Donald Campbell Lives for Speed
Thundering over the water at 300 miles an hour may be exhilarating, but it's also dangerous!
By Diana Bartley

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Campbell and his half-dozen co-workers never lack for interested observers. Big headache is keeping water clear of other boats.

Sport implies competition, a very large amount of some sort of highly specialized skill, and occasionally bravery. One of the world's most unusual sportsmen is a slightly built, highly intelligent Englishman who is currently familiar to the residents of the small upstate New York lake town of Canandaigua. He competes almost exclusively with himself; in the eight years since he took up his sport he has set out to win less than a dozen times; he is able to practice his skill only a few times a year; and without exception, each of those times has required from him an almost ultimate degree of bravery

The man is Donald Campbell, who twice has broken his own world water-speed record and who is today the long participator in what is perhaps the most dangerous sport in the world—racing a jet-propelled hydroplane at speeds never before attained on water. Campbell's boat, Bluebird, is the only successful jet hydroplane in the world.

Most of the curious spectators who watched Campbell make trial runs along a buoy-marked, mile-long course on Lake Canandaigua last July and August are lake people very familiar with fast speedboats. Even those among them who knew nothing about Bluebird have sufficient knowledge of boats to be totally awed by the 100-300 m.p.h. speeds she reaches even in practice runs. But most of the spectators who lined the lake edges in the early morning hours when the lake was calmest and Campbell set out on his trial runs, had little or no conception of what was involved in the Englishman's effort.

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Donald holds world record

When Campbell first arrived in Canandaigua, there were several occasions when he was scheduled for runs which did not come off because of poor water conditions. To the uninformed, this was comparable to a fighter arriving for a championship bout and then refusing to box because the lights bothered him. or a miler showing up for a record try and them refusing to run because the track didn't suit him. But in truth, there have been times when his immensely loyal crew members have felt that Campbell's impatience has made him decide to run when water conditions were excessively hazardous. For sure, no temperament has entered into the issue when Don Campbell has decided not to run Bluebird. By the time he has gone through all other considerations, there just isn't room for temperament. Too much is at stake.

Bluebird (neither Campbell nor his crew ever refers to her as "The Bluebird" for she possesses a headstrong, sensitive and highly individualistic personality of her own) took three years to build. Because no boat had ever before gone as fast as she does, a pioneer effort was required to solve almost every problem concerning her design—the aerodynamics of her hull, how her aircraft-type jet engine would act at high speeds on water, how to control her, how to balance her, and even how to float her.

Certain information could be learned from a model, more from wind tunnel tests. But early in the game, Campbell and his colleagues discovered that the only way to learn for sure what a given boat would do at speeds above 200 m.p.h. was to try her out and see.

Behind this current Bluebird lies a relatively short but exciting history. Sir Malcolm Campbell, Donald's father, garnered seven world land-speed records with Bluebird cars and three world water-speed records with Bluebird boats, all using Rolls-Royce internal combustion powerplants. After the war, Sir Malcolm built the first jet hydroplane. Donald recalls today that "It was a brute of a thing and thoroughly unstable." Sir Malcolm never had time to remedy its flaws, though. He suffered a severe stroke in 1948 and died before his last Bluebird had even made successful trials.

Sir Malcolm's legacy to his only son included some very important things not mentioned in his will: what the limitations were for an internal combustion-engined speedboat; a meager amount of knowledge, as much as anyone in the world knew on the subject, concerning what didn't work on a jet-propelled craft; and, perhaps most important of all, the life-long example of a cold and steely determination to win his goals and a full measure of the courage it took to do it.

"Dad couldn't stand to be thwarted," Donald has said. "He really got worked up when he found it was not too easy to carry off the world water speed record."

It was still-fresh memory of his father's personality which spurred Donald, who was then 28, to erupt into action when he leaned early in 1949 that Henry Kaiser, the American industrialist, had built a 12-cylinder, 3,000 horsepower, all-aluminum boat to be used by Guy Lombardo in an effort to break Sir Malcolm's prewar record—and take it from England.

Campbell said that when he learned this news, he had a mental image of his father's nose twitching with annoyance and he swiftly recalled Sir Malcolm's happy grin when he knew he had broken the record, his frustration with the misbehavior of the post-war jet Bluebird, and, vividly, a picture of the 1939 Bluebird streaking down Coniston on her way to a new record. "I just felt bloody-minded," he says. "Also, at that time there was a lot of talk about Britain being washed up as a first-class power." Never having driven a racing speedboat in his life—or a racing car, for that matter—Donald Campbell decided on the spot to give the American challenger a run for his money.

Six months later, Campbell had resurrected Sir Malcolm's last Bluebird, redesigned her to take a Rolls Royce piston engine instead of a jet, put in a number of trial runs on Lake Coniston in England and made an unsuccessful assault on the record there in September of 1949. Before mechanical repairs and redesigned parts could be completed for another trial the following spring, Donald received news from American that Stanley Sayres had set a new record of 160.23 m.p.h. in a craft called Slo-mo-shun IV. How Sayres' hydroplane, basically the same in design though even lighter and less powerful than Bluebird, could attain this speed when all available information indicated that Bluebird would flip at such a speed, Campbell did not know. It was only after months of new trials and revisions of Bluebird, great concern over the fact that at just past 140m.p.h. her stern seemed to rise, a few poor photographs of Slo-mo-shun IV, and finally, several tidbits of information brought back from America by Reid Railton, who had actually seen the boat, that Campbell and his crew were able to compare Slo-mo's greater speed with the worrisome tendency of Bluebird's stern to rise.

When a boat riding on three planing surfaces, two front and one aft, reaches a certain speed--it varies for different boats but is usually well over 100 m.p.h.--the stern rises up and the third point of contact with the water becomes the propeller itself. When a boat begins to "prop-ride", it will acquire a sudden spurt of acceleration due to the sharply decreased amount of drag from the propellers, the shaft and one blade of which are now out of the water.

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Building new Bluebird cost $70,000

In light of this new knowledge, Bluebird again had to be substantially redesigned. As a prop-rider, she competed successfully in Italy once in 1951, but then, and during extensive tests the following fall back at Coniston, she tended to take great corkscrew leaps. Further modifications to make her ride smoothly took months of hard work, but finally, one clear October morning, Campbell and Leo Villa took Bluebird out on her first trouble-free trial run, grinning at each other elatedly as she prop-rode smoothly at 170 m.p.h. Campbell said later, "I was just thinking, 'It's too good to be true. We've got her past the record already' when suddenly I felt Bluebird shudder violently. There was a thunderous, shattering crash, and she seemed to go mad. She skidded left, then right, then seemed to be gripped by gigantic brakes. I eased my foot off the throttle and Leo cut the fuel off." Bluebird decelerated from 170 m.p.h. to nothing in less than 100 yards, a stop that normally required almost a mile. Neither Campbell nor Villa had time to bail out and they would have been smashed to pulp if they had. They are the only men in the world who have survived a crash on water at that speed--and they were not harmed. Bluebird sank almost immediately. She had either hit a submerged log or her hull had burst under water pressure. Although this last prop-driven Bluebird was salvaged, she was never again reassembled.

Campbell returned to the more prosaic job of earning a living, and with him went Leo Villa, Donald's staunch and irreplaceable crew chief, who had served his father in the same capacity. Both men were bitterly disappointed. Bluebird had been both expensive and time-consuming. Saddest of all was the memory of the tantalizing burst of speed the old boat had produced on her final run.

In 1952, the two of them, encouraged by the offer of some financial support from Bill Coley, an old friend, began to consider the possibility of building a boat to compete for the Harmsworth Trophy. But before their plans were completed, Campbell learned that Sayres and Slo-mo-shun had increased the water-speed record, this time to 178.5 m.p.h. Only a few months later, John Cobb, holder of the world land-speed record in the Reid Railton-designed car and another old and beloved friend of the Campbell family, crashed the Railton-designed jet hydroplane, Crusader, at 240 m.p.h. during an attempt on the water-speed record. He was killed instantly.

The two events provided the necessary spur. Campbell says, "It seemed to me that, for the sake of British prestige, and also because I felt a need to continue trying to solve the problems of instability Cobb had encountered, somebody should go after that world record again." Within a week, plans were underway for the new jet-propelled Bluebird. A little less than three years later, the shining new Bluebird shot up and back the measured kilometer on Ullswater Lake in the north of England to cleanly bring the world water-speed record back to Britain with a 202.32 m.p.h. average. And for the first time, a jet-propelled boat successfully passed the "water barrier"—a variable point somewhere above 160 m.p.h. where the vibrations of a boat become great enough to shake it to pieces, roughly analogous to the sound barrier for aircraft.

The accomplishment of Campbell and his half-dozen backers (Bluebird cost $70,000, an incredibly small sum considering what was accomplished with it), convinced some 40 companies to cooperate in its development. With all that help, it took Campbell less than three years to successfully create the record-breaking innovation in watercraft which is the new Bluebird.

The jet Bluebird resemble no fish, fowl, insect, plane or watercraft. She is as unique in appearance as she is is in performance. She is 26 feet long and 10-1/2 feet wide and has a long, narrow fuselage that house cockpit and engine and is flanked by two forward-positioned, high-mounted, pontoon-like floats. the bottom rear surfaces of which constitute the two forward planing contact points. Bluebird's shape is based on a design which the aerodynamic consultants' firm, Norris Brothers, considered capable of producing the fastest, most stable, lightest, strongest and most aerodynamically neutral craft possible. Bluebird's planing surfaces and the center of gravity are so placed as to reduce to a minimum the tendency to nose-dive at high speed—the way Cobb's boat did—as well as the tendency to become airborne.

Before lifting up to plane at between 40 and 45 m.p.h., Bluebird rides low in the water, having only about four inches of freeboard and a draft of about three and one-half feet. With her all-aluminum hull painted almost exactly the color of the bright bird she is named for, she is startlingly graceful for all her 5,400 pounds. Her hull has been designed to take double the gravitational force that late-model supersonic fighter planes can endure—roughly 27 G's, or 27 times the force of gravity.

Campbell and his crew have revised and modified Bluebird constantly since her initial record run in England in 1955. Later that same year, Campbell brought her to Lake Mead, Nevada, and bettered his own record (new average of 216.25 m.p.h.) exactly one month after the boat had been swamped and sunk by the wakes created by curious pleasure craft. In September, 1956, back at Coniston with still more modifications completed, Campbell established a brand new records of 225.63 m.p.h.

And so Campbell and Bluebird arrived last July in Canandaigua, their goal to reach a 250-m.p.h. average speed. On Campbell's initial run on July 4—in effect, a demonstration run— dozens of curious boaters, in spite of warnings, again swarmed around him, creating waves which caused the engine to flame out. As Bluebird is just barely buoyant and as a very small wake from a very small boat is capable of sinking her, a repetition of the Lake Mead misfortune was narrowly averted.

On an unannounced very early morning run a few days later, Campbell touched a 300-m.p.h. speed but the water wasn't smooth enough for a record trial. In mid-July, Campbell tried again— this time coming perilously close to disaster when a speedboat cut sharply across in from of him during the run. He swung to miss her, almost hit one of his own patrol boats and again barely escaped being swamped.

There followed a two-week hiatus in activities. During this time, members of the Bluebird Research Group and a handful of local boatmen who had been working with Campbell since his arrival, visited every one of the 1,700 summer homes on the perimeter of Lake Canandaigua, making certain that the 4,000-5,000 residents and owners of the estimated 1,000 pleasure craft used on the lake all understood the risks. They explained that even on a dead straight course in quite calm water (as opposed to an ideal running surface which could be described as oily of glassy calm) Campbell has very little control of Bluebird . The explained that while Campbell has no particular desire to kill himself, he has even stronger feelings about killing someone else, and that the creation of even small wakes from nearby boats could not only cause Bluebird to flame out and sink, but could first send her totally out of control.

The first two days in August, Campbell ran trials. There was not a single pleasure craft on the whole of Lake Canandaigua from 4 to 8 a.m. on either day. Campbell can't get over it. "My Lord, talk about cooperation! It's simply incredible. Not a single craft!" But the lake was not smooth and the runs were, of necessity, slow.

As for Donald Campbell himself: He is a man who has no possible escape from his 300-m.p.h. craft before a crack-up and knows it; a man who elicits from his crew members, including Leo Villa, who remembers Donald as a boy in rompers, a cheerful and absolutely unqualified loyalty; a man who mortgaged his home when all other means of financial support for Bluebird research were exhausted.

He is immensely superstitious, interested in all areas of the unknown (he once tried to contact his father's spirit through mediums one of whom seemed even to transmit his father's mannerisms, but all that sounded something like that of his father, laughing uproariously and calling Donald "a complete clot"), and, though not a church-goer, is firmly convinced that he could not have progressed so far as he has without the help of God.

He has only a moderate amount of formal education (the equivalent of U.S. high school) but is thoroughly capable of working with the complexities of Bluebird's advanced aerodynamic and mechanical structure. He is a great practical joker, a competent water-skier, an uncertain bowler, and he has only one real fear—that of drowning. He is not a simple man.

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It took years of research to lick the problem of keeping Bluebird on an even keel at high speed.

At first glance, the unassuming demeanor and dress of Campbell's crew members leads the casual observer to put the away as a bunch of apprentice mechanics working under the direction of Leo Villa and Andy Brown, the two "older gents"—an opinion which is reinforced by the unfailing deference they pay to Campbell, whom they call "the Skipper." It is with some surprise, then, that one learns that those two "boys" tugging on the ropes which guide Bluebird down to the water from her dry berth are Maurice Parfitt, a first-class mechanical engineer, and Jeff Spencer, an excellent electrical engineer, both permanent members of the Bluebird Research Group; that the tall, stolid-looking young man in coveralls who is taking such a ribbing about his non-marital status is John Fenn, managing director of the high-speed launch designing and construction firm of Fenn & Wood; that the blue-eyed youth who seems endlessly preoccupied with the enormous bright yellow rubber balloons which form course markers clearly visible to Campbell even at speeds beyond 200 m.p.h. is Jim Hinton, on temporary leave from atomic research activities with the Dunlop Rubber Co. Jim is the designer of the functional buoys and master of the course, The kid in the bathing suit fiddling around with a rope at Bluebird's bow is Cliff Polley, aerodynamic engineer with Norris Brothers, designers of Bluebird; and the fatherly-looking, bespectacled Andy brown is head of Andrew Brown Electronic Engineering Co. These men, along with crew chief Villa, a public relations man and an extraordinarily good-looking brunette secretary, constitute Campbell's working group.

Thirty-six years old, five feet, nine inches tall, and weighing around 170 pounds, Don Campbell is dead serious when it comes to anything concerning Bluebird. He can be very gay with his piquant-faced, red-haired, ten-year-old daughter, Gina, but he quiets down to a tight-lipped, uncommunicative impatience when things aren't going well. Serious or gay, silently stern or talkatively joking, Don Campbell clearly sets the mood of the entire group.

He is never discourteous, not even to the most thick-headed clod who wiggles past the guards and, while Bluebird is being carefully launched imposes his inane chatter on the pre-occupied skipper. And Campbell is, himself, endlessly amazed at Bluebird. He tells with astonishment, for example, how, during a recent run, he applied about 95 per cent full power as Bluebird began to plane at about 40 m.p.h, looked for no more than three seconds at his other instruments, looked back at the speedometer to find that he was only up to 70 m.p.h., was instantaneously convinced that the indicator was broken—and then realized that the needle had gone fully circle and his speed in those seconds had climbed from 40 to 170 m.p.h. "She was actually at 170 already. Imagine!" he says.

He speaks at length about Bluebird, patiently willing to explain almost any aspect of her design or performance he is asked about. An acutely sensitive man, Campbell has made a half-dozen runs with Bluebird when he knew water conditions were not good simply to please the spectators who have come to see him.

Don Campbell insists that he is not a brave man—in spite of the impressive facts that Leo Villa is the only other man who has ever piloted Bluebird (at around 80 m.p.h.), that three of the six men who have tried for the water-speed record in recent decades have been killed at it, that no one in the world has the slightest idea what Bluebird will do as she continually surpasses her previous speeds, and that, for all the precautions such as the well designed harness and the air-tight, compressed-air mask which have been made for his protection, his chances of surviving a serious crash are slight.

We talked about fear—mine of large fish and pain, and his of drowning. Asked if his was connected to his father's or his own experiences with Bluebird, he said, "No, not at all. It's with a fish pond. The one I fell in when I was six. You see, there was concrete bird bath in the center which I was trying to reach, and unfortunately I kind of pulled it over on top of me and I wasn't strong enough to get out from under it. The memory of choking without making a sound, and of the ghastly pain in my chest, are still too vividly with me. Luckily my grandmother began looking about to see where I had got to, and she acted promptly when she found out."

Campbell's versatility and intelligence, as well as his strength of character, play a very large part in his success, for he must be a persuasive salesmen to obtain cooperation, a hard-headed businessman to handle the complexities of financing and an imaginative scholar to work with Bluebird's advanced design. Above all, he must be endlessly patient, and generally he is.

He is not patient with himself, though. He deplores what he calls his stupidity, which prevents him from fully understanding the higher intricacies of space/time mathematics and physics. "Let's be honest,' he said, "I'm no Einstein," you know, and it actually makes me very angry."

Campbell has a large amount of true modesty in his character. It is not only demonstrated in his willingness to define has his own intellectual limitations and to seek advice from specialists but, I a more subtle manner, in the way he idolizes the memory of his father. Sir Malcolm was brave, intelligent, charming, determined and had an ever-present spark of real humor. But it has apparently not occurred to Donald Campbell that he is himself all of these things, and that in the area of accomplishment, he has faced and met successfully challenges of far greater hazard than Sir Malcolm did. This is not to say that Sir Malcolm would not have met these greater challenges—only that as knowledge increases, science progresses, speeds climb, and risk is ever greater.

Perhaps the most modest touch of all is that Donald Campbell does not consider himself especially brave. but then, few truly brave men do. Before he was killed in a race car in Italy last spring, the Marquis de Portago said, "One must continue, even with fear. Fortunately, one is usually too busy to think about it long." The Mexican bullfighter, Luis Procuna, has said, "First one faces the bulls, then the crowd, and then the fear in oneself."

Campbell has said nothing so direct on the subject of fear but that he is well familiar with it can be fairly assumed. In his book, Into the Water Barrier, he says that as he sat in the cockpit, ready for his first record attempt with Bluebird at Lake Coniston in 1949, "I never felt so utterly lonely in my life. No longer did I regard the attempt as 'a piece of cake.'"

Campbell remained at Canandaigua until mid-August, but the water never was smooth enough for him to challenge the record. He then took his boat to the Canadian National Exposition. By mid-September he will have returned to England to improve Bluebird. Work is also already under way for a new Bluebird land-speed record car which Campbell hopes to have ready to run on the Utah salt flats in 1959. It will use a Bristol Proteus engine which, at Bonneville, is expected to produce 5,000 horsepower at 11,000 r.p.m., and, with a new streamlined design and 52-inch-diameter tires, should well exceed 400 m.p.h.—which Campbell doesn't consider dangerous or as challenging as 250 m.p.h. on water. "We are working with known data and predictable behavior with the car—not at all with the boat," he says.

As for why he does all this, Donald Campbell gets very tired of being asked. He patiently explains that facts learned from Bluebird may be applied some day to the design of a super-fast torpedo boat, and he adds that he also has a strong patriotic desire to keep the record for England. Closer to the truth, perhaps, is the fact that he is insatiably curious. No one knows what a boat will do at these speeds and he wants to know. As for winning, he agrees that such a thing as piloting Bluebird and achieving ever higher water-speed records can be a sort of "disease in the blood."

But the final explanation may be simply that, like many pure scientists who experiment with no particular use in mind for the result they seek, Donald Campbell, son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, citizen of Great Britain and the only man in the world to have streaked across a water surface at more the 300 m.p.h., does what he does because he wants to.

(Reprinted from Sport, November 1957)

[Thanks to Ron Van Proeyen for help in preparing this page]


This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010.
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Leslie Field, 1999