Yesterday we fired up Bluebird as a complete machine for the first time in over four years.
When we went to Bute in 2018 many people thought the boat was the finished item and it's easy to see why but there was still much to do. Lots of it wasn't painted, for example. Yes, it was blue, but that was only a powder coat on top of the bare metal and every last screw and rivet head was visible. Then there was the fact that the only way we could start the engine was remotely from a great stock of compressed gas on a separate boat. We never properly worked out the throttle linkage either so we were idling at around 50% RPM, which just added to the cockpit workload. Other, more subtle problems included the paint in the hull not being resistant to kerosene so it basically washed straight off to mix with all the other leaking fluids in there. Our bilge water had to be pumped into containers and treated before we could return it to the loch. We went there with a hundred unfinished jobs and came back with two hundred.
Then we lost a bunch of time while the Ruskin Museum played lawyers in an effort to kick us out with nothing only to be locked down against COVID for best part of two years straight after.
The team didn't see much of one another during that time and there were days when I wondered if the team spirit and commitment would really return to previous levels.
I needn't have worried.
We began to emerge at the start of 2022 and to begin with we simply enjoyed each other's company once more. We tinkered a little and most of the summer was spent with the doors open welcoming visitors and meeting new people but the momentum was building. We were getting well into designing an air start system, we ground-ran one of our engines then, finally, with a request to take K7 to the Straighliners event in Elvington in February, everyone got stuck in to get the old boat prepped.
In went the engine with its newly designed setting up gauge and a few tweaks to the fuel system drains. New, kerosene resistant paint went into the bilges and a redesigned catch tank system to contain waste fuel and oil was plumbed in. On went the new air start system and we made all the plumbing and wiring connections to reinstall Bluebird's fiery heart.
One of our igniters gave us a few headaches. Our first ever attempt to run at speed on Loch Fad failed because of that igniter and it's blown countless fuses since but this week it was wired into the boat and set up and fiddled with until it played ball.
We set ourselves a target to get K7 out and started up on Saturday 28th January.
Some weeks earlier we'd built up a set of wheels and tyres for the moving dolly on which K7 sits. They're aircraft wheels and the block pattern tyres are quite scarce. We have six good ones and six wheels but we also have a pair of tatty old tyres of the same size but different tread patetrn that we put on the turntable end of the dolly because they get all the scuffing and scraping so we built those, blew them up, made sure they stayed blown up and on Saturday morning we lifted the boat and put them on.
This part of the dolly seems to be an afterthought. The dolly has two axles but neither turns to let you steer it. It was designed so the road wheels could be swapped for railway wheels so the boat could be launched down rails into Ullswater and the turntable isn't on the original drawing but they must have realised very quickly that only being able to shift it forwards or backwards wasn't useful when storing it away between record attempts so the turntable was added and it raises the back of the boat by about 6 inches giving it a nose down appearance when the wheels are on.
There was a time when certain negative individuals got excited by convincing themselves that our team was losing its cohesion and people were leaving. It simply wasn't true and we would quietly smile at their desperate hope knowing it was leading them nowhere and never more so than yesterday as we pushed K7 out into the daylight.
We have to come out backwards then tow the boat forwards to the next street and then backwards again into the yard. Usually by this time any car that happens by, and it's very quiet down there once the wood yard closes at lunchtime, is soon parked up so the occupants can gawk and take pictures.
Once in the yard the real work begins.
We had to uplift a full tank of fuel. It needs to be a full tank because the fuel delivery works on a siphon system and we wanted it thoroughly purged to look for leaks. We found a small one and dealt with it straight away.
Then we decanted air into the start bottles. This would be the first time K7's engine would be started by a totally self-contained air system since the morning of the 4th January 1967. This would be a major milestone for us.
We had already proven that we could get a good healthy start out of 2000psi so no need to go any higher and Barry From Grimsby made sure the fuel was topped off and the siphon purged.
K7 isn't exactly fiendishly complicated. There's not many instruments and lights to worry about and even fewer controls but you still have to understand them all and the engine isn't controlled by a computer as it starts. In this case it was controlled by a slightly nervous Geordie on the ends of a bunch of rods and levers.
While the crew were finishing off the preparation on the boat others were taking up their observation points and fire extinguishers and marshalling our visitors to safe positions whilst I sat in the cockpit getting reacquainted with everything that has to be done to bring the old machine to life.
Check area for loose items.
Receive confirmation from the ground crew that everyone is happy to proceed.
LP fuel cock open.
HP fuel cock open to 34 degrees for start and idle.
Igniters on and leave running for a minute to clean the igniter plugs.
LP boost pumps on and ensure LP Boost warning light is extinguished.
Arm the start system. This involves depressing a switch that makes it live and illuminates a red light.
Call 'three...two...one...' so no one gets a fright then hit the starter button.
Stay in the starter until there's 300 degrees Celsius indicated on the JPT gauge then release the starter but stay eyes on the gauge to make sure the JPT doesn't climb over 650 degrees.
The engine should settle at about 36% RPM with a JPT of around 560 degrees. Then we're good.
But it didn't go that way.
I hit the button and the starter exploded into life. The engine accelerated madly, way harder than ever it did with the old start system, but ti didn't light. I stared at the JPT gauge and nothing was happening despite the shrieking cacophony. I knew it wasn't going to light so I let go of the starter thinking the igniters had popped yet another fuse but then it did something we've seen before but didn't expect this time. As the engine was spooling down it suddenly lit. The JPT gauge soared off its stop but the engine was bogged down, not accelerating. I instantly hit the starter again to get some air going through the engine and it immediately began to accelerate but would it get its breath before the JPT went out of limits?
It was oh so close. It climbed inexorably for the first few seconds then began to slow but it was hot. It went past 600, then 650 and was still climbing so I shut it down.
But what had caused this? We discussed various options from the igniters playing up to a possible airlock in the fuel system but we had a good idea that we were just slightly under-fuelling the engine for start up. Remember the setting up gauge we made for the throttle? That would give us the required 34 degrees of opening but there's springs and joints and levers in the throttle linkage to allow small errors to creep in and the valve on the engine is incredibly sensitive. We think it just needs a tiny bit of adjustment.
What happens is that the ratio of atomised fuel and air in the combustion chamber isn't rich enough to light up but soon as you come out of the starter and the engine begins to spool down again you have lots of fuel in there but suddenly less air and whoompf! Off it goes.
It's a nightmare job to mess with the linkages so we left that alone and instead put extra air in the start bottles so if it did it again I could easily blow it to a speed where it would accelerate.
Attempt number two. And no apologies for uploading the full 5 minute video.
This time I was ready for its foibles. Once again the engine didn't light on the way up so I let go the start button and waited. Sure enough it lit on the way down but this time I had plenty of air left over so another stab at the button and we were soon over the hump and the engine was running. There was some flame from the jetpipe. People like flames but flames are bad and not supposed to happen. It was just a little unburned fuel.
Once the engine was settled it was plain to see that the idle was low and that confirmed the theory that our HP valve setting was just a tiny bit short of what's needed so we'll soon adjust for that. I took the engine to 50% RPM a few timnes - no higher. People often assume that this equates to 50% thrust, which would be many and lots. It doesn't. There isn't much thrust going on at all down there and there's only a mild draught going by the cockpit. It all happens above 80% and we're not doing that in the yard!
Here's what it looks like from inside the cockpit. Notice the RPM hanging around 3200. That's too low.
All in all it was a tremendously successful day and once the engine had cooled we put the blanks back in and wheeled her off to bed.
But there is a rather sad postscript to this because at 8.00pm on Friday evening an email arrived from the Ruskin Museum's lawyers.
At eight o'clock!
It had but one intention. To try and scupper our plans for the following day. That's all it was designed to do as it wibbled on about open letters and how we don't have their permission to do this or that, etc.
We responded swiftly to point out for the umpteenth time that we're still waiting for them to prove that they ever owned any part of K7 and considering that we've been asking off and on since 2006 and we've really been asking since 2019 it's not looking good. But really? Letters in the middle of the night? It's getting ridiculous!
We've had seventy-odd thousand views of our engine start on Twitter alone, other social media has been nothing but positive and the Straightliners event now promises the biggest gathering of 200mph-plus certified vehicles aver assembled.
The public has spoken, get the message Ruskin Museum!
Hopefully there won't be any more attempts at disruption ahead of Elvington but all our ducks are firmly in a row just in case but they really do seem bent on self-destruction so you never know. We shall keep you informed.