Bute Saturday 4th August

Saturday dawned clear, still and warm, though overcast but nothing on Earth could diminish the sense of excitement and the buzz around our boat shed. We had no idea what to expect in terms of visitors. We’d no idea whether we’d be overrun or only visited by a few curious locals but we put the barrier around the front of the boat shed just in case anyway and began our preparations. It wasn’t long before folk started to arrive, though and many weren’t curious locals either. Within only a few hours we realised that people were travelling long distances then getting a ferry just to have a look at what we were doing with no promise of anything happening beyond us splashing and spannering. Every time we turned around we’d see this.

Kneeling in the foreground is our resident photographer, Phil Evans, by the way, whom you have to thank for most of the excellent photos – though clearly not this one. Also, being the way of the Bluebird Project, he would soon be somewhat infamously known as ‘Fend-off’ Phil or, more simply, ‘Crasher’ Evans. But more of that in another diary.

We’d obviously rehearsed every imaginable thing for months back home but without the benefit of water and our understudy pilot, the dashing Red Arrow, Stew Campbell, who hadn’t run the engine in the boat yet though he’d familiarised himself with the systems and controls in the workshop and done some engine handling on the test rig so we still had gaps there. Our pilot in chief, the equally dashing Ted Walsh, came to us steeped in fast hydroplane experience so we had no worries about him but because we’d never had everyone together at the same time both were now going to have to submit to Sally ’Diver’ Cartwright today for training in escape and extraction protocols in case of an accident so their morning was a full one. In addition to that, Sally, Rich, Jordan and John were running the safety boat and all of these disciplines had to be integrated into a well-oiled machine before we lit Bluebird’s engine on the water.

Our pilots…

Stew on the left, Ted to the right. We’d known Ted forever. He’d come up with us from a very early point in the project and had stayed across what modifications we could make in the cockpit to suit his somewhat larger-than-Donald frame. We’d designed a new seat and various guards to keep him out of the workings so he was part of the team and the machinery but Stew came much later via another new member of the team, Peter Roper-Hall, or ‘Paraffin’ Pete as he’d soon be known.

Before he retired from automotive, Pete had been involved in corporate stuff, which included working with the Reds and the BBMF and he was still well connected so we’d asked nicely and been invited to Scampton in the hope of borrowing their test pan for some full power tied-down tests of Bluebird’s engine. They generously offered us their test pan but unfortunately we ran out of weeks and to date we still haven’t conducted those tests – another job to tick off in the fullness of time.

It was a few days after our visit that the big boss of the Reds called to say that if we wanted a second pilot one of the team had put himself forward. Now this happened to be perfect timing because a concern raised at one of our planning meetings in the lead up to Bute was what’d happen if our pilot went unserviceable? We had spare everything but no spare pilot and Ted had once broken his leg doing something foolish with a parachute so we knew what he was capable of.

Everyone agreed that a Red Arrow must be made of the right stuff so we got him on the phone and he said, yes, he would very much like the job were the opportunity to arise so I said, OK, it’s yours. There then followed a lengthy, stunned pause during which I realised that this professional pilot at the very top of his game was likely expecting fresh orders on how to join the next phase of a lengthy selection process preceded by an in-depth medical and many psychometric tests and not to be simply told that the gig was his if he wanted it.

And so was born a most remarkable partnership – Ted the hydroplane ace and record breaker steeped in experience with an intuitive feel through the seat of his racing suit for fast boats and Stew, the methodical military man from a world of checklists and rigorous procedures. It caused some comedy moments.

But first they both belonged to Sally whose job it was to get either of them out of the water in the event that they ended up in there in the first place. Job one – get your pilot in full racing rig, strap him into the cockpit then work out how to get him back out again on the bottom of a lake. And this neatly introduces another reason why Fad was perfect for our training. It’s no more than a huge puddle. In a worst case we’d be attempting a rescue or a salvage in about 30ft of water and most likely a lot less. You can almost walk across Fad in a drysuit. Contrast that with Coniston that reaches a depth of over 160ft and is a different proposal involving on-board air, free ascent training and all manner of other things to consider. It was one less thing to plan for when we had an awful lot to plan for.

Stew’s hat is from when he flew as a Tucano display pilot and despite the fact that the visor adds a whole extra layer of cool that’s not actually what it’s for. It’s in case the canopy is compromised and that includes in your RAF jet. In this case Sally was briefing Stew on how she would approach the boat and slide open the canopy to help him out.

Ted went next.

His bright orange hat from his hydroplane racing days proved useful later when watching all the YouTube footage shot from here there and everywhere – we could see who was driving without having to look up the times and going back through our notes.

In the meantime, the safety team were out on the water limbering up in case they were ever needed.

John, on the left, has been diving since he was a boy and later that day became our crash test dummy for in-water rescues, floating about in his drysuit while the crew heaved and grunted to land him into the RiB like a large slippery fish. Sally, a long way out and still just over her knees in water and very overdressed with twin 12litre bottles is on her way to shift all of those bobbing marker pellets so we didn’t tangle ourselves in them and also to test her kit.

Also on the water that morning was our fast rescue boat skippered by Jordan, (seated) a qualified RYA instructor and leader of sea cadets, and Rich who is an experienced sailor, a keen novice diver and master of many a high-pressure situation in his daily life. The safety crews worked and trained all morning putting what they’d planned for into practice in the environment in which we hoped we’d all soon see Bluebird finally moving under her own power.

Meanwhile, the engineering team was so used to working on Bluebird it seemed odd not to be for once, she was as prepared as time had allowed and we were confident that all was going to work, for a while at least but it wasn’t long before the first problem bit us.

There is a commonly held misconception that jetfuel is some kind of malevolent, volatile horror that will combust in your face if you so much as call it nasty names when it’s really just ordinary domestic heating paraffin.

In fact, it’s exactly the same substance in the refinery until one batch is given an audit trail all the way to the aircraft via dedicated tankers and the other is given a DNA marker and a courlene dye to prevent fuel laundering before being sent on its way to warm up Mrs. Miggins’ isolated cottage in winter via anything that’ll transport it.

For this reason we’d asked whether it was available on-island in its basic form, we were told it was and when we got there a full bowser was waiting for us. It was yet another brilliant effort by the folk of Bute but there was a problem. The data sheet gave a different specific gravity to that which we expected and until that was explored, we dared not feed it to our precious engine.

It was a real shame because it came with its own pump on a trailer that we hitched to our AA van but unfortunately we just didn’t dare use it without checking so out went some frantic phone calls to our friends in every corner of aerospace from civil to military to marine gas turbine experts and the collective opinion reached was that basically the fuel in our bowser was a bit runnier than we needed so, in the absence of any electronic engine controls, all the various passageways and orifices would flow a little more fuel than they were designed to so inevitable, unpredictable engine performance would result. We have a stable of three fully operational Orpheus engines to keep K7 alive for a long time into the future. They are virtually irreplaceable. We just couldn’t risk it.

So this left us with only the fuel in Bluebird’s tank, which wasn’t an immediate problem because we had no intention of running on Saturday or Sunday except for some static testing and maybe a slow taxi but come Monday we’d be snookered if we wanted to push on and so ‘Paraffin’ Pete gained his nickname.

In a former life in the former Soviet Union, Peter and I did sneaky stuff for some of the vast companies that moved in to conquer this equally vast new territory, Peter bringing cars to supplant the Ladas and Zils while I designed technology to stop the local hooligans from nicking them. Later, back in the UK, we would meet up on corporate days and occasionally for dinner and Pete was always intent on bringing his clients to see Bluebird run come the day but he retired first and joined our team instead. When we got to Bute, Pete was asking how best his skills might best be utilised so the moment we discovered the fuel problem his brief became to locate and acquire a source of paraffin with a SG of between 0.775 and 0.84, the equivalent of Jet-A or, as Pete would point out exasperatedly when we called him ‘Paraffin’ Pete, it should actually be ‘PREMIUM Paraffin’ Pete. Thus instructed, he hit the phone and set about getting us some fuel.

‘PREMIUM Paraffin’ Pete – right.

Meanwhile, the divers and rescue crews were tired, wet and uncomfortable but happy with their work thus far and had come ashore for refreshments. Another vital bit of planning was feeding the troops. We’d agreed early in proceedings to set up on-site catering so to that end we’d erected a small tent alongside the main one and Jane Pittwood, Wife of our operations director, Malcolm, really looked after us with the unstinting help and loan of their kitchen of a family who lived by the loch. Between them they delivered an unending supply of hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, sweets biscuits and fruit and it wasn’t long before the locals were stopping by the Co-op on their way to ‘The Fad’ too and dropping in a bag of supplies for the simple reason that they are kind and thoughtful. We really appreciated that.

That’s our little tea tent on the left, later destroyed in a German bombing raid but that’s another hilarious tale for later.

Thus fed and watered we turned our attention to the meat and gravy of the day’s plans and that was to – gulp – actually see if K7 would float. She’d last been supported by water beneath her hull 51 years earlier, 34 of those spent lying as an abandoned and un-cared-for hulk in the dark on the bottom of a lake. Fifteen years of dedication by the BBP team had brought her back to a condition where she ought to float again and we wanted to find out if it was really true but it was almost the elephant in the room. Everyone chased about doing everything but. Yes, we had lots to do other than our flotation test but it was almost as though it wasn’t to be spoken of until the time came when there was nothing else to talk about.

There had always been an agreement that when the time came, ultimate authority for running the boat would be passed to our very capable head of operations ‘Sir’ Malcolm Pittwood. We asked Malcolm to join us a very long time ago but the timing was off because Richard Hammond had recently been badly injured in a jet car crash while on Malcolm’s watch and Malcolm wasn’t to be consoled with the fact that one of the key elements in Hammond’s miraculous recovery was the meticulous planning that had him delivered to the surgeons in record quick time.

Fast forward an age and it was Malcolm who successfully drove our bid to have the Coniston byelaw amended and now, cometh the hour, cometh the man and it was time for the very first of our briefings in the boatshed. Gina had arrived by now too so we all trooped together for our first briefing.

‘Sir’ Malcolm Pittwood with Gina.

The briefs/debriefs followed a straightforward and simple format. Malcolm would gather the entire crew, each with their own specialty, field of expertise or discipline, call for silence and no profanity then ask each in turn if they had any issues. The best briefings were those where no one had anything to offer but they were few and far between. It was usually just small matters. Had someone