Campbell’s 1967 Water Speed Record Attempt Ends In Fatal Crash

by Shirley Williams
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On the glass-smooth surface of Coniston Water in northwestern England, a large, very blue and very loud watercraft idles into position. This machine is jet-powered and looks more like some kind of spaceship or warplane than a boat. It’s named Bluebird K7 and it’s here on January 4, 1967 to make history.

The pilot eases the speed up, then goes full thrust, engine thundering as the craft gains speed. Donald Campbell is hard at work again, doing what he does best. Video of the run shows him screaming past the camera at 297 MPH. By the time he leaves the measured portion of the lake, he’s doing over 311 MPH.

Need For Speed

Campbell’s father, Sir Malcolm Campbell set nine land speed records and four water speed records from 1924 to 1939, becoming the first person to drive a car over 300 miles per hour. After his father’s death in 1948, Donald Campbell learned an American was planning to beat his father’s water speed record.

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He put his father’s boat back in shape for another attempt at the water speed record, renaming the vessel Bluebird K4. The boat suffered structural failure at 170 MPH even after a rebuild. Meanwhile, American Stanley Sayres set a new record at over 178 MPH in 1952.

Donald built a new state-of-the-art machine, Bluebird K7. In July of 1955 he obliterated the American record with a 202 MPH run at Ullswater lake in England. Later in 1955 he went 216 MPH on Lake Mead in Nevada. Throughout the 1950s, Campbell set several more records on Coniston Water, reaching 260 MPH in 1959.

A Place in History

In 1960, Donald began pursuit of a singular accomplishment. No one had ever set the land speed record and the water speed record in the same year. In July of 1964, Campbell set the land speed record in Lake Eyre, Australia at 403 MPH.

On December 31st, 1964, he set a new water speed record at 276 MPH on Australia’s Lake Dumbleyung, becoming the first and only person to set a land speed record and a water speed record in the same year.

Doing What He Loved

Three years after Lake Dumbleyung and back on Coniston Water in 1967, Bluebird K7 has turned, ready to make the return stretch through the traps in pursuit of 300 MPH. Thundering past the first marker at over 328 MPH, the record seems a sure thing. Bluebird is hovering above the water as she approaches the end of the run.

Horrifically, the magnificent machine suddenly comes off the water 150 yards from the end, slowly lifting the nose, rocketing skyward in a shower of water and mist. For one endless second, Bluebird somersaults and nose-dives into the water at over 250 MPH, tumbling across the lake.

Donald Campbell, holder of seven water speed records on three continents and the only person to hold both water and land speed records in a single year, dies doing what he loves at the age of 45.

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