After smashing seven world water speed records, the Bluebird story ended in tragedy. Now, though, the story continues.
For anyone unfamiliar with Bluebird, the Campbells or world speed records, the sight of a huge blue jet boat sitting on top of a lake might look a bit odd. Bluebird K7
was is a hydroplane. It was designed to be the fastest boat in the world back in the late 50s. Part-fighter jet, the machine hurtled along lakes all around the globe, eventually reaching an eye-watering, frankly flabagasting speed of 300mph on water. Now, Bluebird is back and ready for action.
Image: Bluebird Project
When I was a child, I remember being shown the grainy footage of Donald Campbell's Bluebird K7 speeding down Coniston Water, a lake found in the mountainous region of England called the Lake District. I'd been to that same lake before so it struck home: once upon a time, a ridiculously fast boat had ripped up that lake at 300mph - I mean, what's not to love about that? It captured the imagination.
Donald Campbell, the son of Malcolm Campbell who broke world speed records during the 30s and 40s, began his own record-breaking career in 1949 after the death of his father (somewhat of an unconventional profession). Starting off with an older bluebird boat that he had inherited, Donald developed a new craft with designers Ken and Lew Norris.
K7 without a tailfin and older sponsons. The boat was continually upgraded throughout its career.
This new boat was revolutionary. It had an incredibly rigid steel frame with an aluminum skin in a (now widely used) three-point configuration. This is where the boat rises up to three 'points' that allow it to skim across the surface with little water resistance. Perhaps the most revolutionary feature, though, was K7's engine.
Bluebird was designed as a pure jet-propelled hydroplane, the first of it's kind to be successful. It used an early British axial flow turbojet called a Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl that produced 3500lbs (16 kN) of thrust. Later this was later replaced lighter and more powerful Bristol Siddeley Orpheus engine taken from a Folland Gnat (20kN of thrust). Check out this piece of kit (below)
A Bristol Siddeley Orpheus engine
Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, Donald Campbell broke seven world water speed records with Bluebird K7. He also was, and still is, the only person to break both the water and land speed records in the same year. What a legend.
Sadly, it is the end of the story that most people remember. On the 4th January 1967, Campbell was tragically killed as bluebird flipped out of the water after achieving a speed of over 310mph whilst traveling across Coniston Water. bluebird sank to the bottom of the lake seemingly lost forever. However, it wasn't the end.
Twenty Years of Restoration
After forty years lying on the lakebed lost in time, Bluebird K7 was found by diver Bill Smith and his small team. It was raised in 2001 and work was started on the restoration. It's hard to believe that a hulk of twisted metal could be saved, but it was.
Over years, the craft was stripped down. Each part was meticulously assessed, treated, and straightened. As much as possible was reused in the rebuild. The engine couldn't be saved, so others were found to replace it. In the end, the vast majority of the boat is exactly the same as it was. "New sponsons and replacement engine aside, she'll be near as makes no difference the same machine she was on the morning of January 4th, 1967." - Bluebird Project statement.
You can read all about the restoration of Bluebird K7 on the Bluebird Project website here. There you will find a complete build diary showing the painstaking effort that went into bringing the boat back to life.
Bluebird is Back
Between the 4th and 16th August this year, Bluebird is currently undergoing its first water trials since 1967. It was launched for the very first time since the restoration just days ago and had already been piloted at high speeds. The thing just wants to go!
These tests are to both ensure that Bluebird is working correctly along with training the crew. As no one has helped refuel, launch, recover and maintain a craft quite like this for fifty years, there's a steep learning curve, but the K7 team is on it.
The first run saw the boat rise up onto its three points, unintentionally.
"We had no intention to try and plane the boat on her first trip out, but K7 had other ideas and leapt up with ease anyway! A tiny squirt more and she'd have been away. Bravo Bluebird!"
Multiple runs have been completed each day up until now. Some problems have arisen, such as when the canopy ejected at the end of a run due to deceleration.
"The vents we routed to prevent the intakes from imploding as per 1966 worked against us by pressurising the cockpit when Ted [the pilot] came off the throttle and the canopy blew to pieces. Oops! Building a new one as we speak."
After more tests, Bluebird has been quite happily doing 130mph across the lake. It's a fantastic spectacle and well worth a watch. Here's a link to the video.
As the story continues, the memory and spirit of Donald Campbell lives on through Bluebird. Make sure to follow the Bluebird Project twitter feed to get updates, images and videos.
Article by James Whomsley
Editor of FliteTest.com