Last Tuesday evening Donald Campbell, 34, son of England's late speed king, Sir Malcolm, squirmed into the narrow cockpit of his jet-powered speedboat Bluebird and eased his foot down on the throttle. The green quiet of the Lake Country was shattered by the hollow jet boom as the aluminum hydroplane, looking like a giant modernistic lobster, nosed out onto the glassy surface of Lake Ullswater. The run began as just one more in a series of tests young Don Campbell has carried out on the revolutionary jet boat (diagramed on these pages) in which he is determined to bring back to Britain the world water speed record once held by his father.
On Tuesday evening he planned to hold Bluebird to a moderate speed, close to his father's old record of 141 but still 37 mph short of the world mark now held by Stanley Sayres of Seattle. But as Bluebird taxied round a bend onto the lake's long straight stretch, Campbell, for the first time in six years of planning and building, stopped being cautious.
"The water was right, and things were going very well," he said later, "so I let it accelerate."
In one tremendous burst Bluebird leaped from 120 to 180 miles per hour—faster than the existing record—and kept moving. At that incredible water speed the boat lost some steering stability, and inside the cockpit Campbell felt Bluebird sliding dangerously. Crackling over the radiophone to aides ashore came his voice: "I'm not enjoying this!" Then, as the air-speed needle shimmered past 180 mph he shouted, "I'm getting one hell of a ride."
July 24, 1955
Not even "full out," Bluebird had topped the listed world's records. All that remained now was to make it official with a two-way run over a measured mile against stop watches.
Suddenly close at hand, this final moment has, for Donald Campbell, been a long time in coming. Since Sir Malcolm's death in 1949, Donald has pursued the world record. In 1949 he had his father's old Bluebird up to 150 when the gearbox ripped apart. The following year the engine broke up under prop riding. The next summer Bluebird hit a submerged timber that ripped a 12-foot gash in her hull. Meantime Stan Sayres had taken the record to America with Slo-Mo-Shun IV, raised it to 178.5. That appeared to be the limit for propeller boats, and especially for conventional hydroplane design. For at those speeds the broad forward surfaces of a hydro catch the air and the boat tries to take off.
In designing a new Bluebird, Campbell made a radical design change, substituted separate floats for the usual broad planing surfaces, cutting the dangers of flight tendency. For his power plant he picked a jet. But even as the new Bluebird was abuilding, a jet boat driven by Campbell's friend John Cobb nosed under at 200 mph, exploding and killing Cobb. There was, apparently, another danger that no one really understood—a water barrier much like the sound wall encountered by jet aircraft—which sets up a series of high-frequency vibrations against the hull of a boat approaching 200. Once the vibrations take hold, the boat may go into an uncontrollable pitching cycle and disintegrate.
The new Bluebird was built to take these strains. With an aluminum-alloy skin strengthened by corrugations to withstand a wrench of 27 Gs, she is a near-perfect speed machine. She is not perfect for anything else. Under international rules she is ineligible for racing competition, and her records will not intrude on those of the propeller-driven classes.
Boat-to-boat races, however, are no concern of Don Campbell. As the week started, he was concerned only with waiting for the right weather to make his run for the record. "I can do it," he said, "if I can hold the brute."
SIR MALCOLM AND SON traveled to Utah in 1935 seeking land speed record.
CHRISTENING OLD "BLUEBIRD" in 1939, young Don gave name to boat in which his father set record.
MOTORCYCLING near their home in Surrey was a family sport for Campbells when father was seeking speed records.
WAR SERVICE stopped Sir Malcolm's collection of records. He failed in his only postwar try.
OLD SPEED KING died in 1949 still holding water speed record he set with Bluebird II in 1939.
Campbell's clothing during record run included breathing mask (1) which operates under water in emergency, and waterproof coveralls (2). Engine controls (3) are located at pilot's elbow directly under main frame of hull.
Air speed of jet boat is measured by pair of pressure heads (5, 20) mounted on forward section of port-starboard floats. Horizontal detector (4) measures displacement of nose, warns if bow is dipping too deep into water.
Float structure is combination of ribs (6) hollowed to reduce weight, and high-tensile steel frames. As jet boat reaches 40 mph, hull rises from water, rides on planing shoes (7) fastened onto floats and after end of hull.
'Bluebird's' insignia include "lazy eight" symbol (8) for infinity, indicating that boat is in unlimited jet power classification. Cutaway of after spar (9) shows high-tensile steel frame, streamlined by outer skin of aluminum.
Circular fuel tank (10) holds 50 gallons of paraffin jet fuel, was placed close to center of gravity so that fuel consumption would not affect overall balance. Intake ducts (11) on either side of boat feed air to jet engine.
Jet engine (12), similar to aircraft power plants, develops static thrust of 4,000 pounds, is Metro-Vickers turbo design. Aluminum skin on undersurface of Bluebird is reinforced by corrugated alloy (13) to give added strength.
Ballast tanks (14) are drained, filled to adjust trim, can be detached for alterations. Tanks also provide covering for release lug (15) for parachute brake. Rudder (16) is set off center to avoid hull backwash at low speeds.
Nylon parachute (17) acts as emergency brake, can be spilled by rip cord (18) leading back to release lug, then forward to control in cockpit. Vertical aerial (19) services both pilot's intercom and electronic warning system.
INTERIOR VIEW OF COCKPIT
2 Air intake spray flaps
3 Main frame tube
4 Rudder control rod
5 Foot rest
6 Foot throttle
7 Parachute release
8 Dump valve for unburned fuel
9 Fuel flow control switch
10 Hand throttle
11 Foot throttle governor
12 Instrument panel
13 Steering wheel
15 Fuel pressure
16 Air-speed indicator
17 Jet pipe temperature
"BLUEBIRD'S" ANATOMY SIDE VIEW
A Port float
B Aluminum alloy corrugations to strengthen nose
C Directors to channel water onto planing surfaces
D Rudder-control gearbox
E Engine controls
F Pilot's specially shaped seat
G Stabilizing fin
H Compressed air for breathing mask
I After spar housing
J Segments of circular fuel tank
K Jet engine
L Engine mounting
M Strengthening ribs
N Planing shoe
P Parachute housing
Q Fuel pump
R Fuel flow governor
S Electronic unit automatically transmits stress factors, i.e., air speed, pitch, roll, and vertical acceleration and vertical displacement of nose, to receiving unit on shore. Each factor has own high-frequency channel. Unit also contains sixth channel for intercom between Campbell and shore observers, so assistants can flash warning if stresses become excessive
T Pilot wears helmet, radio transceiving equipment, breathing mask, waterproof coveralls and life jacket with quick release harness
U Instrument panel
V Forward spar housing
W Aluminum alloy outer skin
aa Port float
bb Starboard float
cc Forward spar
dd Quick-release cockpit cover
ee After spar float housing
ff After spar
gg Air intake ducting
hh Electronic unit
ii Segments of circular fuel tank
jj High-tensile steel main frame
kk Jet engine
ll Batteries for electronic unit
mm Trim tanks