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November 2012

Did you see Felix leap out of his space capsule and fall like a brick? I felt sick when he opened the door and my kids fell silent, their squabbling over who had most of the office chair ended by instant captivation. They’d watched as the balloon was launched and slowly climbed to altitude with waxing and waning interest while for my part I drank in every detail of what was a technical dive in reverse. It was like a deep-sea denizen slowly rising to the surface intent on then plummeting back to the depths. None of this increasing pressure as the depth increased – quite the opposite. Pre-breathing pure O2 to purge the body’s saturated nitrogen, managing the O2 and N2 partial pressures all the way up, the gas physiology… it kept me enthralled. And then venting the capsule to ambient with only the gas in the suit to live on was outrageously brave and that’s without flobbing yourself off a ledge no wider than the top of my granny’s stairs to fall helplessly through a vacuum at a higher speed than SSC ever managed with a pair of R-R Spey’s pushing for all they were worth.. Incredible! What a project, what a man, so I was filled with inspiration and admiration as I strolled down to the village that night in the hope of a good natter about what had just occurred with intelligent analysis and to enjoy the company of others equally inspired.

The footballists were in full sweary mode providing a counterpoint to the relatively silent darts match that at least has a splash of mental arithmetic in its favour but as far as intelligent analysis was concerned all I got was the worst example of women’s logic I’ve ever heard.

Sharp intake of breath… he’s being sexist again and that just won’t do these days.

Well, tough. Why do women whinge about that stuff anyway? I mean, you’ll never hear a bloke cry foul because hiss missus says he has a one track mind, is better at mending cars than sewing and his true role in life is to get his otherwise lazy backside off to work and keep her in the style to which she’s become accustomed. But tell the wife she’s a scatterbrain, the ironing needs doing and her place is at home making the tea and bringing up the kids and there’s all sorts of twisty faces going on. Not fair, is it…

A woman in the pub was ranting at her fella. She was ‘bad with the tabs’, apparently. Or, in English, her cigarette consumption was making her ill. No surprise really – it kills people, you know. But she had enough symptoms to fill a medical textbook all on her own. Blood pressure, stomach cramps, sickness, dodgy ticker, hacking cough – you name it. So she went to the doctor’s.

Don’t you so much want to crash someone else’s conversation sometimes? To just join them at the bar, summon up a genuinely curious look and ask,

“The doctor, you say… Why was that then?”

What was the doc’ going to say, eh? Stupid woman! Eat more greens, lose some weight. Not that she had any to lose. Her smoke-ravaged body was burning calories flat-out just to stay ahead of the poison.

Guess what the doctor said…

So, guided by such erudition, she’d gone home and told her bloke that because she had to give up so did he. But he only smoked four a day, he argued, which even the medical profession struggles to say is bad for you. In fact he proclaimed that he’d tried to pack it in once but the patches were stronger than the smokes so he went backwards instead of forwards and, as it wasn’t making him ill, he figured he may as well continue to take his pleasure.

“Tell you what,” he told the missus, “I’ll go outside and keep it well out of your way so you’re not tempted, how’s that?”

Seemed like a deal from where I was sitting but she wasn’t buying such inequality of suffering. If she had to stop then he damn-well did too. It was as though the quack had purposely spited her and if she had to go without then Mr Smokist did too. It looked to me like the poor bloke suffered in all kinds of ways at her hands anyway so he wasn’t rolling over on this one.

Next they had one of those low-key but serious domestics faked up to look like nothing but which may as well have been broadcast over the speaker system. It went something like the above – he had to pack in if she did, but he didn’t see why he should so long as he didn’t add to her temptation, which he was perfectly prepared to do.

The finale flew in the face of all that’s sensible.

She stood up, raging, and shouted at him that if he wouldn’t stop then she couldn’t either so the symptoms would only get worse until a tortured death resulted and it was all his fault!

A quick glance around the bar revealed many a puzzled expression so it wasn’t just me, then the woman stalked angrily through the back door, doubtless for a smoky-tab to calm her nerves.

I shrugged at the absurdity, gave up entirely on trying to tempt anyone with Felix then went back to reading about the Eurozone soap on my little screen while I thought of all those well-meaning people who enjoy our project but defeat themselves before they even begin. Those kindly folks who email to say we’re doing a great job, they look in on us all the time and sport their BBP polo shirt most weekends but because they live more than a stones-throw from Tyneside are completely unable to get involved.

There you go – beaten before they begin.

Of our regulars, Checkie comes all the way from Liverpool, Jordan comes from Barrow, Scottish-Charlie comes from – well, somewhere very north where they talk funny, and Novie comes from Coniston, and that’s without those who don’t admit defeat before checking whether their car has a few hundred miles left in it to make a one-time visit. So, before it’s too late and we the old girl finished and send her home, if you fancy doing a day in the workshop with the gang, make the effort. Be like Felix – make a plan and see it through. I always wanted to see a Queen gig but next year was always soon enough.

One of the most important chunks of our boat is our air intake assembly and, having slung it in a corner for several years, the time finally came to start fettling it for once and for all. Even though it had looked quite impressive for the dry build, and to this day people tell me how they saw a picture of it finished years ago, every last part was knackered or wrong in some way so we decided to bring its formers back to the drawing first of all and use them as a foundation for the rest.

Essentially it comprises an inner duct and an outer skin that diverge towards where the engine lives so the gap between is spanned by a set of formers – all crushed and rotted by the time we took delivery.

Many weeks of careful study preceded the construction of plywood and MDF tooling to which we could fasten the formers to fabricate new inner and outer flanges for them. The inner flange rivets to the duct, the outer to the outside skins and both were in a sorry state on all of the formers.

Above is the middle of three fixed formers (there’s a fourth, dismountable one at the back that goes in after the fuel tank is installed) with the new flanges pinned on before they were welded. Below it’s been welded but not dressed yet.

You can see here where old material has been replaced. We repeated the process on the aft former, which has lightening holes in it and is the biggest of the three.

In replacing the edges – and the new piece is an inch by an inch, by the way – we solved two problems. One, we now had a brand new edge for the rivets to be set into. Not so important for the outer skins but vital where the new duct would attach because the engine does its best to suck the duct inside out and good fixings are paramount. Second, we were able to take up any minor tolerance in the squashed parts so they matched the drawing perfectly once repaired. You may imagine that the upper curve is a straightforward semicircle, but it’s not. It’s flat on top and even the arcs down the sides are a compound shape. Very tricky.

Here’s the third former still attached to the duct after the outer skins were removed.

See how the once riveted outer flange has rotted severely and also notice that the duct has rusty nuts and bolts through it in the upper-left corner of the pic’. That’s what they’d resorted to – nuts and bolts to hold the plenum in. The duct was past redemption even by 67 and is the main reason we chose to retire it and build a new one.

Nor could we simply replace the flanges on the forward former either. Had we replaced an inch top and bottom with this one we’d have had nothing left. It was absolutely murdered when we found it and both of its feet were missing.

It’s ruined feet turned up still bolted to the frame directly below where the former snapped. We recovered them separately.

Then, just to add annoyance to inconvenience, we discovered that this former had been made well and truly wonky back in the day but rather than start again the Samlesbury boys had slapped a great heap of shims on top and filed them to suit.

See how it seems to be peeling apart like an onion? That’s layer upon layer of tin stuck one on top of the next to bring a badly made part back to height. So what to do? We could either lose the shims and make the part fit properly or… You guessed it, make it as wrong as they did then put their shims back. Can you imagine how difficult that was? Learning enough about the shims so we could make the tooling wrong so the former would be wrong when it came off the tool then putting the shims back to make it right again, what a nightmare, but we did it and soon our formers were spot on and ready for the next phase – making a new duct.

Job-one was to make up a millimetre-perfect tool that replicated the positions of the formers on the boat then attach them solidly so we could use them as their own tool for the duct. We mounted them downside-up to make the job easier.

Notice the stiffeners between the first and second formers. There was a measure of twist on both components and the new-build stiffeners sorted this out but they weren’t included in the original design so we didn’t plan on including them in the final build. We’d have to see. Next we added some dead tree so the front former wouldn’t fidget as we worked…

… then we were ready to start throwing some shapes together. The upper part of the duct was dead easy, seen here upside down, of course.

Five bits of tin wheeled into shape then glued together. Here it is off the tool for welding and fettling with its crushed forebear in the background.

OK to this point but then it went all difficult. Once the upper skin was sorted we put it back on the tool and work began on its lower half, which on the face of it ought to have been easier, but proved a smidge trying in the end because at this point we discovered that in fact it wasn’t built to the drawings at all. It was much deeper and the only way to replicate it was by somehow getting the data out of the old duct, which was outrageously crushed. We made up some tooling that matched the drawings just to check that we hadn’t cocked up and, sure enough, instead of it fitting neatly within the original formers it fell straight through with inches to spare so we had to wing it a little and build the duct oversize to match what had gone before.

The bottom goes from flat to circular and ended up being way more struggly than expected. We nailed it eventually.

From here it was a time consuming and laborious case of fettling and dressing and dye-pen testing each and every weld. What you do is slap a bright pink dye all over the place (not normally this much).

Then you leave it to seep into any cracks, crevices and pores. Give it about half an hour to work its way deep by capillary action then clean it back and cover the area in a developer, which is basically a white powder suspended in a solvent. The effect is to draw the dye back out of its hiding places so it tints the powder pink and shows you where to grind and repair. It was a damned awkward thing to fabricate to within a millimetre or two and took much hammer work to get it just right.

Because it insisted on moving around with the heat, and to ensure that it still fitted the boat when we’d done with it, we actually did much of the final fettling, including fitting the repaired spectangles, in-situ. John spent many a happy hour stuck up the pipe dressing welds.

And of course we shoved the plenum in and made sure all of that little lot fitted to an acceptable standard.

But at this point we had to make some important decisions. We knew very well that the intakes had failed in the past and all our careful studies told us exactly why. The setup as designed simply had too many large areas with equally big pressure gradients across them and it was plain to see from the recovered wreckage the manner in which the parts had failed and where repairs had been made. Now about the last thing we need is a repeat of that performance because Orph’ engines are becoming scarce so here we had a chance to make good on the lessons learned. Ken would have loved this idea. He was deeply concerned by the way the front spar had been raised, to mention only one thing he’d have gladly changed, so upgrading K7’s inlets would have also figured highly on his list of things to evolve. No worries, Ken, the inlets now have a series of vents let into the original parts to allow everything to equalise comfortably.

No one will ever see them unless they’re a proctologist in their day job, mind you, but the mod’s are in there. All we had to do now was clean it all off, ship it to Bettablast for painting then stick it all together ’til it looked like what you see below. There’s seven months of meticulous assembly work in this little beauty that we’ll tell you about next time.

There’s another interesting twist this month. You see, when we first started on this Bluebird lark, we’d sacked the Hapless Lottery Failure only a few weeks earlier and existed only as a group of mates with a fierce determination and little else. We had premises and tools but we’d not built a hydroplane, nor for that matter, anything resembling one, so we had to feel our way. Once we’d got the hang of it we soon invited others who were interested and willing but similarly bereft of the necessary skills.

The way it worked was that we started newbies on scraping paint in the stripping bath or shot blasting the many stripped parts. Next they progressed to patch making and from there to dressing off welds and finishing parts. Riveting and choccying precedes making new components from fresh tin on the curriculum and finally you graduate onto jet engines, start and hydraulic systems and the final assembly of such trick structures as the air intakes and sponsons. But this specialisation and the one-way nature of the job means we’ve lost something along the way – namely, the ability to start new volunteers and grow them in the ways of our project infusing them along the way with our obsession for quality and historical accuracy. It could be argued that we no longer have use of such basic skills now that we’ve moved on but what to say to people who want to get involved in some way and we’re going to need more people when it’s time to test the boat out on water.

This is where the Barracuda project comes in. Remember we’ve been talking about helping the Fleet Air Arm Museum to build a Fairey Barracuda from slightly tweaked bits of plane? It’s an odd looking thing and of the 2700 built and aimed at such targets as Tirpitz there’s not one left. So we’ve cleaned up some elevator parts and when we have idle hands or new people wanting to try a spot of tin-bashery we have something for them to experiment on – then we can nick them for boat duty if they’re any good.

It’s the same routine – building from scrap, because there’s no fun in working with new tin. Remember how the word ‘LOOF’ came into being? For those who weren’t around back then, an especially thick ‘expert’ from the Lottery Flops didn’t bother to read our conservation plan then confidently predicted that we’d not be able to rebuild K7 without considerable ‘loss of original fabric’, hence the word ‘loof’. Well we like our acronyms here at Bluebird Central, hence we had the ‘tube internal treatment system’ for applying Ardrox inside the frame tubes and now we occasionally work with ‘bits of old Barracuda’.

There’s a greater diversity of materials and thicknesses in the plane and it also has different history. It’s been lying about on hillsides rather than lurking about on the bottom of a lake, but tin is tin and it still cuts into neat strips…

…that we turned into new booms for the elevator ribs.

Then we made a new set of ribs – the old magic is still there.

But it’s only a bit of light relief at this stage as we have a boat to finish and with both sponsons well advanced we now have, for the first time, all four corners. I remember a meeting of some really stupid lottery-flops at our place, they’d brought some bureaucrats and purist-museologists with them – a perfect storm of useless individuals. They were wittering on about making sponsons out of Perspex and cotton buds and how they could leave one off so visitors could peer at the throttle pedal through the cockpit wall they also planned to leave out. Suffice to say I had a rapid sense of humour failure and explained to them,

“When this thing leaves here it’ll have all four corners on it!”

Remembering those words brought a wry smile as the second sponson came off the tool recently.

It came at a price though and we recently had to buy £2000 worth of tin from California and it all but wiped us out (again) but thankfully that should see our sponsons about done. We’re perilously close to the bread line at the best of times but especially so at the moment so please go have a look at what’s on offer seeing as Christmas is coming, read the bittersweet tale below then treat yourself to a print.

For those who missed the early days of our efforts to stand on our feet, there was once a bloke called Chris Jackson who worked for a photographic printing company called Metro Imaging in London and, as a supporter of the project, Chris introduced himself and promised to help out in any way he could. Well we soon had just the job for him because we were generously offered the use both Arthur Benjamin’s ‘Patience’ and those amazing paintings by Keith Hick if only we could get someone to print them for us, which is where Chris and the good people at Metro Imaging stepped in to produce our prints for us free of charge from that day onwards.

But one day Chris went quiet. He couldn’t be found at work and his colleagues would only say he was at home unwell. I tracked him down there where he told me he’d been diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer… I was horrified, he didn’t have many years on me and I’m still young and fit and couldn’t possibly suffer such a fate. He was depressed and undergoing tests to see whether the dreaded cells had invaded his lungs but hope soon sprang with the discovery that they hadn’t, and that a complex operation followed by the chemo equivalent of a full naval broadside might rein in the disease.

Chris went into the battle, riding out the debilitating treatment with great stoicism. His missus, a nurse, quit work to stand by him but his final message to me said that his blood and body were hopelessly wrecked with the chemo, he couldn’t take any more and now the tumours were returning. Only a few short weeks later he was gone.

I was deeply affected. Being a serious diver I’ve known young, fit people die in accidents, Carl being the best example. I’ve watched oldie’s odds gradually lengthen ‘til they left the game but a young, fit guy corroded away for no good reason. No…

It was a good few weeks before I even considered whether we’d be able to continue with our prints and when I did I had to consider that, as a company, Metro had no real reason to continue with what had been Chris’s baby so we may have hit the rocks.

But they have come to our rescue, bless ’em. We’re going to pay a tickle towards ink and paper and such (which we offered to do as they’ve helped beyond the call) but that’s more than fair seeing as the paper is almost too heavy to lift and you can’t tell a print from the real deal so we’re delighted to be able to continue offering the same top quality product from our long-time supporters and we’re extremely grateful to Metro Imaging. So now all you have you have to do is go and choose the one you want for Christmas and get it ordered in plenty of time so we can get all the relevant signatures on it for you.

And when it arrives, think of Chris and be grateful that you have another day down here because life is such a lottery and today you won.

Off you go…

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