Bluebird K7

Bluebird K7 was a hydroplane with which Donald Campbell set seven water speed records. Campbell lost his life in K7 on January 4 1967 whilst undertaking a record attempt on Coniston Water.


Donald had hitherto been using his father Sir Malcolm Campbell's propellor-driven hydroplane Bluebird K4 for his record breaking attempts, until it was destroyed by a structural failure. Following John Cobb's death in Crusader, and inspired by both events, Donald began development of his own jet-powered Bluebird K7 to take the record from the American prop-rider hydroplane Slo-Mo-Shun. Designed by Ken and Lew Norris, the K7 was an aluminium, 3-point hydroplane with a Metropolitan-Vickers Beryl axial-flow turbojet engine producing 3500 pound-force (16 kN) of thrust. Like Slo-mo-shun, but unlike Cobb's tricycle Crusader, the three points were arranged in "pickle-fork" layout, prompting Bluebird's early comparison to a blue lobster.

The name "K7" was derived from its Lloyd's unlimited rating, and was carried in a prominent circular badge on the sponsons.


Campbell set seven world water speed records in K7 between 1955 and 1964. The first was at Ullswater on 23 July 1955, where he set a record of 202.15 mph (324 km/h). The series of speed increases - 216 mph (348 km/h) later in 1955, 225 mph (362 km/h) in 1956, 239 mph (385 km/h) in 1957, 248 mph (399 km/h) in 1958, 260 mph (420 km/h) in 1959 - peaked on 31 December 1964 at Dumbleyung Lake, Western Australia when he reached 276.33 mph (444.71 km/h); making Campbell and K7 the world's most prolific breaker of water speed records.

Loss and Campbell's death

In 1966, Campbell decided to once more try for a water speed record; a target of 300 mph (480 km/h).

K7 was fitted with a lighter and more powerful Bristol Siddeley Orpheus engine, taken from a Folland Gnat jet aircraft, which developed 4,500 pound-force (20 kN) of thrust. The new K7 had modified sponsons, a vertical stabiliser (also from a Gnat) and a new, streamlined canopy for the pilot.The boat returned to Coniston for trials in November 1966. These did not go well; the weather was appalling and K7 destroyed her engine when the air intakes collapsed under the demands of the more powerful engine and debris was drawn into the engine compressor blades. The engine was replaced, although Campbell reportedly had to buy an entire crash-damaged Gnat aircraft for scrap to obtain another engine. The original engine remained on the slipway for the rest of the project, shrouded in a tarpaulin.

Eventually, by the end of November, some high-speed runs were made, but well below the existing record. Problems with the fuel system meant that the engine could not develop maximum power. Eventually, by the end of December, this problem was fixed and better weather was waited for to mount an attempt.

On 4 January 1967, Campbell was killed when K7 flipped over and disintegrated at a speed in excess of 300 mph (480 km/h). Bluebird had completed a perfect north-south run at an average of 297.6 mph (478.9 km/h), and Campbell used a new water brake to slow K7 from her peak speed of 315 mph (507 km/h). Instead of refuelling and waiting for the wash of this run to subside, as had been pre-arranged, Campbell decided to make the return run immediately. The second run was even faster; as K7 passed the start of the measured kilometre, she was travelling at over 320 mph (510 km/h). However her stability had begun to break down as she travelled over the rough water, and the boat started tramping from sponson to sponson. 150 yards from the end of the measured mile, K7 lifted from the surface and took off at a 45-degree angle. She somersaulted and plunged back into the lake, nose first. 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 without locating his body.

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 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!

Donald Campbell CBE

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; and potentially a cut-out of the jet engine caused by fuel starvation. Some evidence for this last possibility may be seen in film recordings of the crash - as the nose of the boat climbs and the jet exhaust points at the water surface no disturbance or spray can be seen at all.


The wreckage of K7 was recovered on 8 March 2001 by diver Bill Smith, inspired to look for the wreck after hearing the Marillion song "Out of This World", which was written about Donald and his boat. The recovered wreck revealed that Campbell had activated the water brake to try and slow down on his final run. The boat still contained fuel in the engine fuel lines, discounting the fuel starvation theory, though the engine could have cut-out as a result of injector blockage. As of 2008, K7 is being restored to a workable condition in Northumberland.

Campbell's body was recovered from the lake on 28 May 2001 and he was interred in Coniston cemetery on 12 September 2001.

Campbell's sister Jean Wales had been against the recovery of the boat and her brother's body out of respect for his stated wish that, in the event of something going wrong, "Skipper and boat stay together". This quote is usually attributed to Donald Campbell when in the final days of 1964 he was waiting for weather to attempt a record but an attempt seemed so unlikely that colleagues were pressing him to leave. He refused and broke the record on the last day of 1964. Jean Wales did not attend his burial or ever visit his grave though she did remain in daily contact with the salvage crew as the boat was being salvaged.

As of May 2009, permission has been given for a one off set of proving trials of Bluebird, on Coniston Water, where she will be tested to a safe speed for demonstration purposes only, if and when she is finally tested will be up to the British government, the restoration of Bluebird is also nearing completion as of May 2009.