Donald Campbell


Donald Campbell : biography

21 March 1921 – 04 January 1961

Campbell’s words on his first run were, via radio intercom:

Instead of refuelling and waiting for the wash of this run to subside, Campbell decided to make the return run immediately. This was not an unprecedented diversion from normal practice, as Campbell had used the advantage presented i.e. no encroachment of water disturbances on the measured kilometre by the quick turn-a-round, in many previous runs. The second run was even faster once severe tramping subsided on the run-up from Peel Island (caused by the water-brake disturbance). Once smooth water was reached some 700 metres or so from the start of the kilometre, K7 demonstrated cycles of ‘ground’ effect hovering before accelerating hard at 0.63g to a peak speed of 328 mph (530 km/h) some 200 metres or so from the southern marker buoy. Bluebird was now experiencing bouncing episodes of the starboard sponson with increasing ferocity. At the peak speed, the most intense and long-lasting bounce precipitated a severe decelerating episode (328 mph – 296 mph, -1.86g) as K7 dropped back onto the water. Engine flame-out then occurred and, shorn of thrust nose-down momentum, K7 experienced a gliding episode in strong ground effect with increasing angle-of-attack (AoA), before completely leaving the water at her static stability pitch-up limit of 5.2°. Bluebird then executed an almost complete somersault (~ 320° and slightly off-axis) before plunging into the water (port sponson marginally in advance of the starboard), approximately 230 metres from the end of the measured kilometre. The boat then cartwheeled across the water before coming to rest. The impact broke K7 forward of the air intakes (where Donald was sitting) and the main hull sank shortly afterwards. Campbell had been killed instantly. Mr Whoppit, Campbell’s teddy bear mascot, was found among the floating debris and the pilot’s helmet was recovered. Royal Navy divers made efforts to find and recover the body but, although the wreck of K7 was found, they called off the search, after two weeks, without locating his body.

Campbell’s last words, during a 31 second transmission, on his final run were, via radio intercom:

  • This phrase is disputed, but the former is more consistent with events timed to coincide with it, when K7 was accelerating very hard on an almost perfect water surface.
    • This word is disputed in some interpretations of Campbell’s commentary.

The cause of the crash has been variously attributed to Campbell not waiting to refuel after doing a first run of 297.6 mph (478.9 km/h) and hence the boat being lighter; the wash caused by his first run and made much worse by the use of the water brake, (These factors have since been found to be not particularly important. The water brake was used well to the south of the measured distance, and only from approx. 200 mph (320 km/h) The area in the centre of the course, where Bluebird was travelling at peak speed on her return run was flat calm, and not disturbed by the wash from the first run, which had not had time to be reflected back on the course. Campbell knew this and, as discussed previously, adopted his well-practiced, ‘quick turn-a-round’ strategy.

The cause of the crash can be put down to Bluebird exceeding its aerodynamic static stability limit, complicated by the additional destabilizing influences of loss of engine thrust, damage to the port spar fairing, and, the hitherto unappreciated contribution of ground effect lift enhancement. There is also evidence to point to the fact that K7s dynamic stability limit had been exceeded. The cause(s) of the engine flame-out cannot be established unequivocally. It could have been due to fuel starvation, damage to some ancillary structural element associated with engine function (following the worst bouncing episode), disturbance of the airstream into the intakes during the pitching episodes, or indeed a combination of all three. Further evidence of lost engine thrust may be seen in both cinematographic and still film recordings of the latter part of the run – as Bluebird left the water, jet exhaust from a functioning engine would have severely disturbed the water surface; no such disturbance or accompanying spray is evident. Also, close examination of such records show no evidence to the effect that the water brake was deployed.

Despite extensive efforts by a team of Royal Navy divers, although Bluebird’s wreckage was located on the 5th of January, on the lake bed, Donald Campbell’s body was not located until 2001.

On 28 January 1967 Campbell was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct For courage and determination in attacking the world water speed record.

The Double

Donald now planned to go after the Water Speed Record one more time with Bluebird K7 – to do what he had aimed for so many years ago, during the initial planning stages of CN7 – break both records in the same year. After more delays, he finally achieved his seventh WSR at Lake Dumbleyung near Perth, Western Australia, on the last day of 1964, at a speed of . He had become the first, and so far only, person to set both land and water speed records in the same year. Campbell’s LSR was short-lived, because FIA rule changes meant that pure jet cars would begin be eligible to set records from October 1964. Campbell’s speed on his final Lake Eyre run remained the highest speed achieved by a wheel-driven car until 2001; Bluebird CN7 is now on display at the National Motor Museum in Hampshire, England, her potential only partly realised.