Bluebird K7 was the world’s first all metal jet-powered hydroplane. Bluebird K7 was designed by the Norris Brothers Consulting Engineers to combine lightweight with unprecedented strength. Its build comprised of a space-frame which was completed by Accles and Pollock and an unstressed aluminium skin which was completed by the boats main constructors, Salmesbury Engineering near Preston, Lancashire.
It has the following dimensions:
Overall length: (transom to sponson tip) 26 feet 4 ¾ inches
Overall beam: 10 foot 6 inches
Overall height of mail hull, excluding tail fin: 4 feet 8.5 inches
Overall weight: 2.5 tonnes
The name "K7" was derived from its Lloyd's Unlimited Rating registration, and was carried in a prominent white circular symbol on each sponson comprising the infinity symbol and the script 'K7'. K7 was the 7th boat in the UK unlimited hydroplane class.
Bluebird K7 was originally powered by a Metropolitan-Vickers 'Beryl' turbo jet engine which had a ten stage axial compressor and a single stage turbine. This engine developed 3750 lbs thrust.
K7 is a three point hydroplane with two forward planing points on out-rigged sponsons and a single rear central planing point with an offset rudder. The sponson’s are attached to the mainframe of the boat by two rigid spars with the rear of the two attaching each sponson adjacent to its the trailing edge of its forward planing surface, passing through the hull frame, and therefore taking the significant fwd loads at high speed.
The sponsons have anti-dive surfaces incorporated into their structure. The three main planing shoes are machined from solid light allow billets which are bolted to the bottom of each float and centrally to the rear of the floor of the main hull.
The fuel tank which has a capacity of 46 gallons holds sufficient aviation kerosene to complete two high speed runs. The tank takes the form of a saddle and is positioned close to the centre of gravity, meaning that as it was depleted, the centre of gravity and therefore, angle of attack of the boat when running at high speed, are largely unaffected. The angle of attack of the planing surfaces generate hydrodynamic lift that raises the vast majority of the hull above the water at planing speed, which is approximately 70 mph.
During her life, K7 was extensively modified with a substitution in 1956 of a more streamlined domed Perspex cockpit canopy, and fluting to the lower trailing edges of her main hull. In 1958 a small tail fin was added, and the sponson fairings were redesigned to be more streamlined and reduce forward lift, therefore helping maintain / increase the safe operating envelope as her maximum / record speeds got higher.
A fixed stabilising fin was added to the transom of the boat to improve directional stability and, through its hydrodynamic effect, exert downward pressure on the bow at high speed. In its Beryl configuration, Bluebird K7 broke 7 world water speed records starting in 1955 at 202.32 mph and ending in 1964 at 276.3 mph.
In 1966 Bluebird was heavily modified and the Beryl engine was replaced by a Bristol Siddeley Orpheus jet-engine of 4500 lbs thrust. A larger tailfin was also added to the boat, together with a hydraulic water brake; in this guise Bluebird had sufficient power to achieve a maximum speed in excess of 320 mph.
It seems appropriate at this point to tell you a little more:
A Brief History of Donald Campbell And His Bluebird Record Breakers
Donald Malcolm Campbell was born on 23 March 1921, the only son of the greatest speed record-breaker of the inter-war years, Sir Malcolm Campbell. His extraordinary background, as only son of the 20’s and 30’s speed king was to shape his entire character. In fact, Donald never truly escaped from his father’s shadow.
Sir Malcolm Campbell set the World Land Speed Record (‘LSR’) nine times and the World Water Speed Record (‘WSR’) four times in his famous Blue Birds. Lionised by the press and feted as a national hero. Donald and his younger sister Jean took second place to their father’s record-breaking activities. Nonetheless, Donald worshipped his rather distant father. But while Sir Malcolm was still alive, there would only be one record-breaker in the family and Donald was firmly discouraged from following in his father’s career path. Sir Malcolm even speculated once that Donald would kill himself if he ever drove a speedboat.
Sir Malcolm and Donald Campbell at Coniston in August 1939 © Don Wales
When Sir Malcolm died on 1 January 1949 as the result of a stroke, Donald, by now married and with a young daughter, Gina, found that neither the Blue Bird car nor the K4 hydroplane had been left to him. Instead, everything in Sir Malcolm’s estate was to be auctioned and the proceeds placed in a trust for his grandchildren. It was a act designed to thwart Donald, but Sir Malcolm had not reckoned on something that Donald had inherited from his father – guts and dogged determination. Donald bought the two vehicles from the estate as keepsakes, little knowing what role they would play in his own future.
In early spring 1949, as his father’s estate was being wound up, Donald received a visit from Goldie Gardner, Sir Malcolm’s ex-project manager and a record-breaker in his own right. Gardner mentioned that Henry Kaiser, an American industrialist and builder of wartime Liberty ships, was working on a boat to be called ‘Aluminium First’ with the aim of making an attempt on the Water Speed Record.
After Gardner had left, Donald sat in his father’s study thinking about what he had been told. At that moment, he made the decision to carry on with his father’s work. Years later, he described his instinctive reaction to Kaiser as being ‘to hell with you’.
He sought out Leo Villa, his father’s faithful 48 year old chief mechanic, who was clearing up Sir Malcolm’s private garage. ‘Leo, Henry Kaiser is going to take the old man’s record back to America – we’re going to do something about it. Are you with me?’
Villa looked at Donald, realised that he was deadly serious, and offered the following counsel:
‘Before you do, think very carefully. If you once start, you’ll never stop and no matter how long you’re at it, you’ll never get used to the atmosphere. It'll require a lot of thought and a lot of money, and like your dad, you'll keep on going faster and faster to keep ahead.' Donald retorted, 'I don't believe that, I just want to keep the old flag flying, get the record and call it a day.'
In later life, when he was firmly stuck on the record-breaker’s treadmill, Donald admitted that Leo had been absolutely right. The die was cast.
In the summer of 1949, Donald returned to the scene of his father’s last record-breaking success – Coniston Water in the English Lake District – but not before overcoming the first hurdle in his new career as a would-be record-breaker.
Sir Malcolm had converted his Blue Bird K4 hydroplane to jet power after the war, but the jet engine manufacturer would not countenance a novice like Donald taking over an unproven concept and demanded the engine back. Donald promptly sold the 1935 Blue Bird car in order to buy back a Rolls-Royce 'R' type piston engine and the V-drive, propeller shaft and other gear, which Sir Malcolm had sold to a car dealer named Simpson along with the earlier Blue Bird K3 boat. With the equipment back in his possession, Donald had Blue Bird K4 converted to propeller drive again.
Donald and his new team were back at Coniston by late July. On the day of his first run, he was impatient to get going and in no mood to be held back by Leo Villa’s caution. After his initial low-speed trial, he came back to the slipway and announced: 'Bloody marvellous Leo, it’s a piece of cake, I don’t know what you were worried about.’
During the next run, Donald pushed K4 a bit harder, got into a skid, and returned ashen-faced and suitably chastened, telling the assembled team: ‘This job’s bloody dangerous!’ After more trials he was ready to have a go at the record. Two runs later, the second of which ended with him covered in hot gearbox oil, he was told he had exceeded his father’s WSR. In the middle of lamenting that he had broken his old man’s record, he was informed by the timekeepers that they had made a mistake and he was actually some three miles per hour short. The team would have to return south to repair the gearbox, so for now his challenge was over. Kaiser’s boat came to nought, but Donald had the bug and was now determined to beat his father’s old mark. Shortly after arriving back at Coniston in late summer 1950 for further trials, he received the news that another American, Stanley Sayers, had raised the record to 160.32 mph in a boat called Slo-Mo-Shun IV. A long series of trials followed, without success. Although Blue Bird had sufficient power, the trim of the boat caused problems, so eventually the team returned south for a rethink.
By 1951, with the help of a young designer named Lewis Norris, K4 had been modified to make it a 'prop-rider' as opposed to her original immersed propeller configuration. This would greatly reduce hydrodynamic drag as the third planing point would now be the propeller hub, meaning one of the two propeller blades was always out of the water at high speed. She now sported two cockpits, the second one being for Leo Villa. The pair worked ceaselessly towards exceeding Sayers record and also enjoyed a measure of success with K4 as a circuit racer, winning the Oltranza Cup in Italy in the spring of that year. Returning to Coniston in September, they finally got Bluebird up to 170 mph after further trials. Above the roar of the engine, Donald shouted across to Leo: ‘This is way above the record – good old Bluebird.’ Seconds later, both were lucky to survive a horrific crash when a propellor shaft support strut failed and Bluebird’s gearbox sheared its mountings, punching a large hole in the underside of the boat. K4 was wrecked.
Sayers raised the record the following year to 178.497 mph in Slo-Mo-Shun IV. Alongside Donald Campbell, Britain’s other potential contender for Water Speed Record honours was John Cobb. He had commissioned the world’s first purpose-built jet boat, Crusader, with a target speed of over 200 mph, and began trials on Loch Ness in autumn 1952. Cobb was killed during a subsequent attempt on the record, causing Donald’s spirits to sink. The famous Campbell determination soon reasserted itself though, and he resolved to build a new Bluebird boat.
The necessary money was raised by selling Campbell’s share in a thriving engineering business he had helped to establish. The decision to dedicate himself to record-breaking meant limited time and space for conventional family life. His first marriage was already behind him and he was now married for a second time. Donald would have been the first to admit that to succeed in his chosen career, it would be necessary to become extremely selfish and single-minded in pursuing his goal.
The money from the sale of the engineering business allowed him to commission Lewis Norris and brother Ken, who had set up as consulting engineers in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, to design and build an ultra-strong, all-metal, jet-powered craft – Bluebird K7. (The first Bluebird, Sir Malcolm's vehicles having always been designated Blue Bird) The boat was finished by the end of 1954 and taken to Ullswater in the Lake District in early 1955. After many months of unsuccessful trials and a major redesign, Donald finally broke the feared ‘water barrier’ with a speed of 202.32 mph on 23 July 1955, having previously been forced to mortgage his house to raise sufficient funds.
Bluebird K7 at Ullswater in July 1955. © G Hallawell
He raised the record again to 216.2 mph in November 1955 on Lake Mead in Nevada. It was now clear that he was hooked on record-breaking. The Lake Mead success brought further recognition with the award of a CBE in 1956. His reputation was never higher.
Campbell received significant financial backing for this and subsequent attempts, usually at Coniston, first from Mobil, and later in the 1950s from BP, as well as Dunlop, Smiths Industries and Lucas.
In addition, holiday camp magnate Sir Billy Butlin, who made a fortune during the post-war boom years, put up a large gold cup and an annual £5,000 prize for any Briton who broke the World Water Speed Record. Campbell used this prize money to boost his sponsorship income in the 1950s, deliberately nudging the record up little by little – 225.63 mph in 1956, 239.07 mph in 1957, 248.62 mph in 1958 and finally 260.33 mph in May 1959, all of these records being set on Coniston Water.
Donald Campbell with K7 at Coniston in May 1959 © BP
During the same period, Donald's personal life was in a state of flux – record-breaking and marriage do not necessarily mix – and his second marriage ended in June 1957. In December 1958, he was married for the third time, to a Belgian singer named Tonia Bern.
In the eyes of the world, these achievements made Donald a great success, but Donald’s thinking was still dominated by his father. He constantly sought Leo’s opinion as to whether the old man would have approved. ‘Do you think the old man would be proud?’ he would ask. ‘Of course he would,’ Villa would reply, seemingly exasperated that Donald rated his own triumphs less highly than those of his father.
It was after the Lake Mead success in 1955 that the seeds of Donald’s ambition to hold the Land Speed Record as well were planted. At a party in Las Vegas, he was asked why he had never gone after the LSR.
He put the matter to Leo. 'What about it, Leo? We'll get the water record here at Lake Mead, then fly out to Utah and get the land record on the same day.' Leo replied that he did not think record-breaking was that easy, and with Donald's luck they did not stand a chance, but by this time Donald wasn't listening. 'We'll see what Ken and Lew have to say about this.'
The Norris brothers were even more enthusiastic about the car than the boat. Like all of his projects, Donald wanted Bluebird CN7, as the car became known, to be the best of its type, a showcase of British engineering skill. Over the next four years, while Donald broke the WSR a further 4 times, CN7 gradually took shape.
CN7 was powered by a specially modified Bristol Siddeley Proteus gas turbine engine driving all four wheels. The existing LSR had been set by John Cobb in 1947 and stood at 394.19 mph. Bluebird CN7 was designed to achieve 475–500 mph – more than enough to smash Cobb’s long-standing record. In August 1960, when CN7 was shipped to Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, the scene of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s last LSR, the outcome was felt to be a foregone conclusion.
The only question was by how far Bluebird would exceed Cobb's record. On arrival, Campbell found that unlike his father 25 years earlier he did not have the luxury of the salt flats to himself. There were three rivals for LSR honours, ranging from backyard piston engine specials to a pure thrust jet car. His entourage, which included representatives from the firms that had helped build CN7, looked ostentatious to American eyes. Campbell was spooked and felt the pressure to get going. On the sixth run in CN7, he lost control at over 360 mph and crashed. It was the car’s enormous structural integrity that saved his life. He was hospitalised with a fractured skull and a burst eardrum, as well as sundry cuts and bruises. Almost immediately, Campbell announced he was determined to have another go. Sir Alfred Owen, whose Rubery Owen industrial group had built CN7, offered to rebuild it. That single decision was to have a profound influence on the rest of Donald Campbell’s life. His original plan had been to break the LSR at over 400 mph in 1960, return to Bonneville the following year to really bump up the speed to something near 500 mph, get the WSR with K7 and then retire, secure in the knowledge that he was worthy of his father's legacy.
Bluebird CN7 at the Bonneville salt flats Utah in September 1960, days before the crash. © BP
Now, Campbell chose not to go back to Utah. He felt the Bonneville course was too short and he disliked having to share it with the competition. His main sponsor, BP, offered to find another venue and eventually Lake Eyre, in South Australia, was chosen.
It hadn’t rained there for nine years and the vast dry bed of the salt lake offered a course of up to 20 miles, compared to Bonneville’s 11 miles. Bluebird CN7 was rebuilt by the summer of 1962, about nine months later than Donald had hoped. By the end of 1962, the car had been shipped out to Australia ready for the new attempt. No sooner had low-speed runs started than the heavens opened. The course was compromised and by May 1963 Lake Eyre was flooded to a depth of 3 inches, causing the attempt to be abandoned. Donald was fiercely criticised in the press for alleged mismanagement of the project, despite the fact that he could hardly be held responsible for the weather.
To make matters worse, American Craig Breedlove drove his pure thrust jet car ‘Spirit of America’ to a speed of 407.45 mph at Bonneville in July 1963. Although the ‘car’ did not conform to FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) regulations that stipulated it had to be wheel-driven and have a minimum of four wheels, in the eyes of the world Breedlove was now the fastest man on earth.
Campbell returned to Australia in March 1964, but the course failed to fulfil its early promise and there were further spells of rain. Splits also emerged in the team, with his Dunlop representative and reserve driver, Andrew Mustard, accusing him of being physically unfit and lacking the skill to drive the car to record speeds. BP had pulled out as his main sponsor in March when he refused their request to appoint a project manager. He then secured backing from Australian oil company Ampol.
The track never dried out properly and Campbell was forced to make do with the conditions and resources he had. Finally, in July 1964, he was able to post some speeds that approached the record. On the 17th of that month, he took advantage of a break in the weather and made two courageous runs along the shortened and still damp track, posting a new LSR of 403.1 mph. He was bitterly disappointed that he had not got closer to CN7’s design potential of 475 mph and resented the fact that it had all been so difficult. ‘We've made it – we got the bastard at last,’ was his reaction to his success.
Breedlove’s speed had not been recognised by the FIA, so Donald’s 403.1 mph represented the official Land Speed Record.
DMC and CN7 on Lake Eyre in July 64 © Authors Collection
On the return run, where Campbell had covered the last third of the mile at 429.5 mph and exited the measured mile at 440 mph, Bluebird’s 52" wheels had punched three-inch ruts in the salt surface as the track disintegrated. CN7 had been close to careering out of control, yet few commentators appreciated the scale of Campbell’s achievement. There cannot be the slightest doubt that with a longer, drier track, Campbell would have easily exceeded Breedlove's speed and set a wheel-driven LSR that would have been very tough to beat. In later years, this record was largely reassessed and the CN7 episode is today seen as a triumph over adversity.
Donald now planned to go after the Water Speed Record one more time, to do what he had aimed for so many years ago during the initial planning stages of CN7 – break both records in the same year. He got his seventh WSR by the skin of his teeth on the last day of 1964, when he took Bluebird K7 to 276.33 mph on Lake Dumbleyung near Perth, in Western Australia.
This was his finest achievement: he became the first (and, to this day, only) man in history to break both the Land and Water Speed Records in the same year. That double success, on Land and Water of 1964 did not bring the public acclaim and recognition that it deserved and would have brought in Sir Malcolm's day. If it had, the disaster at Coniston would not have occurred.
Instead, he re-engineered the faithful old warhorse, Bluebird K7, for one last joust with the unknown, this time with the aim of exceeding 300 mph. Quick success with K7 would, he felt sure, generate interest and enthusiasm for the rocket car.
DMC, Leo Villa and Maurie Parfit with the mock up of Bluebird Mach 1.1 at Campbell’s home in the early spring of 1966 © Soundstills
Campbell discussed with Bristol Siddeley and the Air Ministry the loan of Orpheus turbojet engines. In May 66 he received a favourable response from BS regarding their willingness to support him by helping to identify two Ministry-owned engines (one as a spare) that were ‘time expired’ and then providing technical assistance. With the opportunity to boost the Orpheus to 110% of its 4500lb thrust rating, Campbell was confident the legendary 12-year-old hydroplane would have more than sufficient power to achieve his goal of 300mph.
K7 at the end of her refit at Norris Brothers © AE James
The refit was handled by Norris Brothers, designers of Bluebird K7, and Campbell expected to be at Coniston Water, scene of four of his fifties successes by September 66. Campbell was working to a tight budget. Sponsorship from British industry, who had supported his earlier exploits, was not forthcoming this time. The almost inevitable delays meant that K7 did not arrive at Coniston until early November, with four scant weeks before the British winter would set in. On the plus side, Campbell and his engineering team, headed by Leo Villa were vastly experienced, and given a spell of decent calm weather, Campbell was confident that the attempt could be wrapped up in 2 or 3 weeks.
Bluebird was afloat on the 4th of November, for Campbell to get used to her again, after an absence of almost 2 years from the cockpit. A slow speed run confirmed that everything was satisfactory. Campbell promised to display Bluebird’s power the next day by carrying out a tethered static test of her engine.
K7 before the static test © Clive Glynn
Any hope of an easy record evaporated the next day, when Bluebird’s engine was destroyed after her intake structure collapsed during the full power test. Campbell was now faced with delay and expense as the intake structure was rebuilt and the spare engine installed. The team worked in horrific weather, in the makeshift boathouse to replace the engine, and refit the repaired intakes. By the 18th of November, after 2 weeks of frantic work, Bluebird was again ready to take to the water.
‘There is no form of Record breaking where you get it smooth’ said Campbell. The next week was to prove that statement only too true. Bluebird made daily trips out on to the lake, but the modifications performed over the summer had changed her configuration, and she resolutely refused to plane. Campbell’s frustration grew daily, and he knew very soon the weather would close in. Eventually, in order to change her nose heavy weight distribution, two sandbags were lashed to her stern, and the K7 was towed back out on to the mirror like lake. This time, when Campbell applied more power, she did not wallow, but instead rose quickly onto her planning points, and sped off down the lake. At last the attempt was on back on track. The modification of K7’s weight distribution was made permanent by attaching over 170 lbs. of lead to her inner frame at the stern. As if on cue, the weather now closed in. It was a pattern that was to be repeated almost ad-nauseum over the nine weeks Campbell was at Coniston. Bluebird ready to go, weather abysmal. Weather suitable, Bluebird out of action.
DMC in the bar of the Crown Hotel Coniston © Norman Hurst
The crossed union flags on K7’s nose © Authors collection
K7 back on the water, but struggling to plane © PA
DMC stands at the stern of K7 alongside the temporary sandbags © PA
The beautiful Bluebird K7 © Eddie Whitham
Eventually after a further two week wait Campbell as a last able to make some quick runs, moving the speeds up from 200 mph on the 10th of December to 264 by the 14th, but Bluebird was still not performing as expected. After prolonged investigation, a poorly performing fuel pump was identified as the cause of the lacklustre performance. By the time this component was replaced on the 15th, the weather closed in again and Bluebird was confined to her boatshed. 5 days later Bluebird sat trapped in her boathouse, which had partially collapsed under the weight of rain and snow, while outside, the water conditions were perfect, It was as if Campbell was being taunted by fate. It was now close to Christmas, and the timekeepers and press were getting restive. Campbell was forced to postpone the attempt until the 28th of December. The team made there way home for the holidays, but Campbell chose to stay at Coniston, almost as if he could not escape its grasp. Fate played two more cruel tricks. On Christmas morning, the lake was like a mirror. Campbell could not resist the temptation, and with the aid of a few local helpers Bluebird was afloat and two quick runs in excess of 250mph were completed. The 27th brought a repeat, and Bluebird completed her fastest speed runs to date, at over 280 mph. It was to no avail, unobserved and untimed, the speed could not be recognised. To add to the sense of misfortune, Bluebird struck a duck on the second run causing damage to the fairing of the forward spar linking the main hull with her sponsons onher port side. After that, as if almost by some twisted timetable of fate, the weather closed in, and it would be some 8 days before Bluebird and Donald Campbell were afloat again.
K7 at speed on Coniston on Christmas Day 1966. © Ruskin Museum
The 4th of January - the last time.
Donald arrived down at the lakeside shortly after 7.30, parking his Jaguar E-type in its usual position beside Pier Cottage. ‘Another bloody false alarm,’ he remarked, ‘but let’s just have a look and see how quickly we’ll be back for a proper breakfast.’ Donald walked to the end of the jetty with his binoculars to study conditions in the half-light before the sun finally rose behind the Grizedale fells. Scanning the lake, Donald saw the ‘smooth’ lake surface for himself. In no time, he had located Leo Villa, and asked his chief engineer to get everyone out to their stations and get Bluebird launched. Donald stepped into Bluebird’s cockpit just after 8.10, still some 25 minutes before sunrise proper. With a smile and his usual wink, Donald donned his leather helmet and began to do up his 4-point safety harness. The boat was lowered down the slipway and pulled round to the edge of the jetty once she had floated free of her cradle. At 8.40, Donald asked for a conditions update from Leo and Keith and received positive responses.
Campbell commenced the first run of his last record attempt at just after 8.45. Bluebird moved slowly out towards the middle of the lake, where she paused for a brief second as Donald lined her up. Here we go.. Here we go…. With a deafening blast of power, Donald applied full throttle and Bluebird began to surge forward. Clouds of spray issued from the jet pipe and after a few hundred yards, at 70 mph, Bluebird unstuck from the surface and rocketed off towards the southern end of the lake, producing her characteristic comet’s tail of spray. OK we’re up and away ... and passing through er ... tramping very hard at 150 ... very hard indeed … FULL POWER ... Passing through 2 ... 25 out of the way… tramping like hell Leo, I don’t think I can get over the top, but I’ll try, She entered the measured kilometre at 8.46. Leo Villa witnessed her passing the first marker buoy at about 285 mph in perfect steady planing trim, her nose slightly down, still accelerating. 7.525 seconds later, Keith Harrison saw her leave the measured kilometre at a speed of over 310 mph. FULL HOUSE ... and I can’t see where I am … FULL HOUSE – FULL HOUSE – FULL HOUSE ... POWER OFF NOW! ... I’M THROUGH!! ...
K7 on her first run on the 4th of January © Authors Collection
Campbell lifted his foot from the throttle about 3/10 of a second before passing the southern kilometre marker. As he left the measured kilometre, Bluebird’s engine flamed out for some inexplicable reason. The water brake was applied as he came up to and passed Peel Island at around 200 mph. He referred to relighting the engine, but given the indistinct, excited voice coming from the cockpit, no one listening in on the radio loop at the time picked up on the comment. If it had been picked up, it would have alarmed Leo. The flame out would not have been caused by water entering the intakes – Bluebird was still in the planing position – but by an interruption in the fuel supply, caused by a fuel system or electrical problem. If that was repeated under maximum jet thrust, it could have catastrophic consequences.
Campbell was impatient to get his speed from his first run. Taking 250 mph as a baseline, his speed came back‘+ 47’ meant 47 mph over that figure; he had in fact averaged 297.6 mph. Bluebird had peaked at around 315 mph just as Campbell lifted off, before she left the measured kilometre.
Under the rules laid down by the UIM, an hour was allowed in which to make both runs. This was more than enough time for the wash to disperse and the lake to regain its glassy appearance, assuming there was no adverse change in the weather. At speed, Bluebird’s planing created comparatively little wash and it took quite some time for the slow-moving wash to be reflected back into the centre of the lake. This gave the option of making the return run very soon after the first one. Donald knew how long he would have to do this.
Bluebird was now turning in a wide arc at the southernmost tip of the lake, about one kilometre south of Peel Island. Having heard his speed, Donald announced that he was starting his return run. Campbell commenced what was to be his final run at 8.48 – less than two minutes after exiting the kilometre on his first north–south run. The condition of the water two kilometres south of the actual measured kilometre was much rougher than Donald could have anticipated. He had used the water brake to shed about 130 mph of Bluebird’s speed at the narrowest part of the lake past Peel Island. The wash this created was now rippling back into the centre of the course, giving the water surface a corrugated profile.
His description of the water conditions in his commentary left none of his listeners in any doubt that he was having one hell of a rough ride.Donald maintained full power as Bluebird accelerated rapidly towards the measured distance. … Full nose up ... Pitching a bit down here ... coming through our own wash ... er getting straightened up now on track ... rather closer to Peel Island ... and we’re tramping like mad ... and er ... FULL POWER ... er tramping like hell OVER. I can’t see much and the water’s very bad indeed ... Ten seconds after passing Peel Island, Bluebird was travelling at over 280 mph, still accelerating. About 700 metres from the southern kilometre marker, travelling by now at over 300 mph, Bluebird appeared to break free of the water for a moment. I'm galloping (I can't get) over the top … and she's actually giving a hell of a bloody row in here. The starboard sponson bounced free of the water, twice in quick succession, each bounce lasting 0.5 and 0.3 seconds respectively. Still accelerating, Bluebird reached a point 450 metres south of the entry to the measured kilometre, where her speed peaked (later calculated at 328 mph). Her starboard sponson became airborne for the third time, by as much as 0.5m and for 0.6 seconds. When the sponson impacted with the water again, Bluebird began to decelerate quite rapidly. ... I can't see anything... Donald and Bluebird were in terrible trouble. Less than half a second later, Bluebird’s starboard sponson bounced free of the water a fourth time and remained airborne for nearly half a second, before striking the water again. Passing the southern kilometre marker at a speed subsequently estimated to be 305 mph, the starboard sponson bounced clear of the water for a fifth time.
K7 approaching the measured Kilo on the second run. © Authors Collection
About 200 metres into the measured distance, both forward planing surfaces broke free of the water for the last time. Bluebird exceeded her safe pitching angle of 5.5 degreesand slowly took to the air. I’ve got the bows out … Some 250 metres further down the course, at about 290 mph, she stood on her tail. There was no jet thrust to disturb the water beneath the jet pipe ... I'm going ... U-hh … Bluebird's engine had, for whatever reason, ceased to produce any meaningful thrust. She climbed about 10 metres above the water and performed a near 360-degree flip before plunging back into the lake at an angle of around 45 degrees. The boat began to break up on impact and a massive cloud of spray briefly hid the worst of her gyrations from view. The impact broke Bluebird in half just behind the cockpit; the sponsons were torn from their spars. The rear section of the hull barrel rolled along the lake for approximately 80 metres before coming to rest momentarily facing almost the direction she had just come from. As the spray settled, Bluebird slipped from sight and sank into the depths of Coniston Water. For a few moments, the eyewitnesses stood in stunned silence, unable to believe what they had just seen. It wasn't yet 8.50...
The end. K7 takes to the air. © Authors Collection
Courage is not the act of going quickly; it is the act of knowing what could happen and then carrying on anyway. Campbell never forgot the Utah crash that had almost killed him in 1960. He was not without imagination. Campbell talked about death because he lived with it, not because he wanted to die. He knew there was no safety net when he walked out onto the tightrope. Everything depended on him, and him alone, he had to perform. That brought with it pressure – it meant that he would eventually have to take what he once described as ‘a thoroughly unjustified risk’.
On that cold Wednesday morning, in the eyes of the uninformed he did just that, and he paid the ultimate price. But at the same time the legend of Donald Campbell was born…
Neil Sheppard, December 2011