Year
1979
Month Day
December 17

Stuntman Stan Barrett breaks the sound barrier

On December 17, 1979, Hollywood stuntman Stan Barrett blasts across a dry lakebed at California’s Edwards Air Force Base in a rocket- and missile-powered car, becoming the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound on land. He did not set an official record, however. The radar scanner was acting up, and so Barrett’s top speed–739.666 miles per hour by the most reliable measure–was only an estimate. Also, he only drove his rocket car across the lakebed once, not twice as official record guidelines require. And, none of the spectators heard a sonic boom as Barrett zoomed across the course.

Barrett was a 36-year-old stuntman and ex-lightweight Golden Glove champ who had been introduced to auto racing by Paul Newman in 1971. (He was the actor’s stunt double for the film “Sometimes a Great Notion.”) Barrett’s car, the $800,000 Budweiser Rocket, was owned by the movie director Hal Needham, a former racer himself who had broken a nine-year-old world land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats the previous September. The car had a 48,000-horsepower rocket engine and, to give it a little extra kick, a 12,000-horsepower Sidewinder missile.

December 17 was a dry day with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to break the sound barrier under those conditions, Barrett had to go faster than 731.9 miles per hour. He started the rocket engine and stepped on the gas; then, after counting to 12, he pushed a button on his steering wheel to fire the Sidewinder so he could go even faster. After he zoomed past a battery of timing devices, Barrett deployed a parachute to help him slow down. In all, it took only a handful of seconds for Barrett to blast across the 5 3/4-mile lakebed.

Unfortunately, the radar speedometers on the ground malfunctioned: Instead of the Rocket’s speed, they measured the speed of a passing truck (38 miles per hour). The final speed estimate came from data by the Air Force, whose scanners seemed to indicate that the Rocket had “probably exceeded the speed of sound.”

Controversy over how fast Barrett actually went persists to this day. It took until October 1997 for another driver, in a British car called the Thrust SSC, to officially break the Mach 1 sound barrier.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Clean Air Act becomes law

On December 17, 1963, one of the first major pieces of environmental legislation in the United States becomes law. The Clean Air Act empowers federal and state agencies to research and regulate air pollution, marking a major expansion of government efforts to fight back against ...read more

Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, dies

On December 17, 2011, Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s enigmatic, reclusive dictator, dies of a heart attack while reportedly traveling on a train in his country. Kim, who assumed leadership of North Korea upon the death of his father in 1994, ruled the Communist nation with an iron ...read more

Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme sentenced to life for assassination attempt

A federal jury in Sacramento, California, sentences Lynette Alice Fromme, also known as “Squeaky” Fromme, to life in prison for her attempted assassination of President Gerald R. Ford. On September 5, a Secret Service agent wrested a semi-automatic .45-caliber pistol from Fromme, ...read more

U.S. approves end to internment of Japanese Americans

During World War II, U.S. Major General Henry C. Pratt issues Public Proclamation No. 21, declaring that, effective January 2, 1945, Japanese American “evacuees” from the West Coast could return to their homes. On February 19, 1942, 10 weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl ...read more

First airplane flies

Near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright make the first successful flight in history of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft. Orville piloted the gasoline-powered, propeller-driven biplane, which stayed aloft for 12 seconds and covered 120 feet on its ...read more

Third and final “Lord of the Rings” movie opens

On December 17, 2003, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final film in the trilogy based on the best-selling fantasy novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, opens in theaters. The film was a huge box-office success and won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best ...read more

Circus catches fire in Brazil

On December 17, 1961, a fire at a circus in Brazil kills more than 300 people and severely burns hundreds more. The cause of the fire was never conclusively determined but it may have been the result of sparks from a train passing nearby. Christmas week was just beginning, the ...read more

“Operation Iceman” nabs murderer Richard Kuklinski

Richard Kuklinski, a suspect in several murders, is arrested by undercover agents at a truck stop off the New Jersey Turnpike, marking the culmination of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ “Operation Iceman.” Kuklinski had sealed his fate when he showed operative ...read more

Union General Ulysses S. Grant expels Jews from his military district

On December 17, 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant lashes out at Jewish cotton speculators, who he believed were the driving force behind the black market for cotton. Grant issued an order expelling all Jewish people from his military district, which encompassed parts of ...read more

Boris Yeltsin announces the Soviet Union will cease to exist by New Year’s Eve

After a long meeting between Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin, a spokesman for the latter announces that the Soviet Union will officially cease to exist on or before New Year’s Eve. Yeltsin declared that, “There will be no ...read more

France formally recognizes the United States

On December 17, 1777, the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, count of Vergennes, officially acknowledges the United States as an independent nation. News of the Continental Army’s overwhelming victory against the British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga gave Benjamin ...read more

Commander at Pearl Harbor relieved of his duties

Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was relieved of his command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet as part of a shake-up of officers in the wake of the Pearl Harbor disaster. Admiral Kimmel had enjoyed a successful military career, beginning in 1915 as an aide to the Assistant Secretary of the ...read more