January 4, 1967 – A fatal speed record attempt

On the morning of January 4, 1967, Donald Malcolm Campbell was racing across the top of Coniston Water in the Lake District, England, in an attempt to break the water-speed record in his craft, Bluebird K7. After a successful, if yet bumpy, first run, Campbell decided to skip refueling and turned the boat around to immediately tackle the necessary second run that would solidify a new record. About 230 kilometers from the end of the measured kilometer, Bluebird flew into the air and almost completed a somersault before slamming into the water and breaking apart. Recovery crews were unable to locate Campbell at the time. 

Campbell with Bluebird K7. By Paul Allonby

Campbell was a speed veteran. He was the first, and to date, is the only person to ever break the land speed and water speed records in the same year. The first record came on July 17, 1964 at a course near Lake Eyre, Australia when he raced his land speed car, also named Bluebird to an average speed of 403.10 mph. Then, on the last day of the year, at Lake Dumbleyung, near Perth, Western Australia, he set the water speed record at 276.33 mph. 

Bluebird k7 in 1960. By Sheppane at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2000, a diver named Bill Smith was inspired to search for the wreck that took Campbell’s life after hearing the song “Out of this World” by Marillion, which was written about Campbell and Bluebird. He would successfully locate the wreck, and Campbell’s body, allowing for a proper funeral that was attended by his widow and children.

Locating the body perhaps brought some truth to one of the most sinister tales of the wreck, which actually begins the day before it happened. While playing cards the night before his death, Campbell drew the ace and queen of spades. He noted to his mechanics, who he was playing with, that these were the cards drawn by Mary, Queen of Scots, the night before she was beheaded. He mentioned that he was afraid he was going to “get the chop.” While it was not possible to determine his cause of death from his deteriorated remains, one consultant on the wreck provided evidence that the force of the impact could have caused him to be decapitated.