I think I was fifteen, my mate Barnsey was a smidge older and we’d made up our minds – we were going to the Clyde.
Sea angling was our thing and we’d read in the Angling Times, a sort of paper website, if you like, that you bought at the shop and took home to read later, that the Clyde was the place to go. So, duly emboldened, we announced this to our startled parents, we had no plan beyond that we were going to the Clyde. Long story short – we were packed off to a B&B called The Ashburn on the Isle of Bute. It was owned by distant relatives of my family, John and Anne Parker and we were sent there so we could be watched and kept out of mischief – now that so didn’t work at all! The very second we landed from the ferry we were like dogs let off the leash. There was beer (Drybroughs Heavy) in the Harbour Bar and pretty girls galore and the Ashburn even had a little disco out the back so we could have a last couple there then fall straight up the stairs. We did a bit of fishing too so it was just a fortnight of unbridled paradise that we repeated for several years until life and jobs and responsibility put paid to all that but what glorious memories!
Years later I would return with my diving buddies to explore the local wrecks, catch scallops in Scalpsie bay and eat ‘Sizzlers’ in the Black Bull but after that there was a long hiatus when Bute, with its fabulous adventures and wonderful community gradually fell off my radar as work and responsibility rose above those much loved trips. But a new era was in its gestation as we all became involved in the Bluebird thing and I used to say, as we all worked so hard in our cramped workshop with no thought of reward except the promised sight of a finished and resurrected machine afloat and howling through a cloud of spray, that one day we’d run out of jobs and end up looking at the finished machine. Throughout all of this we believed that the museum in Coniston was our partner and right there with us with their plans run the boat on their lake and be displayed in the museum when not being maintained, run somewhere else or conserved. But as the years rolled by and our project team ticked off task after task we seemed to be drawing ahead of them so just in case we considered a plan-B.
You see, many years earlier I’d met a lad pushing his bike down Rothesay high street with the biggest pike I’d ever seen in my life draped over the handlebars. It was a monster that he was taking to the fishmongers in the hope of selling it as a display piece for the shop window. Where on Earth had he got that from? And so I was told about Loch Fad and came to know that on the sleepy Isle of Bute there was a straight stretch of sheltered water just about big enough to blow the cobwebs out of K7 if only we could speak to the right people and get the use of it.
But there was something important to do first.
THE most frequently asked question ever on this job was always ‘when’ but we never had an answer. We were on a near parallel course with Virgin Galactic which was formed in 2004 a year before we started our rebuild and as we had some small dealings at the time with Galactic I used to joke with the big cheese that we’d have our boat in the water before he had his tourist in space because what we were both doing had never been attempted – we won that one.
Fast forward to 2017 and we could now see a time when we would be able to operate the boat safely though she’d still be a long way from her condition on the morning of the 4th January 1967 but despite this we thought getting her wet would be a good milestone and reinvigorate everyone for the final push after all our years locked away in the workshop. So we shouted up the BEWG, a somewhat unpronounceable acronym for Bluebird Events Working Group, and invited three of them over from Coniston for a natter in the summer of 2017 because at the time they were organising an event to commemorate Bluebird’s return to Coniston. We explained that we wanted to do some crew training because, although we could get the engine started and so forth, we’d never launched, recovered or had the boat run under her own power and wouldn’t it be useful if we actually knew how to do this before the big runs on Coniston Water. However, it seemed only fair to see whether they preferred to host the exercise. Our biggest concern was that they’d arrange a huge, two week festival, which was what was being talked about at the time, then we’d rock up with the star of the show and break something on day-one that was going to take three weeks to fix! But they chose not to host us so we agreed that we’d run plan-B instead and see if we could get loose on Loch Fad.
The island is administered by the Mount Stuart Trust so I made the pitch. Could we, pretty please, come and blast two and a half tons of jet-powered, 1950s anachronism through their site of special scientific interest under the watchful and excited gaze of the nation’s press? Oh, and by the way, none of us had ever done anything like this before.
I included in my pitch my first ever press clipping. Barnsey and me as mere youths showing off a fish we’d caught. We thought it might be fun to try to get our faces in the local rag (the instinct was there all along) – The Buteman. It was a source of massive pride to end up back on their pages so many years later.
That‘s me on the left, by the way.
Now then, because Scotland is a last bastion of common sense and ought to be accorded world heritage status for that reason alone everyone immediately saw that this had to be a good thing and we were told that of course we could so long as we all worked together to manage the event safely. Next we had to speak to the Scottish environment people who were equally pragmatic – don’t kill any ospreys or otters and don’t bring invasive species (we had to check on the status of Geordies in this regard) to our ten thousand year old stretch of pristine water. As things turned out the ospreys seemed as prolific as the pigeons in Newcastle city centre, couldn’t care a crap about us anyway and stole fish from right under our noses no matter what we did and we never saw an otter yet. Keeping our side of that deal was dealt with by the local fauna without us having to lift a finger.
So from that moment on life became a whirlwind!
First we had to build a boat and this time it was for real. We spannered and fettled like never before. Jobs like fitting the front spar became an epic that soaked up days we didn’t have. Previously if a bolt wouldn’t start or felt a little stiff we’d just leave it out but the time finally came when we just couldn’t do that with the result that the spar was on and off like the proverbial undergarments of a lady of the night while the fasteners were fine-tuned then pulled down with lashings and lashings of chromate jointing paste.
Having the front spar in place then meant we could get the nose clothed – something we’d wanted to do for the longest time…
Bettablast put an etch prime and polyester powder coat on in in the standard RAL5009 just to protect the bare metal before we messed with the heights where the screws go through to achieve the appropriate button-back-sofa look then it all went together with a lot of choccie, the spar fairings were added then on went the high-build primer.
There then followed a world of rubbing down, spotting putty and a final finish down to 1000 grit ahead of three coats of Perfection Pro.
Do it right and the blue goes on like glass. Do it wrong and it will expose every fingerprint and scratch. We spent way more time than we could really afford on the pointy end because we knew it would be photographed to death but it was a good investment. It’s not perfect but it was certainly good enough – we got away with that.
She just needed her nose art on after that.
Apologies (well, not really because we live in 1967) for calling K7 ‘she’. In the modern world this is interpreted as promoting gender stereotypes or some such nonsense but the reality is that she’s a cantankerous old bitch.
Anyways… we included a Scottish Saltire as a nod to our hosts as Donald did on his foreign exploits but it wasn’t going on as some new fangled vinyl graphic. It’s all hand painted and original artwork.
With the nose pretty much finished for the moment it was time for the sponsons and sponson tops to go on with a full complement of screws and this had never been done before, again, because if a screw wouldn’t start easily we just left it out but there was no escape this time so many of the holes had to be carefully dressed with choccie-soaked needle files to get them starting smoothly in the captives nuts or helicoils. You have no idea how long it takes to assemble this many screws and choccie in this way or how messy it is. We would also later discover that we’d not choccied anywhere nearly enough and water subsequently blasted through joints we’d confidently imagined were sealed and even when fully unscrewed we had to use a heat gun extremely carefully to release the inadequate amount of choccie we’d used in the first place. Building it was a bloody nightmare then we had another one taking it all apart again!
Notice also in the pic below that you can see every last rivet head and imperfection and that is because the sponsons were never painted. Yes, they’re blue but that’s only the powder coat that Bettablast so kindly applied to protect the bare metal. Much of K7 was either not painted at all or, in the case of the engine and tail covers, splashed with just enough paint to hide the filler. It all has to be done again to the proper standard. By the time we made it to Scotland many didn’t notice that at this point we’d not got to putting the K7-infinity artwork on the sponsons either. It was suggested that we get some hurried graphics clashed on in time for Bute but that just felt wrong. In the end we chose to run with what we had.
But never mind the paint – that is but a detail because the engineering was by far the most important. We are long since experts at loading and unloading the engine but this time it was for real so everything was checked and re-checked as the mule went in – the number of times we’ve got almost there then realised a wire or pipe could be better positioned so out it comes again. We’re very fond of this little engine. It’s almost one of the team so we took extra care this time.
How we came to have this delightful piece of machinery is that since the dawn of time I wanted a jet engine so when I got interested in the whole Bluebird thing it was time for this dream to come to fruition so I swapped a couple of old aircrew seats I’d scrounged up from somewhere for a dead Orph’ I’d discovered with weeds growing through it around the back of the local ATC shed. Much later I swapped my old scrapper, from which I had learned much and upon which I had lavished hours of effort cleaning it up so it was a hell of a lot better than when I’d first clapped eyes on it, for a much better engine that could be made to work and this eventually became the one you see here. It’s an old friend to us all.
It’s a very snug fit in there too. I really wouldn’t have liked to begin with the Beryl-ready hull and an Orph’ on a stand and been told, get that in there and make it work. Those boys who re-engined K7 in 1966 did a very impressive job by any standards, it’s a wonderful demonstration of the old truism that it fits where it touches.
The original onboard air start was carried just in case weight and balance turned out to be critical and also because elements of it are used even when connected to the offboard system. Besides, it looks the part too. Notice the circular hole in the side of the boat where the offboard air connector will be installed. We didn’t make that hole, by the way – it was there all along.
We were really steaming along by now and the boat went together in big lumps once the donkey was installed and plumbed into its life support.
The fin and tail cover were next.
When we took this apart many years ago it was absolutely covered in filler so when we rebuilt it we tried to iron out some of the hills and hollows such that it wouldn’t need as much next time around and that worked quite well though, like everything else, nothing was ever straight from the day it was first built so we spent a lot of time getting it all smooth-ish.
One thing we were determined to do, however, was save the original flags. The old paint on the fin was shot to pieces but we left it in place and painted over the top of it. You never know – as long as it’s still there it can always be dug out a hundred years from now so we left Bluebird’s fin in such a condition that this is always an option whilst the original flags remain on display.
Once the filler went in we put a couple of coats of high build primer over the top.
Then flatted it back and started with the Perfection Pro whilst adding the details, the cover for the top, the repaired parachute doors and that small leading edge fairing down at the front of the fin.
Because we were seriously restricted time-wise the tail cover and engine cover were basically clashed together and still need a fair amount of work to get them to a properly finished standard but the outrageous properties of our Perfection Pro paint let us get away with all manner of fakery.
On we worked – the canopy was one of those jobs that we both looked forward to and dreaded at the same time. Something so far out of our long-evolved skill set yet something we had to face up to and get right. The first thing we did was cast about for someone to look at the 3D CAD modelling that would be needed and soon we discovered the guys at Cube3 and what a cracking team they are!
They’re as bonkers as we are and absolutely brilliant at what they do. We asked if they would help us just for the fun of it and so they did. I know I’ve said this many times already but, thanks guys.
But the job went back much further. You see, having studied many hundreds of photos and a couple of Ken’s sketches we concluded that the canopy had an acrylic frame into which the curved surface was bonded and, as we were going to have to reverse-engineer all of this the first job was to recreate the frame and make it fit the boat. One of Ken’s drawings suggested that the cockpit opening was 20 inches wide but having reclaimed enough of the original material to prove conclusively that it was only ever 19.5 inches wide we then had to make the canopy to suit. As it happens, that half an inch made loading the seat really difficult because that was built to the drawings. We built the canopy frame in wood and MDF first of all.
Then we routed, band-sawed and dressed it out of solid acrylic…
We’d never worked with such materials before and had to learn on the job. We made up our own processes and tooling as we went along – ever resourceful and determined to get this part absolutely spot on.
We built a pile of parts until we’d learned just how to do this and that was to prove a life-saver when our canopy failed at speed, but more of that in a mo, suffice to say that the failure was entirely down to us and not anything our sponsor did as some in the trade suggested at the time.
By now we had also gained the support of a local company called Bay Plastics. They supported us about a million years ago when we made a display cabinet for the old engine so it could go into the museum without being a razor sharp danger to visitors. The estimated cost had it been done by the usual method of going looking for grants etc. was about £6000 so we circumvented a pile of bureaucracy and just made one and Bay Plastics donated the acrylic sheet to enclose it so they are old allies. Once we had all the bits of frame good to go they sent a couple of their lads over to glue it all together for us.
The frame was eventually finished and a perfect fit on the boat.
That was a major achievement in itself but it was only the beginning. It was this part we sent down to Cube3 along with a bunch of photos of the canopy and soon enough we were being sent screen grabs of the work in progress – impressive stuff.
With that finalised it was back to our mates at Bay Plastics to turn it into solid reality. This they did by machining a tool from MDF then vac-forming the shape over it in 6mm acrylic.
The tool began as a stack of fat slabs of MDF routed out and glued together in a nest and once the glue had gone off it was set about with a 5-axis router to turn it into a very slick piece of tooling.
The ramp at the back is for releasing the formed acrylic and to ensure that the process doesn’t try to pull the material through any impossible angles or put creases in it. Next it got a good rub down and a coat of sealer.
Onto the vac-forming machine it went after that and what came off the tool was essentially a sheet of acrylic with a K7 cockpit canopy-shaped bulge in the middle.
Here it is with its protective film still affixed to both sides. We got two so we had a spare and it’s a bloody god job we did!.
From there we had to VERY carefully cut it into the frame and ask the guys from BP to glue it all together for us.
After that, all that remained was install all the fiddly bits, the rollers inside the rear frame that engage in the cockpit rails, the little wheel on the front and the canopy latch that proved extremely difficult to reproduce because it seems not to have been accurately or fully captured in a single photograph – ever. We managed, as we always do in these circumstances, to create something close enough that is visually indistinguishable until a better photo turns up.
All the furniture was made by the incomparable ‘Clever’ Barry Hares. His work is always like jewellery.
One of the canopy rollers… We always imagined that the cockpit actually travelled on these until we built it all up and watched a few videos of the canopy being opened and closed back in the day at which point we realised that in actual fact the canopy just slides in its rails and the rollers are actually to keep it from jumping off when you pull the internal handle to open it. At least we had a couple of decent photos of the rollers but the latch had to be guessed at and sketched out from tiny snippets captured in many pictures, none of which really let us get a proper look. We got very close, though.
Just a bit of paintwork left to do and we were good to go.
Unfortunately, as I write, most of that canopy is on the bottom of Loch Fad – it blew off at about 100mph as Ted came out of the throttle on the first of his high speed runs. We heard later that some had suggested that the material or manufacturing was at fault and the cause and that this was not a welcome piece of speculation to the plastics industry so here is what really happened.
What we’d done, you see, was try to be clever and found we weren’t as clever as we’d thought. Those familiar with Bluebird lore will know that Donald wrecked his main engine in a static test when the inlets failed and spat shrapnel through it. Upon examination as we scrapped off the crushed inlets and looked at the repairs from the time we concluded that the empty chamber just behind the pilot’s headrest, once used to stow radio gubbins, had actually exploded as the hungry engine lowered the air pressure either side of it and this is where the debris came from. We can fix that, we decided, and so we let discreet ventilation holes into crucial parts of the inlet structure such that the air pressure would equalise as the engine spooled up. Now if you look at the headrest plate you will see four holes in it, two either side of the headrest, that were gradually filed larger in the days leading up to the 4th January 67.
The headrest plate is a faithful recreation because we never found the original but we copied the holes exactly so it seems the 66/67 crew had something similar going on too so we took the opportunity to sort it once and for all by adding to the ventilation and it worked perfectly – as the engine accelerated.
What happened when Ted came out of the throttle and the engine spooled down again, however, is that with no air going through the engine all of a sudden it was as though someone had just stuffed a giant cork into the back of the air intakes and with the ram-air effect of the boat’s forward speed the pressure in the inlets now went sky high, back-fed down our clever equalising vents and pressurised the cockpit – see where this is going?
Ted described an increasing pressure on his chest until the forward edge of the canopy popped up a half an inch (It’s only held down at the front with outside air pressure and the pressure inside overcame it). He scrabbled to get a grip on it but it smooth inside surface defied his gloved fingers until, whoosh, it departed vertically, broke up in the air and splashed back down in his wake. We were bloody lucky the engine wasn’t sucking or we’d have lost that too and an engine was the only spare we didn’t carry.
Ted, of course, simply sat amongst the maelstrom performing his shut down drills as though nothing had happened then nonchalantly came over the radio to say the canopy had come off – bugger!
But I digress, that was much later and before we could ever get there we still had much to do. The engine cover was one of the last parts we prepared. It had been completely stripped and rebuilt and we had no idea how well, or even if, it would fit but we were out of time so we literally just splashed it with filler…
Then we splashed it with paint.
Despite its shiny appearance it’s actually in poor shape. It didn’t fit at all, the filler broke and fell out at the edges because of that and it was held down with dozens of nasty M6 Rivnuts that would have had Ken Norris spinning in his grave. It remains one of the bigger jobs to get stuck into as and when we resume the rebuild. It literally has to be rebuilt again.
On went the spray baffles too and, by contrast, they actually came out very well.
They were made for us by another local plastics company (http://www.barkstonltd.com/) because we felt we were really asking a lot of Bay Plastics already and to ask more would be taking the proverbial and, as ever, the support from local North East industry was right there when we asked. The spray baffles don’t look so big or heavy when they’re bolted onto the sides of the boat but when I had to recline the front seats in the car and heft them in I wondered whether we’d got the drawings wrong and they’d actually been made about three times too big. They weren’t.
The spray baffles have always been sort of symbolic to us because it was a chunk of spray baffle that was the first piece to break the surface after K7’s 34 year slumber in the dark.
On a solo 40m dive in October 2000 I pulled this piece off the side of the wrecked air intakes just to prove we’d found the wreck then kept it safe and sound ever since.
A surprising amount of original spray baffle material still clung to the wreck and we put what we could back when the time came including the plywood spacers.
And the aluminium upright that had come out of the water so many years before along with some other bits and bobs of associated hardware. It was nice to put these parts back where they belonged. Although getting on for half the boat is new-build the otherwise new spray baffles were given an original flavour by the admixture of these small crumbs.
The spray baffles just looked right from the get-go and we worked furiously touching in bits of blue and details as our date on the Isle of Bute loomed ever closer because, as you may imagine, work was going on at quite a pace there too in order that all would be in place for our ever more imminent arrival.
We’d had to cover a lot of ground once the isle agreed to host us. Risk assessments, endless meetings with everyone from local business to local authorities, discussions with insurers so we could be sure of being able to take care of old Mrs. Miggins should we run her over with a jet boat – we had lots to organise. Then there was the more hands-on stuff such as getting us into and out of the water. A survey earlier in the year had revealed that we had a lot of mud and soggy ground to traverse were we to get afloat and, of course, we needed a base of operations and a boatshed.
Our slipway was the biggest concern. There is no slipway at Loch Fad – at least nothing that would ever cope with a couple of tons on four narrow wheels but to the rescue came the British Army complete with heavy plant, efficient personnel and a big roll of matting. They were happy to help and were we ever happy to accept that help.
These guys weren’t messing about and soon as we got a look at what they were doing for us we realised just how committed we actually were. Gulp! The blue paint went on faster.
In went the machines to cut and scrape and level a long enough slipway and then they rolled out a huge length of matting to spread the load and consolidate the slipway.
The folks up there erected a boatshed for us too.
And that was the isle about ready to receive us – or so we thought. One evening I received a call from one of the people up there asking what time we thought we’d be arriving and by that time we’d had discussions with Cal-Mac ferries whose sponsorship team had agreed to give us free passage without, I suspected, having a clue what they were getting themselves into – that proved true enough once we’d gridlocked the island. I explained that our time of arrival was looking like about 2.00pm on a Friday so we’d have time to get set up once on site. The reason for the enquiry was because we were to be piped ashore. That sounded like a good idea. The idea of a lone piper on the pier to greet us seemed perfectly appropriate but our planned arrival time seemed to be a problem, the reason for which soon became apparent – having twenty people get a Friday afternoon off work, into their kit, instruments tuned and ready to go was going to be a logistical nightmare. The idea of a lone piper was soon dispelled, this was going to be a totally different type of being piped ashore – this was going to be epic!
But we still had a boat to get ready and it was going to be touch and go to say the least. We were close but time was against us. We’d still not even got close to getting the top covers fitted. The tail cover is bolted down then a closing strip is added to keep the water out. We could fudge it on the tail cover by just starting as many bolts as we could and dogging it all down knowing it wouldn’t fall off but the engine cover had to be removable and it wasn’t even close. Nothing lined up.
All we could do was throw the closing strips on and hope for the best because the vital mechanical work had to come first. Things like the offboard start. This used an existing opening into the hull that used to contain an electrical connector to start the Beryl that we replaced with one containing a dry-break connector to admit compressed air.
Anything to do with compressed air is highly safety critical so we bought an expensive piece of kit to go in there. It looked sort of original by the time we touched it in. Notice the empty holes above the air connector that are supposed to have quarter turn fasteners in them and that the deck above hasn’t been painted yet.
Then at last – the big day arrived and on a sunny August day we finally had to get the big blue machine onto a wagon for her trip north. In this regard we’d been extremely lucky because Bute Blacksmiths just happened to own the perfect vehicle for the job with a splendid hydraulic crane and a driver called Duncan who would soon become a legend. But first to get the boat out of the workshop.
It’s extraordinarily tricky and involves a big, well-coordinated team effort, a winch and the indulgence of all traffic in the area to go the long way around the block while we pull and push and swear. We have only an inch or so of clearance either side of the door, the launch and recovery dolly has virtually no steering authority and we have to turn a 26 foot boat in a 36 foot space, which is only really possible because we can get down the side of the building opposite. We got the boat into the sunshine having cleared the brickwork on the corner by millimetres and rolled her out into the street.
(Pics from here courtesy of Phil Evans)
Oh, and did I mention that the fin has to come off too? Won’t go under the roller shutter – bah.
Once in the yard we put the fin back on then, for the first time since 2001 we put the engine cover down with fasteners. The forward edge is still stretched in places from the accident and the tail cover is somewhat splayed at its forward most bulkhead so the engine cover is a poor fit at both ends so all we could do was get some screws in at the top and pull it down by degrees. The fixings should be quarter turn, quick release things but we’d not had time to even look at that problem choosing instead to clash a load of temporary fasteners in there so by this point we were using a mixture of M6 and 1/4 BSF screws so you may imagine the muddle that caused. But eventually we had it looking OK and next came the job of getting the whole shooting match onto a wagon.
Duncan’s crane lifted the boat as though it were made of balsa wood and another theory of ours was instantly proven out. Bluebird always had a slight weight bias to the left because the steering is all situated down that side but when the Orph’ engine was installed in 66, presumably because of access issues in the wooden building where the work was done, they really made a job of it. Added to the steering gear was now the entire hydraulic system including its fluid reservoir, the very weighty fire suppression system, an auxiliary fuel tank later augmented by a second one and Bluebird’s new radio with its battery. Soon as she was craned off the ground she fell over to the left quite dramatically and had to be held upright by a couple of volunteers.
Duncan’s skill with his crane was amazing – he put the boat on the back of his wagon with extraordinary delicacy then we clambered about up there fitting a huge, properly tailored cover made and donated to the project by an old friend of ours, Steve ‘Sails’ Douthwaite, then Duncan devised a way of firmly lashing everything to the bed of his wagon for the journey ahead.
By now he was long out of driving and working hours so we’d arranged a hotel for him so he could be properly rested for the big day ahead. It was dark when we parked up his wagon in a neighbour’s warehouse for the night and went to try and get some sleep ourselves – the big adventure was about to begin!