Bluebird K7

Classic Projects: Bluebird K7

The Bluebird K7 is an iconic design in British engineering history - but how does it compare to today's standards?

There's an iconic clip of grainy black-and-white footage shot on 4 January 1967 that, once seen, is not easily forgotten. It shows the Bluebird K7 jet-powered hydroplane's final moments as it breaks up on Coniston Water. Its driver, Donald Campbell, who already held several previous water speed records (WSR), was 'under pressure' to push past the elusive 300mph barrier. The attempt proved fatal for Campbell, whose last words were: "I'm getting a lot of bloody row in here – I can't see anything – I've got the bows out – I'm going."

This wasn't just the end of Campbell and Bluebird, but also of the once massively popular terrestrial speed records. As the newspapers became more interested in the space race and missions to the Moon, so too did the public lose interest in Campbell's comparatively mundane activities. The media had a field day when, on arrival at Coniston Water in 1966, the lorry driver transporting Bluebird took a shortcut and got stuck. The headline 'Bluebird stuck in mud' did not impress Campbell.

Despite its tragic end, Bluebird K7 had been a great success, with Campbell setting seven world records during the 1950s and 60s, the first of which broke the 200mph barrier.

As with the Apollo missions, Bluebird was an evolutionary project going through many design and technology innovations that trace their roots back as far as 1949, when Campbell was using his father's propeller-driven Bluebird K4. After K4 was destroyed in 1951, Campbell set to work on developing a jet-powered successor, entering his own version of the space race and competing for technical superiority over the American hydroplane Slo-Mo-Shun-IV.

Although its technical specification changed radically over time as Campbell experimented with different engines, Bluebird K7 is described as an aluminium three-point hydroplane with a Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl axial-flow turbojet engine, producing 3,500 pound-force of thrust.

By 1966 Campbell had set his sights on the 300mph target. After setbacks caused by technical failures and bad weather, he was forced to wait until the New Year before attempting the two runs on Coniston Water he needed to establish the new WSR. Bluebird K7 was only designed to reach 250mph, but on 4 January 1967 Campbell's first run peaked at 310mph. Without waiting for the 'all clear' from the course marshal, Campbell turned Bluebird around and, travelling in his own wake, pushed the vessel to 328mph through choppy water. Bluebird became unstable, its nose lifting out of the water before somersaulting and smashing into the water at 183mph. Campbell was killed instantly.

Bluebird remained at the bottom of Coniston for 34 years before being raised in 2001. It has been restored, using up to 90 per cent of the original materials. Plans to take the rebuilt craft onto Lake Coniston appear in the press from time to time, but if Bluebird ever graces the Lake District again it will be at speeds of around 100mph.

One of the myths surrounding Bluebird K7 is that the night before Campbell's final attempt he had been playing cards and had drawn the queen and ace of spades. Campbell noted that these were the same cards that Mary Queen of Scots had drawn on the eve of her execution. The superstitious Campbell took this as a bad omen that has often been commented on, although serious engineers are unlikely to think that this will have had any effect.

The 300mph barrier was finally broken in 1978 by Ken Warby in Spirit of Australia, which reached 317.596mph.

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