Donald Campbell killed trying to break own water speed record
Henry Segrave and his engineer Hallwell died in 1930, trying to pass the 100mph mark on water in his craft Miss England II on Windermere. John Cobb died on Loch Ness in his boat Crusader trying to breach 200mph in 1952. Donald Campbell’s name was added to that tragic list on January 4th 1967, attempting to push the record over the 300mph line.
Campbell’s Bluebird K7 had been improved over the years since he first set records with it in 1955. To hit the elusive 300mph mark its Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl jet engine with a thrust of 3500lb was replaced by a Bristol Orpheus system taken from the Folland Gnat jet aircraft. The new engine was lighter, and 1000lb thrust greater.
Donald Campbell already held the water speed record at 267mph, edged up by him over the last years from 202.15mph in 1955. But the figure of 300mph was his goal.
The idea that these record attempts were made by some playboy arriving on the day and putting his foot down on a few hair-raising burn-ups is dispelled when the build-up to the January 4th runs is considered. Leaving aside the engineering changes and technical work that went before, Campbell began his trials on Coniston in early November 1966. There were problems with the air-intakes proved vulnerable at high speeds. The team worked on this and some serious difficulties with the fuel system until late December, but the weather was poor and they had to wait for the right conditions.
On the morning of January 4th 1967 the water and weather conditions were acceptable. Campbell had a few gulps of hot coffee laced with some brandy, then set off on his north-south run. He managed an average speed of 297.6mph. The rules for record setting required two runs within the hour in opposite directions. It had been intended that Campbell refuel the craft before setting out on the second run, allowing the wash created by his first attempt to die down. For whatever reason he decided to turn straight around and make his second run immediately.
Probably travelling at around 320mph Bluebird began to “tramp”, first one sponson (the tanks at the craft’s wing tips) then the other hitting the water. Seconds from the end of the measured run it rose to 45 degrees, left the water, and then somersaulted and sank. As his craft was losing control Campbell’s last words came over the radio: “I’m getting a lot of bloody row in here, I can’t see anything, I’ve got the bows up. Oh.”
There have been many theories about why the boat crashed. Ridiculously some have suggested suicide by a man with national acclaim and yet another record within his grasp. Did he, like Segrave in 1930, hit a submerged log? Did Bluebird run out of fuel and lose stability as a result? Was ice to blame?
In 2001 Bluebird was recovered, and an inquest held when Campbell’s body was at last found. He had used the water brake to try to slow the bucking craft, surely ruling out the odd suicide idea. There was fuel still in the boat, but blockages might have caused engine failure. The most likely cause of the crash was that the wash from his first run was enough to destabilise Bluebird – there was at most a six degree lift of the nose from the water possible before a flip was inevitable.
The coroner ruled Campbell’s death had been an accident. He is buried now in Coniston cemetery, and there are plans to house Bluebird K7 in the Ruskin Museum in Coniston.
The water speed record has moved little since Campbell’s death, evidence of the brilliance of his team. Australian Ken Warby set a new high mark in 1978, reaching 317.6mph. In 1980 American Lee Taylor died on Lake Tahoe trying to improve on this. In 1989 his compatriot Craig Arfons met the same fate. The quest for ever more speed continues, however, and every time a new name sets a higher mark and joins the list of water speed record holders, Donald Campbell will be mentioned as the greatest member of that very exclusive and incredibly dangerous club.
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