Death Of A British Hero: Donald Campbell (1921-1967)
How much adrenalin would have been pumping through 45 year old Donald Campbell’s veins when he sat in the cockpit of Bluebird before that final run, knowing that no man nor machine had gone as fast as he was about to go?Coniston Water, 1967
Early on January 4, Donald Campbell roared across the placid surface of Coniston Water in the lovely Lakes District in north-west England. He was piloting Bluebird K7 in an attempt to break his own water speed record of 276.3mph. He had recorded a first run of 297mph, then, on his second run, at an estimated 320mph, the boat soared and crashed. Bluebird and its driver disappeared into the deep still water of the famous lake.
The Coniston locals, who had become accustomed to the roar of the jet-engined hydroplane, knew something was wrong when the incredible noise suddenly stopped and an eerie silence fell.
Donald Campbell was the son of the famous Sir Malcolm Campbell. Sir Malcolm’s name was synonymous with speed and record attempts on land, sea and air. His ‘craft’ were inevitability called ‘Bluebird’. Just before the outbreak of World War II, he set a water speed record of 141.74 mph on Coniston Water in Bluebird K4. By the war’s end, Sir Malcolm fell ill and passed away in 1948.
Donald Campbell decided to pick up where Sir Malcolm left off and proceeded to set various land and water records. He broke both the world land and water speed records in one year in 1964. The water record was set in Australia on Lake Dumbleyung near Perth with a speed of 276.33mph Across the Atlantic, however, the Americans were setting the pace with jet-powered craft on both land and water. Bluebird K4 had been built prior to 1939 and was starting to show its age. Bluebird K4 sank in a record attempt at 170mph, in 1951.
Campbell built the Bluebird K7 in 1954 and it was eventually fitted with a Bristol Orpheus jet engine and a tail from a Hawker Siddley ‘Gnat’ aircraft. Campbell was determined to keep breaking his own records and to fly the Union Jack. He set new records five times between 1956 and 1966 and his driving ambition was to build a new jet-driven land speed car to show that British technology could lead the world once again. The record attempt at 300mph on water in K7 was seen as just the event to kick off a new wave of public support and British pride.His friend and chief engineer, Leo Villa, was not at Coniston on Christmas 1966, the scene of a trial run which was said to have broken the 300mph barrier. A week or so later at 8.42am on January 4th, Campbell took Bluebird K7 for its first south bound run on his beloved Coniston Water. The first run was timed at an average of 297mph. The return run was almost completed when disaster struck.
Campbell’s last words on his final run were, via radio intercom:
“Pitching a bit down here…Probably from my own wash…Straightening up now on track…Rather close to Peel Island…Tramping like mad…er… Full power…Tramping like hell here… I can’t see much… and the water’s very bad indeed…I can’t get over the top… I’m getting a lot of bloody row in here… I can’t see anything… I’m going…. oh!”It was thought that the watery grave for Campbell and his boat was appropriate and that that had been Campbell’s wish. Thirty four years later after a four year search, a dive team located his remains and that of the wreck of the Bluebird K7. The funeral was a solemn finale to a great life.
The Campbell family is now supporting a project to rebuild the Bluebird K7 as a tribute to a true British hero. You can check out the latest on the project here
Donald Campbells speed records
July 1964: Lake Eyre, Australia. (403.1 m.p.h.)
July 1955: Ullswater, Cumbria. (202.32 m.p.h.)
November 1955: Lake Mead, U.S.A. (216.2 m.p.h.)
September 1956: Coniston Water, Cumbria. (225.63 m.p.h.)
November 1957: Coniston Water, Cumbria. (239.07 m.p.h.)
November 1958: Coniston Water, Cumbria. (248.62 m.p.h.)
May 1959: Coniston Water, Cumbria. (260.33 m.p.h.)
December 1964: Lake Dumbleyung, Australia (276.33 m.p.h.)
For more information on Donald and his father Malcolm visit The Racing Campbells