Donald Campbell

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Donald Campbell : biography

21 March 1921 – 04 January 1961

Campbell decided not to go back to Utah for the new trials. He felt the Bonneville course was too short at and the salt surface was in poor condition. BP offered to find another venue and eventually after a long search, Lake Eyre, in South Australia, was chosen. It hadn’t rained there for nine years and the vast dry bed of the salt lake offered a course of up to . By the summer of 1962, Bluebird CN7 was rebuilt, some nine months later than Campbell had hoped. It was essentially the same car, but with the addition of a large stabilising tail fin and a reinforced fibreglass cockpit cover. At the end of 1962, CN7 was shipped out to Australia ready for the new attempt. Low-speed runs had just started when the rains came. The course was compromised and further rain meant, that by May 1963, Lake Eyre was flooded to a depth of 3 inches, causing the attempt to be abandoned. Donald was heavily criticised in the press for alleged time wasting and mismanagement of the project, despite the fact that he could hardly be held responsible for the unprecedented weather.

To make matters worse for Campbell, American Craig Breedlove drove his pure thrust jet car ‘Spirit of America’ to a speed of at Bonneville in July 1963. Although the ‘car’ did not conform to FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) regulations, that stipulated it had to be wheel-driven and have a minimum of four wheels, in the eyes of the world, Breedlove was now the fastest man on earth.

Campbell returned to Australia in early spring 1964, but the Lake Eyre course failed to fulfil the early promise it had shown in 1962 and there were further spells of rain. BP pulled out as his main sponsor after a dispute, but he was able to secure backing from Australian oil company Ampol.

The track never properly dried out and Campbell was forced to make the best of the conditions. Finally, in July 1964, he was able to post some speeds that approached the record. On the 17th of that month, he took advantage of a break in the weather and made two courageous runs along the shortened and still damp track, posting a new LSR of . Campbell was bitterly disappointed with the record as the vehicle had been designed for much higher speeds. CN7 covered the final third of the measured mile at an average of , peaking as it left the measured distance at over . He resented the fact that it had all been so difficult. ‘We’ve made it – we got the bastard at last,’ was his reaction to the success. Campbell’s 403.1 mph represented the official Land Speed Record.

In 1969, after Campbell’s fatal accident, his widow, Tonia Bern-Campbell negotiated a deal with Lynn Garrison, President of Craig Breedlove and Associates, that would see Craig Breedlove run Bluebird on Bonneville’s Salt Flats. This concept was cancelled when the parallel Spirit of America supersonic car project failed to find support.

Recovery of Bluebird K7 and the body of Donald Campbell

The wreckage of Campbell’s craft was recovered by the Bluebird Project between October 2000, when the first sections were raised, and May 2001, when Donald Campbell’s body was recovered. The largest section comprising approximately two thirds of the centre hull was raised on 8 March 2001. The project began when diver Bill Smith was inspired to look for the wreck after hearing the Marillion song "Out of This World" (from the album Afraid of Sunlight), which was written about Campbell and Bluebird.

The recovered wreck revealed that the water brake had deployed after the accident as a result of stored accumulator pressure; Campbell would not have had time to deploy the relatively slow-moving brake as the boat flipped out of control. The boat still contained fuel in the engine fuel lines, discounting the fuel-starvation theory. The wreckage all evidenced an impact from left to right, wiping the whole front of the boat off in that direction. Campbell’s lower harness mounts had failed and were found to be effectively useless. Further dives recovered various parts of K7, which had separated from the main hull when it broke up on impact.