tried to shove the gas pedal through the floor, to get every one those 850 cc’s and 46 horses to keep us from becoming a hood ornament on a Kenworth. I didn’t take my foot off the gas or look back till I’d redlined it in third, and then I could breathe.
Bert and I stole a glance at each other in stunned silence, the only background noise being the unbelievable roar of the two-stroke through a pavement-modified exhaust system.
Nope, our parents were not going to hear about this one, not for a long time.
But while I was writing this in an almost entirely Right Brained (creative) kind of way, the old Left Brain started getting curious – and started pestering me until I really got to thinking about the whole thing, the bouncing three times, the hitting the brakes three times, the “have we hit yet? …. I don’t think so…” and started to do some math.
The distance from the Sherpa guarded railroad crossing to the intersection to is a little over 1/10th of a mile.
According to Google Earth, it’s 628 feet.
I was going at least 50 mph when I hit it.
That’s 73 feet per second.
That meant that from the moment we launched past the Sherpas, I had just under nine seconds before I was going to arrive at that stop sign. (628/73~=8.6)
The crossing was so steep that it bottomed out the suspension and squashed the tires, which then helped launch the car even higher than the road angle itself would have.
I’ve calculated about how long it took to say that “Have we hit yet?” bit – and it seems to average about 3 ½ seconds. At 73 feet per second, that would have put us about 256 feet past the Sherpas when we hit. Timewise, that seems about right. However, we need to factor in the ballistic trajectory into the whole thing, which cut almost 100 feet off that range and translated it into a number I could hardly comprehend.
According to the formula for a ballistic arc, which this was, if I had a 73 foot/second velocity at an angle of 45 degrees, we’d end up with a range of 167 feet.
I’m using the formulas here to do the calculations – and the only variables I know for sure are the launch speed (50 mph = 73 feet/second = 22.35 meters/second) and the time it took to say ‘have we hit yet? … I don’t think so…” (about 3 ½ seconds) – that leaves us with a launch angle of about 45 degrees, which seems hellaciously steep, but combining the slingshot effect of the suspension and tires, plus the absolute craziness of the actual railroad crossing (which has since been repaved to be far, far gentler) – is the only thing that comes close to fitting.
We’ll also end up with a height of 12.74 meters – which, if I can believe it (and I’m perfectly willing to have someone correct me) translates into about 41 feet.
Holy flopping cow…
That meant we had 461 feet, or just under 5 seconds of barely controlled chaos left from the moment we hit the ground before we’d get to the stop sign.
But we bounced three times. The noise of that first hit was so great we thought we’d broken all the windows.
Call it a second and a half in the air for the first bounce, a half second for the second one, and a quarter second for the third one, that’s 2 ¼ seconds in the air again – haven’t touched the brakes yet, but no gas, either. We’ll say I was averaging 45 here, – that’s 66 feet per second – that’s another 115 feet. Add to that the two times I was on the ground – we’ll call that about 2-3 car lengths each – that’ll end up with another 45 feet.
Add those together and you’ve got about another 193 feet gone before I could even think of hitting the brakes.
Unless something miraculous happened, I now had 167 feet, and just over 4 seconds, before I was going to slide through the intersection.
I hit the brakes – hard. The front wheels grabbed for a split second, then locked up on the gravel and started sliding.
I let up and hit again. They started sliding again, but I’d scrubbed off a little bit of speed. I let up and hit a third time, felt the wheels lock up and at that point I was at the stop sign, still doing at least 25 mph, but locked up front wheels don’t steer worth a dang, so I let up on the brake, spun the wheel, jammed it into second, and simultaneously realized, as the engine started screaming, and the broken exhaust roared to life, that second was too low a gear to be in. I got up to 32 mph (the top of the range in second) and went to third, floored it for a bit, and only then checked the rear view mirror to confirm that we were safe.
It is only now, more than 30 years after the fact, that I understood why we never found the marks on the road left by the exhaust system. We were looking about 100 feet short of where we actually landed.
So I started this by mentioning that I’d had these “Stupid things that Papa did when he was little” stories I told my son. There’s more, lots more. I’ll be writing them down as I can.
Take care – and no, just in case anyone thinks about doing this – I don’t recommend it.
If any one of a number of things had gone wrong, (losing a tire on landing, a car in the intersection, brakes not braking enough) I wouldn’t be here to write this.
I find myself wondering what would have happened if I’d just said no. (Note: multiple teenage males, “no” is not an option…sigh…)
But 41 feet?
Oh… my… gosh…
Telephone poles aren’t that high!
Be safe out there…