Mystery Files: The Case of the Speed Champ’s Missing Head
“Full nose up… Pitching a bit down here… coming through our own wash… and we're tramping like mad… I can't see much and the water's very bad indeed… I’m galloping over the top… I can't see anything… I've got the bows out… I'm going…”
These were the last words transmitted over the radio by world speed record holder Donald Campbell, just moments before his untimely, and tragically violent, death 50-years ago in a specially built speedboat named “Bluebird K7.” If the surname “Campbell” sounds familiar to you as it pertains to motorsport, that’s very likely because Donald’s father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, is regarded as one of the innovators of speed record attempts, himself holding the title for multiple early and famous runs in the original Bluebird series of similarly-liveried vehicles.
On the early morning of January 4th, 1967, Campbell was suited up in his familiar blue coveralls, ready to complete his latest water speed record attempt at a 5-1/2 mile long lake in Cumbria, England, named Coniston Water. This would not be the first time either Campbell, father or son, had made use of the long and still waters Coniston offered. Both had made multiple runs over many previous years setting records and testing vehicles on the predictably mirror-like surface.
At 8:45am Campbell started up the powerful Bristol Orpheus jet engine, one repurposed from a Folland Gnat fighter aircraft, that produced an astounding 4,500 lb/ft of thrust. He completed his first run with no problems, apparently having resolved issues with the fuel pump on previous attempts. He achieved 285 mph by the time he reached the first marker buoy, and then leaving the measured kilometer 7-1/2 seconds later at a speed in excess of 310 mph, reaching an average top speed of 297.6 mph. Normally, Campbell would then throttle down and turn around, drifting slowly or even refueling while waiting for the lake’s surface to calm once again before starting off on a return run, but for some reason, this time, he simply spun K7 about and smashed the throttle after only a few moments pause. Witnesses described the scene as one of sheer power, with camera crews were set up along the route to record the day’s events for posterity, unaware that that they were but seconds away from capturing one of motorsports greatest tragedies.
As K7 initiated it's return run, the familiar “comet tail” of water spray, forced up by the powerful jet engine, made for the clearest marker of Campbell’s progress as he reached a speed of 328 mph. Observers in a course boat at one end noticed the front of K7 begin to lift, revealing more and more air space between the hull and the water, and as the nose bounced and bobbed. The longest bounce saw a rapid deceleration from 328 mph to 296 mph while out of the water, pulling almost negative 2g’s in the process. The engine flamed out, with the resulting loss of thrust lifting the nose upwards, disturbing the flow of water around the sponsons and hull, and allowing for the boat to aerodynamically lift from the lake and begin to cartwheel through the air. The first full rotation ended with the K7 landing hard on her port sponson, ripping the boat in two as it continued flipping end-over-end across the water, destroying itself in the process. Campbell’s helmet, along with several larger, more buoyant, pieces of the K7 Bluebird, as well as Campbell’s good luck charm, a plush teddy bear named Mr. Whoppit, were all that could be recovered from the water that day. Nether the bulk of the hull, nor, more importantly, the remains of Donald Campbell himself, would be recovered for another 3-1/2 decades.
In 2001 a recovery effort was made to locate and raise the K7, with the hope of also finding Campbell’s remains, tho this was considered unlikely at the time, and in fact, even tho the majority of K7 would be identified and raised on this expedition, his body would not be found until the following year. Campbell’s own sister, Jean Wales, was said to be opposed to recovering his body as it is claimed he said to her, “skipper and boat stay together” should anything unfortunate ever happen to him. The K7 itself was donated by the Campbell family to the Ruskin Museum in Coniston in December 2006, where it is presently undergoing a full restoration back to running order for short jaunts of up to 65-mph or so for exhibitions. Just recently, in November 2016, it's engine was fired up again for the first time since the recovery that saw it's engine being fired up for the first time since it’s recovery from the dark lake bed.
Campbell’s remains were interred in Coniston Cemetery on September 12, 2001, but the event was overshadowed in the press by the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the day prior. An inquest into Campbell’s death came about in 2002, for the stated purpose “to determine the identity of the deceased, where and when he died, and the cause of death.” As the answers to most of these questions were already known, it was really just a matter of “how” Campbell died.
One witness, Mr. Bill Smith, who acted as a dive team leader during the recovery process, narrated a video tape at the inquest showing several items strewn across the muddy lake bed. Among them were loose change, a St. Christopher’s pendant (ironically, these are worn to ward off dangers while traveling), a cigarette lighter inscribed with an image of the Bluebird, and a key fob, all grouped together. Nearby they found what was left of Campbell’s body, and after spending three and a half decades underwater, it was described as “skeletal.” The remains were still draped in pieces of blue cloth from his coveralls with the elastic waistband and belt buckle still intact. It was noted that, oddly, his skull was not found among the remains. Smith explained that these remains were respectfully placed inside a container and brought to the surface.
Dr. Wendy Blundell, the pathologist responsible for examining Campbell's remains, described the trauma of the event in harrowing detail. Multiple bones were broken by the ferocity of the boat’s high-speed impact with the water’s surface, but even those that appeared intact were found to be fractured internally upon being examined under an X-ray. The intact left femur gave evidence that the right side of his body took the brunt of the impact, where the shattered bones bore witness to the massive forces at work during the crash. Perhaps most shocking was the revelation that Campbell was fully decapitated by the jagged edges of the broken Perspex (ie: plexiglass) windscreen as his body was propelled forward into the bulkhead by the crushing force of the blow. His empty helmet was recovered the day of the crash but his skull has never been found, and is presumed to still lay at the bottom of the lake. Considering that not all the various smaller bits of K7 were, nor are they likely to ever be, recovered, it is fitting perhaps that some part of Donald Campbell also remain at the bottom of Water Coniston, “skipper and boat stay together” after all.
Visit the official restoration blog for K7 to stay up to date on the latest developments concerning the boat's restoration. www.bluebirdproject.com
Images via Wikimedia creative commons license, courtesy "Sheppane" except memorial stone image by "Thruxton."
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