Bluebird and the Vulcan

If you’re reading this expecting a story about a random feathered creature and some relative of Mr Spock, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. The Bluebird in question (for yes, it does unquestionably have a capital letter) is the one which crashed in 1967, killing Donald Campbell during his final attempt to break (his own) speed record on Lake Coniston.

Campbell was one of those old-fashioned men – charismatic, driven, massively patriotic – who’s held speed records on both land and water at the same time. Unlike other sons, he proved entirely unintimadated by his father’s achievements. Sir Malcolm Campbell, a British racing motorist and motoring journalist, also held the world speed records on both land and water during the 1920s and 1930s. Sir Malcolm’s vehicles were called Blue Bird and, whilst Donald kept the name, he added his own twist by making it just one word. Married thrice, with just one child – Gina, herself holder of a Women’s World Water Speed record – Donald Campbell and Bluebird are the stuff of legend. Especially so as, after the crash, neither Bluebird nor Campbell’s body were recovered, simply his crash helmet and his teddy – Mr Woppit. Campbell refused to drive unless Whoppit was with him and it was his wife Tonia’s task to hand the teddy to him on entering the cockpit.

Fast-forward to 1996 and a man named Bill Smith enters the picture. Diver and engineer, Smith was inspired to search for the wreck of Bluebird in Coniston after learning that Marillion’s song “Out of this World” had been written about Campbell and Bluebird. Another man of drive and determination, it was five years before Smith and his team were able to locate and recover Bluebird’s wreckage and Campbell’s body. The first substantitive piece of wreckage was raised in May 2001 and Campbell’s body was recovered four months later; something which would’ve been big news in normal circumstances, completely disappeared beneath the weight of the lives lost on that fateful day – September 11th, 2001.

I’m going to do no more than mention the conflicting views held over whether Campbell and Bluebird should have been allowed to remain in their 50-year old grave in the deep waters of  Lake Coniston but Smith, with the support of Gina Campbell, proceeded with the project. When I recently watched the documentary of that moment, I understood why Gina felt her father’s memory was in safe hands. Campbell’s body was recovered and placed into a coffin whilst still in the water. The coffin, draped in the Union Jack, was carried onto dry land by the team who recovered him. No public images exist of that private moment in the water, and those who bore his body behaved not only with enormous respect to Campbell himself, but with great sensitivity to Campbell’s remaining family and friends. Smith spent the next 15 years restoring Bluebird, for Gina was adamant that it would not be exhibited as a wreck. There was one notable exception – the flag in the header image – that’s how it looked when they recovered Bluebird in 2001.

The restored Bluebird is currently undergoing speed trials on a loch in Scotland. Quite the tale eh?

But what about that Vulcan? Well, whilst nothing to do with Mr Spock and Star Trek, it – too – is quite the tale.

There were rumours that a few hours after Campbell’s fatal crash on Lake Coniston, a Vulcan bomber flew overhead in a mark of respect – a rumour that was flatly denied by the RAF as it not being “one of ours”. But, who else’s could it have been? Unlike in 2015 when I joined thousands of fans racing around the country to see the final flight of a privately-owned Vulcan, they were the backbone of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent during most of the Cold War, so not just anyone had one.

vulcan red arrows

Then, earlier this month, the son of Vulcan pilot Don Dale, repeated his father’s account of that unauthorised tribute …

“We flew over Coniston and dipped our wings in tribute to a very brave man who had just lost his life … Poignantly, on recovery of Bluebird and of Donald Campbell, his internment ceremony was planned to have a flypast of 4 Tornados. Sadly; the weather was too bad for the flypast. Perhaps I was 25 years too early, but I had given him an appropriate salute.”

This account was told decades ago to an artist who later painted his impression of that tribute. The Vulcan Spirit To The Sky Trust are keen to track down a copy of that picture – and no wonder. Two British legends of yesteryear … together.

© Debra Carey, 2018

8 thoughts on “Bluebird and the Vulcan

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  1. A very moving post Debs: thank you. I well remember the day Campbell was killed in Bluebird and the sense of an immense loss. I am not sure, however, to say that Donald was entirely unintimidated by his father’s records. I seem to remember that there was a long article about him some years before the final crash which suggested that he was driven to overtake his father’s records in order to escape his shadow. Maybe, maybe not: what is evident is that he was a very brave man.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you Alan.

    Good point on the unintimadation! More correct to say that it didn’t hold him back from reaching his full potential, even spurred him on to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An excellent piece, very informative. I was searching for something Campbell /Bluebird for a friend’s birthday, he is ‘mad for it’, and came by this. By the way, the Union Jack is upside down!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Crikey, is it? How can you tell? It’s an image from google which I cropped down a bit. I’m trying to recall the original to establish if it had anything in it that would’ve indicated which way round it was meant to be. I hate to get details like that wrong.

    Anyway, thank you for the kind words, I hope you found something useful for your friend’s birthday.


  5. The top left-corner should the the broadest diagonal white stripe uppermost. Inverting or rotating this image won’t help – it will need to be ‘flipped’ or reversed.
    Is there any substantive proof that the Vulcan pilot’s testimony is true then, if the RAF has no record of the incident? Are we to accept that he omitted his improvised private tribute from the official flight-log of the day and kept it a secret from his bosses?
    Interestingly, British watch designer Marloe make a model called the Coniston as a tribute to the Lake, Donald Campbell, and his life and achievements. It bears a partial quote of his inscribed on the case. One version is in Bluebird colours, but another is the Vulcan edition, in RAF colours. One would presume therefore that Marloe Watches believe there to be a link between the bomber and the Coniston Water / Donald Campbell story. They must have drawn inspiration from the idea that a Vulcan somehow has involvement in the story.
    Why would the RAF deny such a thing?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for clarifying about the flag. I’ve decided not to make the change in this post’s image, as it makes a nonsense of those – rightly – correcting my mistake.

    To the best of my knowledge, there’s no substantive proof that this took place. It’s interesting that Marloe Watches believe there is a significant enough link to have produced a Vulcan edition though – thank you so much for sharing that with me. As to why the RAF would deny the story – off the top of my head, I imagine they wouldn’t want to give credence to the idea that any of their pilots (let alone one flying a Vulcan bomber) would make an amendment to the flight plan without prior authorisation.


  7. The last time I saw Donald Dale was at the Glasgow University Air Squadron reunion in 2010. That was about 50 years after we were all flying Chipmunks together at Scone. It was also the first time, as far as I remember, that I’d heard of the Coniston event.

    Donald made a minor deviation from the flightplan for the exercise and flew his Vulcan low over Coniston Water, as the story says. There were already many journalists on the scene to cover Campbell’s record attempt, and then his death. They swiftly contacted the RAF for a comment, only to be told “not one of ours”. But indeed who else’s could it be? On Donald’s return to base (I forget which one it was) he was immediately escorted from the flight line to a most unpleasant interview with A Very Senior Officer. He fought his corner valiantly, but was unable to escape opprobrium.

    I don’t think he ever got another flying posting, which would have been what he really wanted. He left the RAF a few years later, as a Squadron Leader I think, and went on to work as an airliner pilot, flying such pedestrian machines as the HS748 (though I think they weren’t all as pedestrian as that). Don’t know where he is now.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ron, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge of this fascinating story. It’s lovely to have it verified, even though not by the RAF themselves. What a terrible shame to hear that his career was limited by his wonderful act of memorial.


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