January 2011

Back in the day, American Indians were recruited to work the high-rise steelwork of a burgeoning Manhattan because they had no innate fear of heights. A brilliantly similar choice was made when staffing one of those, Safe-Speed-For-Life-Because-Children-Die Every-Day-When-We're-Not-Here-To-Catch-Murdering-B'stards-Like-You, vans ensuring that the operator suffered no pangs of conscience in summarily dismissing me to one of those Speed Patronisation Courses for straying a few mph over the limit. His simple genius and low cunning had him lie in wait at the bottom of a hill a mile or so from the school and fill his boots.

Northumbria Police wants to educate not prosecute, or so they assured me. Do you feel persecuted? They asked. Well, as a matter if fact I did, because I don’t see a fleet of sneaky vans photographing irresponsible pedestrians daydreaming across the public highway then having them hauled away to be hit for sixty quid and four hours of the Green Cross Code. It’s us motorists getting the one-sided lumber.

Please don’t misunderstand me here… I don’t speed, at least not on purpose. Nor do I buy the ‘lapse of concentration’ bullshit, which seems to underpin their credo. Face facts, humans can’t concentrate to save our lives (literally, in many cases), we’re hopelessly bad at it. I read somewhere of NASA developing an optical switching system to overcome astronauts having to lift gloved hands against launch g-forces only to scrap it again because those highly focused and trained rocketmen let their eyes wander all over the overhead until Terry Wogan blared out of the speakers and the vacuum portaloo in the next compartment threatened to burst their eardrums.

Once seated comfortably the presiding traffic womble, or perhaps that should be womblette, admitted that humans can manage only ten to twenty minutes of decent concentration in every hour then tried to squirm out of the equal truth of degraded or none existent concentration for the other forty or fifty.

She hurried on… Did you know that in 2009 over two thousand people died on Britain’s roads? Enough to fill ten jumbo jets. Womblette demonstrably hadn’t a clue about how big a jumbo was. Poor research – my favourite.

I whittled her apocalyptic tale down to four jumbos then shattered her retaliatory theory that even four crashed jumbos would keep passengers out of the air with Lockerbie, Japan Airlines, Air India and the Pan-Am / KLM altercation at Los Rodeos.

Having moved us swiftly on she then gravely (pun intended) stated that forty two people were killed on the roads in the Northumbria force area in 2009 with one in four being ‘speed-related’ but of this unfortunate dozen, Womblette couldn’t cite a single example of one flattened by the likes of those represented in the room – ‘marginal speeders’ as they call us. Ordinary people trying to offset what the law wants against getting through another day – people with perfectly legal radios, CD players and extra seats full of nattering distraction in their cars. People who, despite not meaning to speed and driving to the best of their abilities, occasionally glance at the speedo’ only to hastily lift off with all thoughts of the day’s tasks replaced by low-yield panic until the needle slides back to the 30 mark.

‘Human Limitations’

That was the title of a paper I had to pass before the CAA would give me a pilot’s license. It dealt with the deeper reasons why humans occasionally make a balls of things because in the aviation world it’s well understood that humans can only master a task to a certain standard beyond which improvement is an unreasonable expectation – truism that seems not to have reached the traffic wombles yet. Yes, it’s illegal to speed but it’s also illegal to die in the House of Commons, and it’s seriously bad practice to crash your airliner so why don’t pilots just concentrate more?

One by one, Womblette’s wretched victims vomited their guilt – not paying attention, in a hurry, etc, etc. No way was I about to abase myself before the altar of speed-related belittlement when the truth is I was driving as well as I could… Humans perform any task to a tolerance – plus or minus. Humans can no more drive at precisely 30mph than draw a perfect freehand circle as Pablo Picasso tried and failed to do… That’s all she got from me.

I asked what the typical tolerance might be - plus or minus ten mph… five, perhaps? But Womblette didn’t know. With no data or footing in scientific study she couldn’t say whether she had a collection of lawbreakers culled from the roads of Northumbria and fully deserving of a bollocking, or a representative cross section of above average drivers from whom she ought to try and learn something and not the other way around. She didn’t especially enjoy having that spelled out but it damn-well needed spelling out because it’s true.

Quickly shunning the horror in the second row with measured answers unlike anything her womble training course had told her to expect, we were then expected to buy into an accident scenario contrived to the point of perverseness to be sure the driver was hung drawn and quartered.

In short, a poor lad walking with his mates down the nearside path, made a most unfortunate decision to cross the road at a shallow angle as a car approached. Why he didn’t hear the car wasn’t pondered. Maybe he had his Podeye plugged into his ears or maybe the gently purring, modern engine and anti-lock brakes allowed the car to slither to a standstill in relative silence but whatever the truth the driver jumped on the brakes, according to the police chalk-lines all over the street, and veered right until he ran out of slightly soggy road. Problem was, the photo of the aftermath didn’t add up at all.

How far beyond the point of impact did the car stop? I asked. All the police cars and hi-vis-jacketed busybodies seemed to be surrounding the murder-death car. How fast was it traveling when it hit the lad and how much further did it go? Only a metre, it transpired, and it was barely moving at impact. This was clearly a freakish accident that could’ve happened in a supermarket car park. But the wombles’ argument lived by the fact that, according to the police boffins, the car was doing thirty-eight when the driver hit the brakes. ‘Speed-related’ is what mattered, you see, so its very freakishness was not about to be admitted if they could skirt around it.

It later emerged that what actually happened was that the lad tripped at the last and, so far as Womblette would have us believe, gently glanced his head off the plastic bumper of a Clio and succumbed to his injuries at the scene. The lack of any witness mark on the closely photographed and still grime covered bumper (and we’ve all had a startled pigeon imprinted on our windscreen at some point) and blood on the tarmac under the passenger door suggested a more sinister scenario but they weren’t going there. After all, fatally injuring someone at a snail’s pace wouldn’t sit well in a speed patronisation lesson.

It was a one-in-a-million and desperately unfortunate accident that must have been devastating for all involved but to twist it around and lay it firmly at the feet of the driver when so many factors conspired to produce the outcome was utterly disgusting.

Had the driver got his foot down the boy might have tripped into the spray thrown by the retreating vehicle. Or, had he set off across the road two seconds later, he may have been killed by a car traveling at the requisite 30mph – then who would they have blamed, I wonder…

What they didn’t seem to have was a straightforward case of some beleaguered motorist ‘marginally speeding’ and an equally distracted pedestrian getting whacked by a car because neither could get out of the way quickly enough. That ought to tell the wombles something.

In conclusion, while we were there having our evening wasted, the speeders who really did need an education were at home with their feet up bitching over their three points.

What a farce.

With a bit of effort the wombles could have left us breathless and wracked with guilt, convinced that higher minds were at work and that we should all strive for the rest of our lives to achieve speed limit obeying Nirvana… not make us sick of the sight of 30-limit signs.

I left the building deeply disappointed but the incident with the car reawakened another tragedy that, off and on, has haunted me for years.

When I was diving, a pretty girl from down the road also took up the sport with her dad who’d dived for years, though I didn’t know him personally. They went down to the sea and he taught her well but she was seventeen and wanted to dive with people, boys mostly, of her own age. But a dive went tragically wrong and she was drowned on the first trip she took without her dad. I spoke to the instructor who’d been with her when the underwater panic took hold and he couldn’t save her and I also interviewed the lad who found her lifeless body forty minutes later and blew her to the surface. There followed a desperate resuscitation attempt – as there always is no matter how futile – but the game was up on a diving accident, pure and simple.

I have two little girls and a love of diving, a sport I will no doubt return to in the fullness of time and they’ll want to come with their daddy to see what all the fuss is about…

Life can be such a lottery sometimes and another whose number came up recently was ‘Corporal’ Paul Evans – radio operator for the 66/67 attempt at Coniston, ‘Base’ as in, ‘Tango to Base…’ and the last person ever to speak to Donald.

Paul sadly passed away after a long illness and was another of the old guard who won’t make it to see Bluebird reborn. Back in 2002 when it became fact that K7 would be rebuilt to working condition I pleaded with the Hapless Lottery Failure to expedite our project so the likes of Paul, and Ken and Lew Norris could breathe old history into new in their twilight years, but the lottery-flops aren’t clever enough to understand something so historically significant and now we’ve lost all three and may lose others along the way.

On the other hand, I’m sure they’d all have been delighted with the cracking coverage we enjoyed over the holidays thanks to our mates at Sky News. I’ve no idea how many times the doco was aired but it was lots and our project positively lit up with thousands of new visitors and, more importantly, a welcome shot in the arm for our flagging coffers… Thanks to all you good people who dug deep in the skintest part of the year to buy something above and beyond the call of Christmas pressies.

The other tremendous event – and it went largely unnoticed – is that we completed the structure at long last and finally managed to clash some serious bodywork on the old tin girl with rivets and everything. She got her cockpit opening back, in case you missed it.

And now that’s all there is to do – stick bodywork on and spoon her internal organs back in. You’re about to see some dramatic visual progress from now on and speaking of dramatic, what about the Sky News animation, eh?

OK, the moaning minority picked fault and you’ll always get that amongst those who confuse computer games and movies with real life but there’s no denying that it’s the best effort yet and if only it were possible to properly explain what a lengthy and labour-intensive process it is to produce such a thing there’d be a few eyes opened to just what a grand piece of work it is. There was only one slight inaccuracy... I’ll be the first to admit that it is difficult to tell from the photographic and videographic evidence that the boat actually fell on her left-hand side, and the animation depicted it as a slow roll from the moment of takeoff. But that isn’t how it went. What actually happened is that the boat was falling but still facing along track with wings level until, at the last second, she yawed left and in so doing the wind got under the right-hand sponson and pitched it upwards. In the last fraction of a second a violent left-roll was initiated and, although the sponsons smashed down left side first and immediately righted themselves along with the front spar, there’s no way they had sufficient authority to stop the main hull from continuing its roll until it landed flat as a pancake on the forward half of the left-hand cockpit wall.

At such speeds the water simply couldn’t get out of the way and the frame flat-packed itself against a surface that may as well have been the car park at the boating centre for all its compliance. The first major failure was both longitudinal frame tubes at the left side of F-17, the bulkhead at the front of the cockpit seat.

This is the first piece we ever lifted, the left-hand cockpit wall from F-15 to F-17 where the frame snapped. Look in the middle and you’ll see the oval blister added to the side to accommodate the steering gear then notice that vertical crease running right through the middle of it. That’s where it’s been swaged around the F-17 vertical frame tube proving that the frame failed before the outer skin was wrapped around it. Notice also that the outer skin has been fairly evenly flattened against the underlying structure.

This is the front half of the left-hand cockpit wall, it looked as below when we found it…

…once again, the panels have been brutally hydroformed around the structure by a blow from the left, the important point being that they’re still there – squashed against the frame but still attached. Now compare this to the damage to the opposite side as-recovered and the difference is quite striking. Here’s the right-hand cockpit wall from F-15 to F- 23 (the point of the bow)

You’re looking at the inside face and the outer panels are gone, blown outwards from left to right.

Here it is again from the outside, the outer skin hung in its original position for illustrative purposes…

See what I mean? It’s the total opposite effect with the skin ripped outwards and mostly blown to kingdom come and below is the right-hand frame when stripped of its covering tinware before it was mended. In particular, look at the longitudinal frame tube at floor level and you can clearly see that it’s kinked to the right.

You can also see the separated forward half of the left-hand cockpit frame standing there all shiny and silver having just returned from BettaBlast because whereas most of the frame came up in 2001, it was another six years before that last piece was found.

Returning to the more intact right-hand side, it also failed at F-17 but, crucially, the failures in the upper and lower longitudinals were fore and aft of the F-17 vertical, which then acted as a torque tube preventing the halves from separating. F-17, by the way, is where that U-shaped crossmember spans the cockpit.

This is the fracture at F-17 being dressed back to clean metal prior to sleeving, pinning and welding. To the left of the die-grinder is the top of the F-17 crossmember. The fracture in the lower tube was the other side of this allowing the vertical to hold it all together.

The longitudinal tube was straight to within a few millimetres once we’d effected a repair.

Now consider this, watching most video of the crash it’s fairly apparent that the boat yaws left just before impact but in that instance, had she landed level but facing left of track, she’d have been hit on the right side of her cockpit not the left and the damage would have been reversed.

Convinced yet? No? OK – here’s some more. Remember that the left-hand side of the cockpit broke away completely forward of F-17. Well it landed 140m to the north east of the impact site…

Think about this carefully… K7 was travelling north at the time of the accident so the front-left cockpit wall was facing north west, yet it departed to the north east, completely the other side to where it came from.

The reason is that as the boat impacted the cockpit failed at F-17 but the now separated section didn’t penetrate the surface. Instead it flipped beneath the rolling boat and shot out the other side like a skimming stone retaining its forward energy but with an easterly component added by the roll.