Spotlight on Campbell
Written by Peter Burgess
Thursday, 08 April 2010
First published in issue 5, The Lost Sheep, 2006
As a child the walls of my bedroom were decorated with various images, some of steam locomotives others of boats and aeroplanes and one picture in particular that was always a favourite—that of Major Henry Seagrave’s Golden Arrow. From these early times, as my father was also an aircraft engineer I had more than a passing interest, like many boys, in aircraft and cars. Through my childhood it was three things that started my interest in Donald Campbell and his world famous jet boat– Bluebird. Of course, spending many hours in the Lake District exposed my mind to the area of England where Donald Campbell spent much time, but as a 9 year old boy I will always remember a visit to Holker Hall with a friend and his mother in their bright green 2CV. Apart from the seemingly never ending roller coaster drive from the Ribble Valley over to Holker near Grange in the aforementioned Citroen the other highlight of the day had to be seeing the Campbell exhibit at the hall. I was captivated as a child and it left an impression on me. However, it was not until much later that I really became even more interested in the Campbell story. One final factor ignited my interest when my father pointed out that the Bluebird K7 had been built two miles from our home at Samlesbury Engineering, a subsidiary of the Lancashire Aircraft Corporation. I remember passing the site in the car and my father pointing out a flat area of concrete as the place where the bus manufacturer cum boat builder had been located. He even remembers walking around the site and examining ‘jigs’ that he thought might have been part of the K7 assembly. So it was that three factors ignited my interest in Campbell.
Golden Arrow & Bluebird
I firmly believe that Campbell is one of Britain’s less recognised heroes. When I ask students in my charge who their heroes are they amaze me with replies of David Beckham, Two Pac, Missy Elliot and other such flamboyant but non-the-less uninspiring characters. They of course ask me who my heroes are and I reply with the names of Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and of course my own favourite, Donald Campbell. The young people respond to me with the astonishment that I probably show them to their selection of personalities. At this point however, I usually tell them a story and try to explain my choice. To them their heroes are measured on their ‘koolness’, by the amount of chart success or monetary income they have—the more bling the more attractive they seem!
Underlying the whole story of Campbell is the notion that this man, beyond all else, was trying to better a record. Essentially he was doing this by sitting at the front of a 6000lb thrust, 10000 rpm. jet engine as it propelled him at more than 270mph across water. In my book this man had to be either two things; very foolish or very brave. It must be the latter. It is difficult for any of us to imagine what this must be like, but next time you leave the runway on a flight abroad the aircraft is moving at approximately 150mph. If you can imagine doubling this velocity and then placing yourself in a chair surrounded by aluminium and Perspex about 6 inches above water I think you get some idea of what kind of man Donald Campbell had to be. Don’t forget that hitting water at more than 80 miles an hour is just like hitting concrete so don’t presume that water is somehow a softer option.
When will Bluebird be completed? How long is a piece of string? The build still faces some unknowns, however, the aim has always been to have K7 back on the water sometime in 2011 and this is still achievable. She’s being built to the highest possible standard using as much original material as possible so she’ll be done when she’s done. There is no hurry nor is there a deadline.
What really makes the Campbell story great is that most people have heard of the ‘Bluebird’ phenomena and that Donald was carrying on his father’s legacy of nine land speed records and the water speed record three times.
In the Lake District the story is set in two arenas; namely Ullswater and Coniston. Coniston is synonymous with Campbell but Ullswater was an important proving ground for the K7 launched there in February 1955. Many might not realise but the choice of Ullswater was all down to Wavell Wakefield who ran the pleasure steamers on Ullswater. Wavell was a shareholder in Samlesbury Engineering and it is presumed the presence of Donald at Ullswater might benefit his fortunes with the tourist steamers.
After launch, Donald was quick to test out his new boat, but after initial trials the engine was ’flamed out’ as water entered the air intakes. At first, Bluebird wouldn’t rise up and plane. The forward sponsons were found to be too low. After fitting deflector panels to the front of the engine intakes it helped in lifting the boat as well as stopping the spray. On 14th March the boat planed for the first time and Donald took the velocity to about 130mph. After Imperial College provided a wind tunnel to test a model boat, Lewis and Ken Norris, engineers, solved the initial problems by raising the front spars and rounding the nose as well as other modifications which essentially removed excess weight. Taking about two months to modify the boat, the date of July 23rd 1955 was taken as the first on which to make a record attempt. At Ullswater he set a record of 202mph, raised to 216mph at Lake Mead later in the year. Another series of record attempts was made in The Lakes at Coniston Water, reaching 248mph in 1958. By 1964 Donald had raised the speed to 276mph at Lake Dumbleyung, Australia. In the same year Donald turned to his land speed records at Lake Eyre, Australia and by gaining 403.1mph became the first and thus far only person to hold both Water and Land Speed Records.
Coniston Water in the winter of 1966-67 was to become the end of Donald’s project to get the water speed record well out of the way of the Americans. He wished to push the record to 300+mph but sadly, although he probably easily reached this speed it was never officially recorded. As most people are aware on 4th January 1967 Donald took Bluebird K7 out for the last time. His first run was seen as perfect across a glass smooth Coniston Water, the comet like spray of water seen behind the jet boat as it pushed to +47 the signal to say that Bluebird had reached 297mph (250+47). At 8.51 a.m. Bluebird set off on its second run and her starboard sponson could be seen riding clear of the water. Afterwards Ken Norris studied the film of the now infamous crash and noticed the wake from the first run—he surmised that this may have contributed to the boat becoming airborne but he thought the boat was in trouble long before that. Much conjecture has gone into why Bluebird crashed at well over 300mph. There is no doubt that Donald was pushing the boat hard in order to get the record. With a first run of 297mph he had to do well over 300mph to gain the record he wanted. By failing to refuel for the second run he reduced the weight of Bluebird and kept the engine warmer on that cold January day. Returning when he did for that second run probably cost him his life. The St. Christopher medal and Bluebird screwed onto the cockpit and Mr. Whoppit, his lucky mascot, couldn’t save him that day.
Bluebirds and the Alt Man!
I can't wait to see the reconstructed Bluebird in all its awesome glory in Coniston. It will probably be the biggest crowd puller outside Disney Land (though not sure that this is a good thing). I would be 14 on that fateful day and we had a B&W telly which if you pushed in the knobs and fiddled a bit used to pick up the Bluebird Radio transmissions. My recollection of it now is that I heard his final words 'I'm going' and then, of course, nothing else. Whether this is the case or it's just a result of seeing and hearing the crash played so many times again on TV who knows, but in my mind there is no doubt . It's a phenomenally brave man that can overcome his own fears, overcome the odds when so much is stacked against, and give it all you have under less than ideal circumstances. Donald Campbell is our local hero. Bill Birkett, (Climber, photographer and Lakeland Author)
Most people will have seen the black and white film reels of the crash. Every time I watch the remarkable footage I think what a very courageous man Donald Campbell had to have been. On the day, many couldn’t understand why he had turned around so quickly and to me that’s what makes the man an enigma. No-one could ever truly understand him. Donald was superstitious and to those who knew him, a loose canon, but it created the flamboyant character documented in history. He could be very selfish and rather manic in his approach to life. He is sometimes portrayed as a ladies’ man and although his relationship with Tonia Bern was an emotional rollercoaster ride, it was a very powerful one. They married in 1958. Donald was the last of the old fashioned playboys. He hankered for a fast life of fast cars, boats and relationships. Underlying it all, Donald had ambition and his infatuation with Bluebird and the speed records was a reflection of all his life. Ultimately it was Donald’s own obsession with the speed records that cost him his life. Whether we like him or not as an individual is not the debate here. To me Donald Campbell sums up what it should mean to be British. We should be proud of who we are and what we do as a nation. If we uphold some of our historical figures and use them as icons, people would realise there is more worth in all our lives. Modern day ‘heroes’ are rather shallow characters and just like society all too ‘throw away’. We need more Donald Campbells and the colourful stories to pass on to future generations. The words of Tonia Bern will end this article to remind us once more:-
The amazing Mr. Campbell.
A true Jonathan Livingstone.
An unpredictable giant.
A mischievous daredevil.
I loved him.
I hated him.
But I always admired him.
And his power lingers on…
N.B. For up-to-date information about K7 please visit the Bluebird Project website.
Proteus Bluebird & others at Beaulieu
"It was great to see so many old friends again and to meet new people who have now become familiar names on the message board." Jill Rowland on the Honister 2007 weekend