Bluebird back on the water Legendary record-breaker Donald Campbell’s hydroplane in first test run on Loch Fad. Words John Simister. Photography Alamy and Getty Images.
Seventeen years after it was recovered, badly broken, from the bottom of Coniston Water, Donald Campbell’s Bluebird K7 has run under its own power on the water again. It happened on Loch Fad in the Isle of Bute on 5 August, witnessed by Campbell’s daughter Gina and an appreciative crowd.
The test run is the culmination of a 15-year restoration masterminded by Tyneside-based Bill Smith, on behalf of the Ruskin Museum at Coniston to which Gina Campbell donated K7 in 2006. Smith is the engineer and amateur diver who discovered the wreckage in 2001. The test followed a trial run in 2016 of the replacement Bristol Siddeley Orpheus jet engine, donated by De Havilland Aviation in 2007 and required because the original was beyond repair.
Thee return to the water was briefly delayed when the newly painted hull snagged on the loch’s shore, but test driver/pilot/skipper Ted Walsh was soon afloat in K7. He carried out a few runs at up to 100mph – a third of the speed it was travelling at when it flipped and crashed on 4 January 1967, killing Campbell – to check the craft was watertight and that it responded correctly to the controls. He also performed a successful stop and restart of the engine.
Drama unfolded when the canopy blew off as Walsh decelerated from his last run, breaking and landing in the lake, the Bluebird Project team tweeted: ‘The vents we routed to prevent the intakes from imploding as per 1966 worked against us by pressurising the cockpit when Ted came off the throttle and the canopy blew to pieces. Oops! Building a new one as we speak.’ Walsh said: ‘I try not to think of the history too much. I have to focus on the technical side. Of course I respect and honour the memory of Donald Campbell, but the best way I can do that is to help make sure Bluebird performs as she should.’ After the first test, he described the feeling as ‘absolutely amazing’.
Bill Smith agreed, ‘That worked!’ he said. ‘It was like a bullet from a gun.’ He had earlier told how he and his team spent five years cataloguing all the parts they had salvaged, and another ten restoring them and putting them back together. ‘Now we’ll be training ourselves on Loch Fad because no-one really knows how she’ll handle. Once this is done there has always been the hope that she will be displayed at speed back in Cumbria.’
There has been controversy around the Bluebird Project, with some opponents of the scheme thinking that K7 should have been displayed in its wrecked state or even left on the lake bed, and there are parallels with the exhumation and restoration of JG Parry Uomas’s Babs recordbreaker. Gina Campbell keenly supports the project, but she insists there are no plans to take K7 to the sort of speeds her father achieved and she doesn’t want anyone else to lose their life in the pursuit of speed.
‘Nothing would be worse than something going wrong again and somebody being hurt,’ she said, ‘Things happen when young men get hold of something that can go very, very fast, but I hope good sense prevails. It’s just not worth the risk to machine or man.’