Saturday 4th August 2018

 

Saturday dawned clear, still and warm, though overcast but nothing on Earth could diminish the sense of excitement and the buzz around our boat shed. We had no idea what to expect in terms of visitors. We’d no idea whether we’d be overrun or only visited by a few curious locals but we put the barrier around the front of the boat shed just in case anyway and began our preparations. It wasn’t long before folk started to arrive, though and many weren’t curious locals either. Within only a few hours we realised that people were travelling long distances then getting a ferry just to have a look at what we were doing with no promise of anything happening beyond us splashing and spannering. Every time we turned around we’d see this.

Kneeling in the foreground is our resident photographer, Phil Evans, by the way, whom you have to thank for most of the excellent photos – though clearly not this one. Also, being the way of the Bluebird Project, he would soon be somewhat infamously known as ‘Fend-off’ Phil or, more simply, ‘Crasher’ Evans. But more of that in another diary.

We’d obviously rehearsed every imaginable thing for months back home but without the benefit of water and our understudy pilot, the dashing Red Arrow, Stew Campbell, who hadn’t run the engine in the boat yet though he’d familiarised himself with the systems and controls in the workshop and done some engine handling on the test rig so we still had gaps there. Our pilot in chief, the equally dashing Ted Walsh, came to us steeped in fast hydroplane experience so we had no worries about him but because we’d never had everyone together at the same time both were now going to have to submit to Sally ’Diver’ Cartwright today for training in escape and extraction protocols in case of an accident so their morning was a full one. In addition to that, Sally, Rich, Jordan and John were running the safety boat and all of these disciplines had to be integrated into a well-oiled machine before we lit Bluebird’s engine on the water.

Our pilots…

Stew on the left, Ted to the right. We’d known Ted forever. He’d come up with us from a very early point in the project and had stayed across what modifications we could make in the cockpit to suit his somewhat larger-than-Donald frame. We’d designed a new seat and various guards to keep him out of the workings so he was part of the team and the machinery but Stew came much later via another new member of the team, Peter Roper-Hall, or ‘Paraffin’ Pete as he’d soon be known.

Before he retired from automotive, Pete had been involved in corporate stuff, which included working with the Reds and the BBMF and he was still well connected so we’d asked nicely and been invited to Scampton in the hope of borrowing their test pan for some full power tied-down tests of Bluebird’s engine. They generously offered us their test pan but unfortunately we ran out of weeks and to date we still haven’t conducted those tests – another job to tick off in the fullness of time.

It was a few days after our visit that the big boss of the Reds called to say that if we wanted a second pilot one of the team had put himself forward. Now this happened to be perfect timing because a concern raised at one of our planning meetings in the lead up to Bute was what’d happen if our pilot went unserviceable? We had spare everything but no spare pilot and Ted had once broken his leg doing something foolish with a parachute so we knew what he was capable of.

Everyone agreed that a Red Arrow must be made of the right stuff so we got him on the phone and he said, yes, he would very much like the job were the opportunity to arise so I said, OK, it’s yours. There then followed a lengthy, stunned pause during which I realised that this professional pilot at the very top of his game was likely expecting fresh orders on how to join the next phase of a lengthy selection process preceded by an in-depth medical and many psychometric tests and not to be simply told that the gig was his if he wanted it.

And so was born a most remarkable partnership – Ted the hydroplane ace and record breaker steeped in experience with an intuitive feel through the seat of his racing suit for fast boats and Stew, the methodical military man from a world of checklists and rigorous procedures. It caused some comedy moments.

But first they both belonged to Sally whose job it was to get either of them out of the water in the event that they ended up in there in the first place. Job one – get your pilot in full racing rig, strap him into the cockpit then work out how to get him back out again on the bottom of a lake. And this neatly introduces another reason why Fad was perfect for our training. It’s no more than a huge puddle. In a worst case we’d be attempting a rescue or a salvage in about 30ft of water and most likely a lot less. You can almost walk across Fad in a drysuit. Contrast that with Coniston that reaches a depth of over 160ft and is a different proposal involving on-board air, free ascent training and all manner of other things to consider. It was one less thing to plan for when we had an awful lot to plan for.

Stew’s hat is from when he flew as a Tucano display pilot and despite the fact that the visor adds a whole extra layer of cool that’s not actually what it’s for. It’s in case the canopy is compromised and that includes in your RAF jet. In this case Sally was briefing Stew on how she would approach the boat and slide open the canopy to help him out.

Ted went next.

His bright orange hat from his hydroplane racing days proved useful later when watching all the YouTube footage shot from here there and everywhere – we could see who was driving without having to look up the times and going back through our notes.

In the meantime, the safety team were out on the water limbering up in case they were ever needed.

John, on the left, has been diving since he was a boy and later that day became our crash test dummy for in-water rescues, floating about in his drysuit while the crew heaved and grunted to land him into the RiB like a large slippery fish. Sally, a long way out and still just over her knees in water and very overdressed with twin 12litre bottles is on her way to shift all of those bobbing marker pellets so we didn’t tangle ourselves in them and also to test her kit.

Also on the water that morning was our fast rescue boat skippered by Jordan, (seated) a qualified RYA instructor and leader of sea cadets, and Rich who is an experienced sailor, a keen novice diver and master of many a high-pressure situation in his daily life. The safety crews worked and trained all morning putting what they’d planned for into practice in the environment in which we hoped we’d all soon see Bluebird finally moving under her own power.

Meanwhile, the engineering team was so used to working on Bluebird it seemed odd not to be for once, she was as prepared as time had allowed and we were confident that all was going to work, for a while at least but it wasn’t long before the first problem bit us.

There is a commonly held misconception that jetfuel is some kind of malevolent, volatile horror that will combust in your face if you so much as call it nasty names when it’s really just ordinary domestic heating paraffin.

In fact, it’s exactly the same substance in the refinery until one batch is given an audit trail all the way to the aircraft via dedicated tankers and the other is given a DNA marker and a courlene dye to prevent fuel laundering before being sent on its way to warm up Mrs. Miggins’ isolated cottage in winter via anything that’ll transport it.

For this reason we’d asked whether it was available on-island in its basic form, we were told it was and when we got there a full bowser was waiting for us. It was yet another brilliant effort by the folk of Bute but there was a problem. The data sheet gave a different specific gravity to that which we expected and until that was explored, we dared not feed it to our precious engine.

It was a real shame because it came with its own pump on a trailer that we hitched to our AA van but unfortunately we just didn’t dare use it without checking so out went some frantic phone calls to our friends in every corner of aerospace from civil to military to marine gas turbine experts and the collective opinion reached was that basically the fuel in our bowser was a bit runnier than we needed so, in the absence of any electronic engine controls, all the various passageways and orifices would flow a little more fuel than they were designed to so inevitable, unpredictable engine performance would result. We have a stable of three fully operational Orpheus engines to keep K7 alive for a long time into the future. They are virtually irreplaceable. We just couldn’t risk it.

So this left us with only the fuel in Bluebird’s tank, which wasn’t an immediate problem because we had no intention of running on Saturday or Sunday except for some static testing and maybe a slow taxi but come Monday we’d be snookered if we wanted to push on and so ‘Paraffin’ Pete gained his nickname.

In a former life in the former Soviet Union, Peter and I did sneaky stuff for some of the vast companies that moved in to conquer this equally vast new territory, Peter bringing cars to supplant the Ladas and Zils while I designed technology to stop the local hooligans from nicking them. Later, back in the UK, we would meet up on corporate days and occasionally for dinner and Pete was always intent on bringing his clients to see Bluebird run come the day but he retired first and joined our team instead. When we got to Bute, Pete was asking how best his skills might best be utilised so the moment we discovered the fuel problem his brief became to locate and acquire a source of paraffin with a SG of between 0.775 and 0.84, the equivalent of Jet-A or, as Pete would point out exasperatedly when we called him ‘Paraffin’ Pete, it should actually be ‘PREMIUM Paraffin’ Pete. Thus instructed, he hit the phone and set about getting us some fuel.

‘PREMIUM Paraffin’ Pete – right.

Meanwhile, the divers and rescue crews were tired, wet and uncomfortable but happy with their work thus far and had come ashore for refreshments. Another vital bit of planning was feeding the troops. We’d agreed early in proceedings to set up on-site catering so to that end we’d erected a small tent alongside the main one and Jane Pittwood, Wife of our operations director, Malcolm, really looked after us with the unstinting help and loan of their kitchen of a family who lived by the loch. Between them they delivered an unending supply of hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, sweets biscuits and fruit and it wasn’t long before the locals were stopping by the Co-op on their way to ‘The Fad’ too and dropping in a bag of supplies for the simple reason that they are kind and thoughtful. We really appreciated that.

That’s our little tea tent on the left, later destroyed in a German bombing raid but that’s another hilarious tale for later.

Thus fed and watered we turned our attention to the meat and gravy of the day’s plans and that was to – gulp – actually see if K7 would float. She’d last been supported by water beneath her hull 51 years earlier, 34 of those spent lying as an abandoned and un-cared-for hulk in the dark on the bottom of a lake. Fifteen years of dedication by the BBP team had brought her back to a condition where she ought to float again and we wanted to find out if it was really true but it was almost the elephant in the room. Everyone chased about doing everything but. Yes, we had lots to do other than our flotation test but it was almost as though it wasn’t to be spoken of until the time came when there was nothing else to talk about.

There had always been an agreement that when the time came, ultimate authority for running the boat would be passed to our very capable head of operations ‘Sir’ Malcolm Pittwood. We asked Malcolm to join us a very long time ago but the timing was off because Richard Hammond had recently been badly injured in a jet car crash while on Malcolm’s watch and Malcolm wasn’t to be consoled with the fact that one of the key elements in Hammond’s miraculous recovery was the meticulous planning that had him delivered to the surgeons in record quick time.

Fast forward an age and it was Malcolm who successfully drove our bid to have the Coniston byelaw amended and now, cometh the hour, cometh the man and  it was time for the very first of our briefings in the boatshed. Gina had arrived by now too so we all trooped together for our first briefing.

‘Sir’ Malcolm Pittwood with Gina.

The briefs/debriefs followed a straightforward and simple format. Malcolm would gather the entire crew, each with their own specialty, field of expertise or discipline, call for silence and no profanity then ask each in turn if they had any issues. The best briefings were those where no one had anything to offer but they were few and far between. It was usually just small matters. Had someone put the fire extinguishers back in the support boats after the static engine tests or was the charging station for the radios plugged in before we went home. Sometimes it was bigger things, for example, when we had endless problems with even the tiniest breeze weathercocking K7 on startup and release so we devised a totally new release procedure to get around it but his time all we had to do was push the whole asemblage backwards into the water until the boat floated off the launching dolly. What could be simpler?

The only problem we really saw coming was the shallow angle of the launching ramp and that perhaps we’d reach the end of the matting before we had enough water to float off. Everything told us this wouldn’t be the case but we’d wondered all the same. Bit like, despite having been down there with a tape measure to check the ferry, we still worried that Bluebird wouldn’t fit through the loading ramp.

Another thing was whether the launch dolly would float and stick to the underside of the boat. We had very good reason to concern ourselves with this one because having spent literally years tracking down a set of wheels from the obscure Vickers Varsity transport aircraft and tyres for landing Gloster Meteors on grass so we could put an authentic set of wheels and tyres on our dolly, two of Donald’s originals turned up having been hidden in a shed for 50 years. His were originally from the beaching gear of a Saunders Roe SRA1 flying boat. Wheels attached later for getting it out of the water. They felt inordinately heavy, wouldn’t stay inflated and, mysteriously, wept water every time we blew them up, we finally stripped them only to find that the inner tubes were full of water!

Now we knew it couldn’t have got in there by accident so who had put it there and why? The conclusion we reached was that the one and only time K7 was launched from her road wheels rather than her railway wheels was at Dumbelyung, the dolly must have floated so someone had the bright idea of filling the inner tubes with water, we theorised. Having bottled a considerable quantity of 1964 vintage eau de Dumbelyung we repaired the tubes and put them back into service then made sure we had plenty of diving weights attached to the dolly – but was it enough?

In the event it was something else that caught us. One of our concerns was that the boat would run away with itself down the initially steep grade of the slipway so we attached our AA van to the dolly with a strop.

Another of our team, the ridiculously young and good looking Dave Cox borrowed this from work and put it to good use launching and recovering Bluebird.

We weren’t going to have a runaway but with the AA van taking the weight and the whole crew pushing and pulling we didn’t get very far down the slip before everything came to a juddering halt.

Ken Norris had got us this time.

When Ken designed the dolly back in 1954, or whenever it was, it was designed to be launched down rails and was thus fitted with a pair of axles with railway wheels but for loading and unloading on and off wagons it could be fitted with aircraft wheels and tyres as described earlier. This was all well and good but what Ken seems not to have considered was what would happen should they ever want to turn a corner to tuck the thing away in the corner of his Haywards Heath yard between records, for example.

To this end a dreadful lash-up of a turntable with virtually zero steering authority was clashed between the two aft jacking points so we replicated it in all its magnificent uselessness. The problem with it being an afterthought is that it raised the ground clearance at the back of the boat quite considerably and with our lack of water depth that was the last thing we needed so when we got to Fad we took it off and swapped the wheels to the originally designed axles that gave much less ground clearance but only let us go backwards or forwards. That didn’t seem an issue because that was all we wanted – except it didn’t work.

Our juddering halt was caused by the pivot pin for the turntable spearing into the slipway matting and stopping us dead.

Dave put the AA van into forwards and pulled us free. If you look at the matting under the back of the boat you can see the bent rail where the pin dug in.

Initially this didn’t seem like much of a setback because the pin is welded to a channel bar that spans under the dolly and because it was a later addition it soon bolted back off again – problem solved. Except it wasn’t.

We got a bit further next time but it soon became apparent that the uneven nature of the slipway meant that the next thing that would dig in was the rudder or stabilising fin and we really didn’t want that. So, what to do?

There was no option but to put the turntable back on to get the ground clearance we needed but then we might run out of matting before we got enough water depth and we really had no answer for that except maybe call the army and ask if they had a bit more.

Back on went the turntable.

(Notice how poorly the engine cover fits. That was to cause us a lot of water ingress problems)

Then we had another go.

Now we needed a couple of big, strong people on the steering because it had a tendency to hit a pothole and snatch itself around to full deflection one way or the other until the tyre hit the dolly causing yet another crashing halt but we pushed and pulled and cajoled until we were in a fair amount of water. This was looking good. She was still nailed to the doll but we knew we were close.200116b

And then suddenly she was afloat. It just happened. One second she was a big, heavy lump that we were pushing and pulling and swearing at and the next she was light as a feather supported by the warm water of Loch Fad. It was incredible. My personal experience of it was being at the back heaving on the steering with nothing but the circular, red jetpipe blank to stare at when the dolly suddenly stopped moving and the blank hit me in the face. Being stuck ankle deep in ooze didn’t help with my escape so a few floundering steps and a face full of bright red tinware marked the occasion for me but what a wonderful sight!

There was a great deal of emotion that afternoon…

Not a dry eye in the house.

Well, apart from these two who were probably thinking, uh-oh, we’re really in the s**t now! Stew is only grinning because he knows Ted has to go first…

Bluebird was afloat again after 51 years and so many years of toil with our band of brothers and sisters in the workshop, our loyal sponsors and all those in the planning and operations side of things. We’d marked a major milestone.

We had an impromptu little celebration and a few words in our boat shed as the One Show and Sky filmed away happily.

And then, after a bit of a rest and a quick brew, it was back to work because we couldn’t tell whether K7 was gradually flooding and with not a lot of disposable buoyancy it would be a little embarrassing had we finished our cuppa just in time to watch our efforts settle gently onto the lakebed leaving only her fin above water as a marker.

We’d always assumed that getting out of the water would be more difficult than getting in because the boat has to be very precisely positioned on the dolly but in the end it wasn’t as bad as we’d feared.

The vertical timbers at the front set that end up to perfection. Simply float the boat on until the front spar rests on them and the nose is central then, with a couple of people pushing from the back, use your AA van to pull the dolly until there’s a little bit of weight on and then, see the timber at the back? That’s slots in later, (can’t leave it in there because the spars have to pass over first and it wasn’t cut short enough to do that because it was Donald’s invention. He used to stand on the back and sort that from above during the recovery operation though how he got there is anyone’s guess. We plodged out and did it whilst standing chest deep in water instead and it was completely reliable from the off.

Once safely ashore we tucked her up warm and dry in the boat shed and gave her a good maintenance visit. We’d scratched the paintwork underneath on a piece of the dolly that was swiftly unbolted and sent in disgrace to the stores until needed next but, worryingly, we’d also shipped a lot of water and had to pump the bilges for quite a while once back on the slipway. We’d installed a new 1000gph pump just in case and it hosed water out at quite a rate when we hit the button. Because there was kerosene, engine oil and hydraulic fluid in the bilges too all the water that was pumped out was caught in plastic bins then left with a chunk of clever material from our spill kit bobbing on the surface. This amazing material would dissolve every last molecule of oil but not so much as a drop of water so out would gush murky, greasy bilge water that by morning it was crystal clear and good enough to drink and could be returned to the loch whilst the slightly greasy spill kit stuff went back in the bag to be used again.

But how had the water got in? Did we have a split in the hull that had opened up whilst on the road to Scotland or during launch? It was a worry but for the moment we had no answer to it so all we could do was pack up and go for a much-deserved beer. Tomorrow we’d light the engine and maybe ask Ted to give us a slow speed run. The excitement was really building now and sleep didn’t come easily…