We were all a little shipwrecked come Monday morning.
We’d hit a wall with the fuel situation and couldn’t do much of anything until we got fresh supplies but ‘Paraffin Pete’ was on the case and he’d made the necessary arrangements for a supplier in Glasgow to bring a healthy few gallons to the island for us. The problem was that it wasn’t arriving until lunchtime so we were at a loose end.
We still had some spanner work to do though so we set about that instead.
Racelogic had loaned us a data logger so we could capture speeds and distances as well as video and we’d not had a chance to install it or even think about it in the mad dash to the finish but now we had a whole morning off so we got it out of the box and gave it a coat of looking at.
We knew we had a big empty space behind the headrest. This was originally used to house radio equipment and is designated an ‘equipment bay’ on the early drawings but in 66 the radio was down in the cockpit so we had this space free. The first problem was getting power to it. Getting past the air intakes, fuel tank and main spar is especially tricky because it’s completely closed in with no access for a distance of about four feet. Had we thought things through during the build for Bute we’d have run some cables into there before the intakes went on but we hadn’t and as we couldn’t just go drilling holes where there weren’t any we had to fiddle and jiggle and poke wires until we had what we needed but it was all in vain because once in there it had no GPS signal so we may as well have used a toaster. We had thought of this, of course, but we had to give it a go. The difficulty we faced was having nowhere else to put it and no means to run a cable from the inside to the outside for a remote antenna or, for that matter, the camera, which wouldn’t mount anywhere inside the cockpit either without getting in the way of something.
All of these problems were perfectly surmountable but not at the side of the loch without major work to get to places we’d properly bricked up. We eventually gave up on the camera and tried the Racelogic box down in the tray put there in 66 for the radio but the GPS signal was very intermittent so we gave up on the whole data logging idea for the moment. There was nothing wrong with the kit. We’d used it on a racing car the year before and it was brilliant, we just couldn’t properly install it in Bluebird without a great deal of forward planning and we’d completely run out of forward in our planning.
We left it on board to see how it would fare in real life then got on with sitting about waiting for things to happen.
Many of the crew just lounged about. Notice Jordan’s ‘Bluebird Blue’ boots.
When we first took delivery of our Perfection-Pro paint we wanted to try it on something to see how sticky and hard wearing it was so, seeing as Jordan had foolishly left his boots in the workshop, we chose those and promptly gave them two coats of shiny blue paint. But the joke was on us because no matter what he’s thrown at them they have remained shiny blue to this day with no flaking or noticeable wear.
While everyone was lolling about, Malcolm and me had a meeting on how we were going to run Bluebird at speed later on.
Ted, meanwhile, reviewed archive video and that of the previous day’s near-planing experience. He remained convinced that the extra lead ballast in the back of the hull was something of a red herring and that we had enough grunt to simply power through the problem but had to concede that they must have had a reason to put it there in the first place and nor could we easily get it out to try the theory but we did enjoy some good debate on it. Ted would later report that the back of the boat would pop up more readily than the front leading us to speculate whether this was the reason for the ballast – the back coming up first and taking the angles off the front surfaces thus preventing the boat from planing but it remains unanswered.
Even our friends from the media were temporarily halted, our Tyneside reporter, ITV’s Amy Lea spent the morning under an umbrella asking us periodically when the fuel was coming.
But we did have a couple of fun interludes. At one point, Jimmy brought in a huge cake for us with photos on the top, no less.
So we wasted no time hacking that to bits and scoffing the lot.
Then we read about ourselves in the papers, albeit with our stuff interspersed amongst some rather interesting other headlines.
And then, to our great delight, ‘Paraffin Pete’ ran through the camp to say the fuel was on its way and we had to go down to the ferry to collect it. Our Thrifty van once more lived the dream and, crewed by Pete and Rob, whizzed away to the port to fetch our eagerly awaited premium paraffin. We’d soon be back in business.
All hands sprang into action to get K7 rolled out and ready and in a now reasonably understood procedure we soon had the AA van hitched and many willing helpers to get us out and onto the slipway.
Soon as our van returned, Jersey Mike rolled a barrel to where it was needed and carried over a truck battery. We had no idea where this was going.
But all was soon revealed and we put away our siphon and pouring jug to make way for his electric fuel pump that filled the tank in no time flat.
Now that was clever as a clever thing!
Word had got about by now too and the crowds began to eagerly assemble. We were all too busy to pay much attention, but word kept filtering down about how many thousands of people had arrived on the island yet from where we stood it didn’t seem that many. It wasn’t until weeks later that we became fully aware of the scale of the influx we’d caused and that was to a small island in the Clyde that many had never heard of when we first announced our plans and, on top of that, those who travelled had no idea what, if anything, they were going to see. It was amazing. Our news crews joined the fray by whipping out their cameras and capturing it all for teatime.
The launch went off without a hitch and soon Bluebird was afloat, the crew fussing around her like anxious parents.
Rich took the inlet blanks out while Sal pushed and pulled but there was virtually no wind that afternoon. The obligatory safety brief hadn’t thrown up any major issues and the run profile had been thoroughly learned by everyone.
Jordan would take the safety boat up to the halfway point on the loch where it narrows and hide behind the promontory just to be safe. Because of their position they wouldn’t see Bluebird until she was almost upon them, which would lead to an especially memorable encounter for those aboard.
We would start the engine as we had last time but with one important difference – Jimmy and John in the start boat would set off in the same direction as K7 and peel away to the right in order to not get dragged into the efflux and blown off the water a second time – hysterically funny as it was – then they would scoot off to the north to try and grab some footage of the boat setting off. Ted was briefed to not exceed 120mph according to the small GPS he used whilst racing his hydroplanes and, most vitally, to get out of the throttle in plenty of time to explore the slowing down and stopping characteristics of the boat.
We needed to learn as much as we could about this as early as possible because we didn’t know whether the water brake was going to be a factor or not and we needed to know because it had issues.
The water brake was the brainchild of Lew Norris who knew just how difficult it was to persuade Bluebird back down off her planing points once she’d been persuaded up there in the first place. It was designed for Coniston Water, which was deemed just a little too short for a 300mph bid so the brake was built to get the speed off in quite violent fashion.
At this point we didn’t know how much loch we needed to get up onto the plane and then back down again and it might be that we needed that brake in order to achieve our objectives.
It’s a very simple two-inch diameter ram that just gets shoved down into the water immediately behind the rear planing wedge. A hyd pump on the engine delivers the pressure and a selector valve controlled by a switch in the cockpit determines whether it goes up or down. There is, however, another element in the system and that’s the accumulator.
The accumulator serves two purposes. In the first instance it stores a volume of oil under pressure so when you select the brake it thumps it down in an instant rather than waiting for the small-volume pump to shove oil relatively slowly down the pipe. The other thing it does is make sure that pressurised oil is always on tap even if the engine stops and with it the pump.
The first thing wasn’t such a big deal because even under pump power only the brake travelled fast enough to be deployed in about three seconds and that seemed quick enough but if we lost the engine we could be in trouble if we carried more speed than the remaining length of loch allowed for so we really had to understand the performance envelope because our accumulator wasn’t working when we got there and we had no means of mending it.
What had gone wrong was this.
We cleaned up the original accumulator and tested it and it worked perfectly. It’s basically a ground cylinder with a free-floating piston with a seal around it running up and down inside the bore. On one side of the piston you push in air to about 1500psi then shove oil against the back side until you can’t cram in another drop. This pushes the piston all the way to the air filled end, further compressing the air so when you need the oil back out again the air shoves it out rather fast and under more than sufficient pressure.
The original accumulator survived all of our bench testing, then our in-hull testing with a remote hyd pump run on a rig on the floor plumbed in with hoses from outside until the day it blew up, spewed air into the oil, blew oil all over the place and completely refused to play a minute more.
Our post mortem revealed that the piston had corroded locally under the seal due to a tiny drop of water ingress putting pressure behind the seal in one place until it wore through and failed. Nothing daunted, we consulted with BFG who does lots with seals in his oil refinery and with Clever Barry who, between them, soon had a new piston designed using modern quad-rings with anti-extrusion rings either side of it for good measure. It was a beautiful piece of work that went back together and performed from the off so we thought we had it nailed until another in the seemingly endless list of cruel gotchas caught us.
We were testing in the hull when one of the hoses to the water brake blew off at the ram but inside the hull such that we lost our entire oil volume straight into the back of the boat. Annoying and messy to say the least. Problem (we assumed) there was that we couldn’t get removable fittings for the hyd lines as they’d used in 66, nor could we get hoses with crimped fittings through the small spaces all the way to the transom so we’d threaded the hoses to the back then attached the fittings with clips believing that the pressure would not be a problem – the impression was that we’d got that wrong and we certainly couldn’t risk it happening again at speed. To get around this we brought a crimping machine to the back of the workshop then dragged the hoses to the outside and crimped on the fittings in situ. That sorted that and we carried on testing, putting many cycles on the system until we were completely happy with it until disaster struck again. We found hyd oil leaking from the oil end of the rebuilt accumulator. It seemed our re-design of the piston hadn’t lasted long and that that too had failed. We took it apart but found nothing wrong but it did it again when reassembled. We’d have to run our spare.
Next, we noticed that the brake wasn’t retracting as it had been so yet another thing was going wrong. We completely failed to connect these problems yet all were due to a single failure that manifested in the selector valve, which has two solenoids on it. One for up and one for down – when energised one or the other releases the pressure on a ball valve causing the ball to run for cover as the oil fires past. What was happening was that when down was selected its solenoid was firing normally but when we asked for up the down one was still partially firing so both ball valves were un-seating. This, after days of experimenting, studying the schematics of everything and much head-scratching, was eventually traced to an electrical issue inside the connector and rectified at once and whilst it caused us untold confusion it also cleared up the mysteries. Our detective work revealed that with one valve open and the other improperly seated we’d sent full, unregulated pump pressure down the lines to both accumulator and the down-ram, which if you recall from earlier diaries was difficult to get sealed at the top, with the result that we’d blown off a hose and forced oil past the accumulator seals – mystery solved, another gremlin dead.
But we still believed the accumulator to be damaged so we installed our spare where we could get at it up on the side of the engine. The one presumed dead was buried so far down in the hull that it would take a major stripdown to get at it so we just disconnected it, made up some hoses to connect the other one and carried on building.
Now the spare we had no doubts about because it was a gift from one of our aerospace sponsors and it was a much later though directly compatible item so we believed all we had to do was spanner it into position, charge it with air and we’d be good to go. Cue – the next gotcha.
It was great when we charged it with air. In went the pressure and it held just as expected. Brilliant – we were back in business. We continued with the build until the day when we could trundle the boat around the corner into the yard for some static engine tests and then – boom!
Soon as the hyd pump began to make pressure oil was forced into the accumulator and the piston began to move to where the bore down which it usually fitted so smoothly was (unknown to us at the time) squished into an oval at which point the oil blasted straight past the piston and into the air side and vice-versa such that we ended up with our pressure gauge full of hyd oil and our hyd oil all over the yard! How the accumulator came to be squashed we had no idea. It had to be an old injury inflicted before we were given it because even in our biggest vice it wouldn’t begin to squish round again and we’d always handled it like the finest crystal goblet so it was a mystery but worst of all we now had a dead accumulator and no time to lift the engine to salvage the other one that we could have at least rebuilt every day as part of our routine maintenance. It was yet another problem we’d have to work around on site.
This and many other factors went into planning our first run at planing speeds. The brief was to get onto the plane, get the boat to a stable running condition without accelerating any more than necessary then get back out of the throttle at the narrows where the safety crew would be hiding just around the corner and allow the speed to decay naturally until she plopped back down. If it all went wrong there was a nice squidgy reed bed at the other end to catch the boat and as long as we didn’t hit a cow all should be fine.
If possible the plan was then to turn around and repeat in the other direction but not to worry too much if not as we had plenty of days and no need to rush anything.
We towed Ted out to the start position and set the job up with the start and control boats, Malcolm took charge from shoreside and Jordan’s crew made ready in the RiB. We weren’t especially nervous but the anticipation was huge.
With everything ready at our end, Jordan took the safety boat up to the narrows armed with all their gear and Rich and Sally Diver fully kitted and ready to go over the wall at a moment’s notice.
Another part of their brief was to gently usher the resident family of swans into the reeds. They paddled away with all the usual grace and dignity of swans when asked and didn’t come out until we were done. We also needed the safety boat to proceed slowly so as not to leave large wakes reflecting about the loch so it seemed to take forever before they reported over the radio that they were in position. Another few moments that felt like an age went by as Malcolm had them measure wind speed and direction, which was duly logged for future reference, so we were bursting with anticipation by the time Malcolm handed over to me in the control boat.
Ted was given the OK and the sequence began.
Three fingers raised in the cockpit to confirm drills complete and ready for engine start and an OK from the start boat to say the connections were made. Three – two – one… Whoosh!
Only an ever-expanding cloud of atomised paraffin pouring from the jetpipe. The engine hadn’t lit and it wasn’t going to. The igniters had failed despite having been tested earlier with the engine cover off – the water had got in and killed them.
We went alongside and had a quick debrief with Ted just in case he’d managed to not switch the igniters on but it wasn’t his way to do anything so basically daft and he hadn’t this time but it was worth asking just in case.
Not an auspicious start to our higher speed runs. Note the four small holes in the headrest plate. These weren’t our friend by the end of the day.
There was no option but to recover and get amongst the wiring.
Many hands rushed to help as we guided Bluebird onto the dolly then pulled the engine cover off. As previously mentioned, the cover was held on with a mix of ¼ BSF and M6 screws rather than the quarter turn fasteners we’re yet to install so not only did every one of them have to be wound out with a screwdriver without scratching the paint but many of them fought for every turn because the engine cover doesn’t fit. Then you had to be able to spot what thread you had and drop it into the correct box whilst those of us who knew which areas had been fitted with which screws made sure on reassembly that everyone had the right screws for the job. It was an absolute nightmare and before you ask why we didn’t just standardise it all the reason is that, firstly, it was a temporary measure just to get us to Scotland so anything would do as it all had to be scrapped off later anyway and, secondly, we couldn’t get enough of the either kind of the right sort of fastener in time to make them all the same – we thought they’d be easy to get and, guess what, they weren’t.
Off came the lid in double-quick time. Jersey Mike’s refuelling rig can be seen in the yellow bucket on the slipway.
We knew what was wrong – our water ingress problem had got amongst the electrics and blown the igniter fuses.
Ironically, when recovered, Bluebird was found not to have any fuses anywhere, much to Checkie’s horror. So, one of the few concessions we made to non-originality was to fit a pair of period, sixties fuse holders where you can’t see them (or get to them either) to afford us some protection in the event of an electrical problem. Had they not been there the heating of the shorted-out wires would have quickly dried them out and we’d have been fine but our fuse was popped so we put a new one in.
As a side note to this, one of our igniters failed completely soon after we got back to HQ and was re-wound by Clever Barry who speculated that it had been likely been failing throughout and was probably the real root cause of our fuse blowing problems.
Notice the cylindrical accumulator strapped to the side of the engine just in front of John.
New fuse installed we threw the lid back on and began furiously screwing it back down because we were starting to lose the light but between Malcolm and me we reckoned if we got a move on we could still have our run.
Richie spent that first build up and subsequent disappointment focussed on safety boat operations and with each of us locked into our own disciplines it was often much later when we got the chance to hear of events from another corner of the operation.
Rich takes up the tale.
We had been on Bute for a good few days now, confidence was high, we were all eager to see if K7 would perform as we had all hoped but at the same time we were also fully aware that we were about to enter a different realm of risk.
We stood on the slipway, Malcolm ran through the run profile and then went around the big circle that had now formed as routine... Only this time as the speeds were about to increase from crawl to canter. Malcolm went around the group one by one for input. You see, to coordinate a deployment it pays to give and take information in order to make an informed decision.
Briefed, Sally, Jordan and I boarded our safety RIB and headed down the loch to our position which was just beyond the narrows behind hard cover, once in position we observed as K7 was prepped for launch, the little green boats flurried back and forth like busy ants next to their blue prize! Jordan radioed to control and advised we were in position, the weather conditions were favourable but not perfect, nonetheless we waited.
A short time later we could hear the whoosh of the air start engaging but this was followed by silence.
“Uh-oh something’s off”, we all muttered, lo and behold, about ten minutes later the radio cracked into life with words to the effect.
“No fire, boat won’t start”. Our hearts sank, for up to now, although somewhat begrudgingly, K7 had otherwise played and behaved.
We headed back to HQ. As the run profile was scrubbed I set about dismantling Sally out of her dive rig, dumping weights, removing fins, etc. etc. That way she could merely step off the RIB once we reached base. You see, as surface support / rescue swimmer, it was my job to undertake these tasks as Sally would need to save precious energy for a potential rapid descent followed by a rapid ascent with a casualty and anyone who has had to ‘kit in’ into dive kit knows it saps energy so quickly... Likewise, de-kitting!
We landed and walked back up the pontoon, by this time K7 was all but back on the slipway. We huddled around and discussed the failed run, it appeared for reasons at this stage we did not know, that the igniters were not working,
“It’ll be the fuse” someone called out....
The prospect, although very simple we knew, was likely but at the same time we all knew it was a pig of a job. You see, to get the fuse changed you have to remove the engine cover, to remove the engine cover you have to remove the closing strips.... all of the above were otherwise unfinished items on the boat and were a PITA to fit and remove.... It was now around 7pm from memory.... We talked to Malcolm who was rightly concerned about rushing a run at this stage, as was Bill...
Bill provided a time analysis for the removal, repair and re fitting of the covers, plus launch and reset time… in best case terms... Malcolm in turn advised Bill on the amount of safe daylight we had left to use... It was going to be bloody close if we could do it all in time and none of us were happy about calling a scrub, or a run for that matter.
Bill and Malcolm turned to the crowds who by now had amassed by the boat and had no doubt heard our conversation and Bill then said in his usual cheeky way, “Well, what do you think everyone, do we go for it ?” The crowds roared into applause and cheers, it was all the motivation we needed.
We set about K7 like a team possessed, everyone knew what they were doing, their function and their responsibilities.... We set to both prudent and expeditious.
What seemed like minutes later, the covers were off, blown fuse located (sodden with water likely from the ill-fitting leading edge of the covers) and replaced, a quick functions check on the igniters showed we were good, we give the hull a quick once-over then closed her up... Malcolm went through an abridged brief getting a go / no-go from us all then K7 was re-launched and we resumed our deployment positions.
The loch had settled to a glass-like calm by the time we were ready to relaunch and try again.
Out we went for another try and in fading light we set the job up again.
We could work swiftly but we daren’t rush so it was all done by the book and this time the engine lit just as it should – well, not quite!
Yes, there was fire accompanied by much delighted cheering from the crowds but fire in your jet engine is not very good. It makes it too hot. But at least it lit and no harm done this time. It soon cleared its throat and Ted eased in some throttle. Bluebird didn’t hang about! Within seconds she was throwing masses of water off to either side and gathering speed.
And then, like an arrow from a bow, she suddenly unstuck, climbed out and fired off into the distance at alarming speed!
The engine roar vanished amongst the spray