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Last Tuesday evening Donald Campbell, 34, son of England's late speed king, Sir Malcolm, squirmed into the narrow cockpit of his jet-powered speedboat Bluebird and eased his foot down on the throttle. The green quiet of the Lake Country was shattered by the hollow jet boom as the aluminum hydroplane, looking like a giant modernistic lobster, nosed out onto the glassy surface of Lake Ullswater. The run began as just one more in a series of tests young Don Campbell has carried out on the revolutionary jet boat (diagramed on these pages) in which he is determined to bring back to Britain the world water speed record once held by his father.
On Tuesday evening he planned to hold Bluebird to a moderate speed, close to his father's old record of 141 but still 37 mph short of the world mark now held by Stanley Sayres of Seattle. But as Bluebird taxied round a bend onto the lake's long straight stretch, Campbell, for the first time in six years of planning and building, stopped being cautious.
"The water was right, and things were going very well," he said later, "so I let it accelerate."
In one tremendous burst Bluebird leaped from 120 to 180 miles per hour—faster than the existing record—and kept moving. At that incredible water speed the boat lost some steering stability, and inside the cockpit Campbell felt Bluebird sliding dangerously. Crackling over the radiophone to aides ashore came his voice: "I'm not enjoying this!" Then, as the air-speed needle shimmered past 180 mph he shouted, "I'm getting one hell of a ride."
Not even "full out," Bluebird had topped the listed world's records. All that remained now was to make it official with a two-way run over a measured mile against stop watches.
Suddenly close at hand, this final moment has, for Donald Campbell, been a long time in coming. Since Sir Malcolm's death in 1949, Donald has pursued the world record. In 1949 he had his father's old Bluebird up to 150 when the gearbox ripped apart. The following year the engine broke up under prop riding. The next summer Bluebird hit a submerged timber that ripped a 12-foot gash in her hull. Meantime Stan Sayres had taken the record to America with Slo-Mo-Shun IV, raised it to 178.5. That appeared to be the limit for propeller boats, and especially for conventional hydroplane design. For at those speeds the broad forward surfaces of a hydro catch the air and the boat tries to take off.
In designing a new Bluebird, Campbell made a radical design change, substituted separate floats for the usual broad planing surfaces, cutting the dangers of flight tendency. For his power plant he picked a jet. But even as the new Bluebird was abuilding, a jet boat driven by Campbell's friend John Cobb nosed under at 200 mph, exploding and killing Cobb. There was, apparently, another danger that no one really understood—a water barrier much like the sound wall encountered by jet aircraft—which sets up a series of high-frequency vibrations against the hull of a boat approaching 200. Once the vibrations take hold, the boat may go into an uncontrollable pitching cycle and disintegrate.
The new Bluebird was built to take these strains. With an aluminum-alloy skin strengthened by corrugations to withstand a wrench of 27 Gs, she is a near-perfect speed machine. She is not perfect for anything else. Under international rules she is ineligible for racing competition, and her records will not intrude on those of the propeller-driven classes.
Boat-to-boat races, however, are no concern of Don Campbell. As the week started, he was concerned only with waiting for the right weather to make his run for the record. "I can do it," he said, "if I can hold the brute."