Updated: Jan 13
Politics I try to avoid wherever possible but this week we finally got working a system that has been at the very heart of what we do for a best part of 20 years and when you walk yourself back through an experience, whether it be your career or an illness or your kids growing, up it stirs something and that's what happened yesterday.
What happened is that we finally operated a fully self-contained air start system aboard K7 that has more than enough guts to start the engine exactly as was the case in 1966/67 and now at long last the engine can be spooled to start speed without any external connections and we've never achieved that until now.
In 1962 Hunting Aircraft built an experimental blown-flap aircraft for the Ministry of Aviation. It was to test aerodynamic concepts and was powered by an Orph' 805.
The plan was to build two of them but only one was ever built and that one is now at Cosford. But at the time they had many design considerations and one of them was how to start it if it landed away somewhere and had to get home. Not every airfield had the kit to get it going again. The Gnat, for example, was started from a Palouste start cart, basically another jet engine with an oversize compressor from which excess air could be utilised to blow over the Orph. We'll come back to that later. But the little Hunting aircraft couldn't rely on finding one everywhere it went so instead they equipped it with on board air start.
The simple description is that compressed air is stored in bottles, like diver's tanks, until a button is pushed that allows it to escape via a valve that regulates its pressure then into a small turbine that whizzes round and round to turn the main engine quickly enough that it will start and accelerate.
Now here's an interesting connection. In the bottom right hand corner the annotations are initialled WV and those are the initials of Bill Vanryn. Bill worked for a company called Lucas Rotax and they designed the start kit and it worked. That said, Bill also regarded it as highly dangerous, a bomb waiting to go off as he described it, and he had a deep mistrust of it even when new because the storage bottles were single-use rocket components made by Bristol Aerojet for missiles and such.
Their role was to be as light as possible and only do their job once until they were thrown away.
And how do we know all of this? Because Bill lived well into his nineties, lost none of his faculties or memory and worked with us with great interest helping us fully understand the system.
In March of 1966 a certain Mr. Campbell and his team borrowed the second set of starting equipment and worked it into the re-engined K7
In April 2001 the Bluebird Project team dug it out of the dripping wreckage.
You could easily be forgiven for thinking this was irrecoverable scrap.
The corrosion was horrendous and one of the bottles was half filled with water and that, for a high pressure air system deemed lethal in its day, spelt the end. Or did it? Was there something it could still tell us? We thought so and here we must take a quick dip in the politics for two reasons.
In the first instance, we had made two applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a fully operational boat. Not a museum piece. A living machine and we're going back as early as 2002 for the start of that idea. Nowadays certain individuals will try to have you believe that the plan was to run Bluebird only once then retire her to the museum and that this remains set in stone to this day because it suits their narrative but also ignores what was to follow. It was a very early aiming point because before we got amongst what we were working with we had no idea whether even a single run was achievable but the idea quickly evolved and next we very publicly, and with the full support of the Ruskin Museum at the time, successfully applied for a byelaw amendment to allow us to run at speed on Coniston Water. This was to be a 'Proving Trial' involving many runs - not just one - with the provision that if we made a good job of it the park authority would grant permission for further events so this whole, 'run it once and put it away', idea was superseded more or less immediately and even if it hadn't been it would be monumentally stupid to build an operable machine then take all those skilled hands off it and leave it to seize up; so right from the get-go the deal was that BBP would stay across the boat and systems regardless of whether she was retired or not, but enough of that.
The second mildly political matter is that we were badly messed about by the HLF and some so-called experts from the museum community and one accusation levelled against us was that if we took Bluebird apart we would be 'destroying history'. We knew they were totally wrong. So much history was buried inside and we were in a position to dig it out and learn from it. The history to us was the engineering knowledge corroding before our eyes or gathering dust in archives or being destroyed as companies were taken over to clear a path for the modern way.
In this case, though, we knew we wouldn't be using the old start system to start engines any time soon so the more we could learn about it the better we could record its innermost goings on then replicate more accurately what we needed for the boat we were building to running order.
We therefore decided to completely rebuild the start system, understand every molecule of it, then get it working in a limited capacity as effectively a prototype of a new unit we'd build to modern standards to perfectly replicate the sounds and sights of 1966/67.
One of our first tasks was to find out what information still existed and we soon discovered that Lucas Rotax had been swallowed by Goodrich Control Systems so we made an approach only to be told we were working with a high pressure gas system, it was very dangerous and no, they would not be complicit in any way with us blowing ourselves up, a reply we also got from aerospace when we went asking for help in safely operating an Orph and who can blame them? But we persisted and explained that, being divers, we had a healthy regard for HP gas systems and we would be careful. Eventually, following some negotiation, we were allowed access to the old Lucas Rotax archive subject to conditions.
Two things of note. That was written in 2010, and it references Bluebird's 'operation or use'. There was no way we were building a static museum piece and everyone involved was very well aware of this by 2010.
We soon made a start but it turned out that the archive only existed in paper form beneath a building in a dusty cellar so, every lunchtime, a lovely lady from the office would finish her sandwich then go down the stairs to find whatever drawing(s) we'd asked for this time then sneeze with the dust as she scanned them into electronic format to email to us. We sent her so many gifts that she joked that her husband would think she had another man but she never tired of the task. Each drawing referenced a dozen more and we often set off down the wrong path but slowly and surely we got there and it enabled us to do things like this.
This is the drawing for the main air valve. The one that releases tank pressure to a regulating valve that then feeds the starter. At the top is the mangled old piston that came to rest once and for all on the 4th January 1967 and at the bottom is an identical new one manufactured to the drawing. No guesswork at all.
We also recovered the valve casings by carefully welding them then having them machined back to tolerance.
This went on through the entire start system. At one point we melted a tiny nylon valve seat deep in a relief valve on the left hand bottle. We didn't know it was there until we melted it and by then we had no way to know what it looked like so a mammoth searching of drawings ensued until eventually we got it and so thrilled were we after such a long chase that I called Bill Vanryn immediately to tell him we'd bottomed it, I then mailed him the drawing saying I'd asked Clever Barry if he'd make us one up only top have Bill mail straight back to say not to bother, he had some of those in his toolbox!
Next we tackled the storage bottles. One was dry inside and in good condition but on boroscoping the other it was found to have been partially filled with water and was corroded. We cut it in half along its original welded join.
See how thin the wall is. Only a quarter inch thick. So we took some advice, repaired all the corrosion by grinding and TIG welding then polished the inside.
With that done it was welded back together and hydrostatically tested to its old working pressure of 3200psi then we imposed a new working pressure of 1000psi and vowed to use it only for as long as it took for us to understand its operation. In the event it only ever went to 1000psi once with us in the other room and a remote trigger to fire off the contents. We only ever filled it via a precision calibrated regulator too so our healthy regard for high pressure gas never wavered.
The result of this painstaking work was the old start system back in one piece and in a condition where we could operate, and more importantly, understand and learn from it.
Testing began with only a few toots of relatively low pressure air.
Until eventually we could give our scrap test engine a reasonable push.
This was as far as we took the old system. We tried it in the hull and with the new air inlet structure but never would it be filled to the point where it could begin to start an engine so, having learned all we could, it was time for us to begin designing and building a modern equivalent that could be used to reliably start the engine with all the authentic whoosh-bang sounds people heard in 66/67.
This proved problematic for several reasons. One, and I'll explain it properly in a different post, was that the air start turbine compatible with our engines was designed to use low pressure air from one of those Palouste things I mentioned earlier and it really didn't lend itself to HP air. It was incredibly wasteful and, though we could start our engines all day long from our offboard starting rig and its 100 litres of air, there was no way on earth we could store enough air in the old on board bottles, even if we blew them to their old working pressure, to even think about starting an engine.
We therefore put down the air delivery side of things for now and went off to solve the start turbine problem. That was another lengthy process of designing and making new internals for one of our starters then testing the result live on an engine until we solved that too but then the politics got in the way again and rather put the dampeners on things.
We were supposed to run on Coniston Water in 2019 but that was cancelled on the 31st of January by the group in Coniston that had originally tasked itself with organising their side of the event. They cited 'unforeseen circumstances' but the top and bottom of it was that, despite having years and years to work up the plans for parking, etc. when it actually came down to it nothing was in place so it all fell in a heap and we foresaw that very clearly. No matter. That could have been solved easily by us going back to the park authority and begging for more dates in 2020 then everyone putting in a lot of effort. They would have looked after us, we reckoned. But instead, in March of that year we got a big fat bundle from a firm of London lawyers that basically said, hand over your life's work, we're going back on the deal for you guys to look after the boat, and you are to leave empty handed never to return.
Obviously that wasn't happening so we had our lawyers sort that out quick as you like but it left a bad taste so we put K7 down for a while and did some other things because we are first and foremost a team that's close as family so we just continued to meet up on our workshop days but no air starters were even looked at.
Having realised that the legal bundle hadn't been the immediate slam-dunk they thought it was, mild panic set in and a meeting was held in the July but that's the one where we were supposed to bind ourselves by the wishes of the museum committee before we could do anything so that was no use to anyone either.
Then, the icing on the cake, in January 2020, Gina stood up in the museum and made that speech. The knives in our backs made it difficult to work on air starters then not long after we were all locked down.
We didn't really emerge until the start of 2022. One thing we could do in lockdown was correspond with bored legal minds so by now we had a clear view of our position and were therefore very relaxed about it so we decided to pick up where we'd left off and first thing was to get a starter efficient enough that it would start an engine using only what gas we could carry on board and this we eventually did with a lot of help from Clever Barry leaving only one last part of the problem to solve.
How to store and deliver that air reliably and safely.
Well, last night, Wednesday 12th January 2023, we finally pushed the button on K7's instrument panel and sent sufficient air from on board storage to a converted HP starter such that the engine achieved a speed where it would start and that hadn't happened in 56 years.
I'll go through the new air system in a separate post but the point is this, and sorry about the politics again, but this brings me neatly back to what I said right at the beginning about looking back over a lengthy process and it stirring something. And I speak here for those members of the team who have travelled the same journey because we often have this discussion.
When I pressed the button in the cockpit - and the very fact that there is a cockpit in which to affix a button is a miracle of effort and teamwork and partnering with industry in itself - I didn't feel thrilled or euphoric or excited or triumphant. I felt enraged that after so many people had put in so much effort over so many years to make what just happened happen there are those out there who would totally disrespect the whole endeavour by happily kicking us all out with nothing.
When I think of Clever Barry spending hours in his workshop making up parts for both the old and new start systems, Bill Vanryn, now gone but not forgotten, looking out old spares and documents and doing everything in his power to help us get it right. The lady in the dusty archive beneath Goodrich Control Systems and even the people involved in getting the disclaimer written so we could access their data I can only think, how dare you show so little respect to these people and what they have done! Then there's the machine shop that reworked the old valves, the pressure vessel experts who advised us on doing hot repairs on the old bottles, the hydrostatic test people who made sure we had safety limits to adhere to and that's before we even discuss the ever loyal and determined BBP team and that's before we even touch on the myriad other systems and structures that took as much, and often more, effort to bring back to life.
Twenty years of steady progress and learning on every last nut, bolt, rivet, switch and valve and we're still learning yet it all counts for zero in the eyes of a small band of individuals, most of whom have never even set eyes on K7, telling us to pack up and leave and they'll take it from here.
There is an old Geordie insult that suggests the insultee performs an act using 'the large end of a rag-man's bugle'. Never did it seemed so apt as in the moment that starter blasted into life last night. How dare you...