Will that old Vulcan's engines run? Bluebird jet boat team turn to Cold War bomber

Static display jet last ran in 1983

Feature What do you do when your jet-powered speedboat restoration project grinds to a halt because of bureaucracy? Obviously, you find yourself a convenient Vulcan bomber and start restoring the engines to running condition, as the Bluebird Project is currently doing.

The Bluebird Project came together to restore the 1960s British jet-powered speedboat turbojet hydroplane Bluebird to running condition. Donald Campbell, Bluebird's owner and pilot, was killed in January 1967 when the boat disintegrated during a high-speed run across Coniston Water in the Lake District in northwest England.

Bluebird sank but the project recovered her and rebuilt the vessel to immaculate running condition, successfully testing her last year – though the boat is currently trapped in a bureaucratic wrangle over whether it should be shut away in a museum or run regularly for the public to see and enjoy.

What does all this have to do with Vulcan engines? Bill Smith, the engineer who part-owns Bluebird, told The Register: "Bluebird's air starter was one of only two ever made, for a Hunting blown-flap aircraft. In March 1966 a certain Mr Campbell borrowed the other and didn't give it back."

Some parts for that air starter unit were common with the Avro Vulcan, the Cold War nuclear bomber nicknamed the Tin Triangle.

While scavenging parts from preserved Vulcan XL319, to restore Bluebird's air starter to running condition, Smith said his team got the Vulcan's engine bay access doors open "and wondered, hmm, will that start? Come on then, let's have a look."

Ten years after wondering that, they're now at the stage of "picking the best engine" and putting the theory to the test while Bluebird's future as a living, breathing machine hangs in the balance.

"There's a lot of talent in that workshop," said Smith, describing how the Start A Vulcan project was something that largely came about because the Bluebird team wanted to keep themselves occupied. Hence XL319's No.4 engine, a twin-spool Bristol Olympus, is now receiving enough care and attention to be started for the first time since the retired old bomber landed for the last time at what was then Sunderland Airport in the 1980s.

Unlike modern gas turbine aero-engines, which are fearsome beasts full of electrically actuated valves, regulators and digital control gubbins, Olympuses "are all hydromechanical", in Smith's words: "It's all pistons and diaphragms, pouring paraffin into a big flaming tube."

Although No.4 Olympus was seized when they started work, by accessing the void for the hydraulic pump (which wasn't fitted) the team were able to make a silicone mould of the driveshaft spline, machining up a spanner with which to turn the turbines over and break them free of decades of crud.

Rather than needing a laptop and a compsci degree to diagnose and repair, working on the big Olympus means getting greasy – and occasionally "a nice shower of oil" as aged pipes and tanks inside the Vulcan's wings reveal their contents to unfortunates beneath them.

"A modern [jet] engine is like a Formula 1 car with all the computers to manage it," Smith explained, "while a Vulcan bomber is a 1972 Ford Cortina in gas turbine terms." It's bringing the old engine back to life that gives him the most joy about the current project, as he quips that XL319 "from my point of view is a big bit of steel someone's hung my Olympus from... I get an engine to play with!"

There's a (reasonably) serious point to getting the Vulcan engine running again. Aside from being a simply excellent thing to do in its own right, Smith pointed out: "If we don't inspire the next generation, it's just fat balding middle-aged men tinkering."

And what could be more inspiring than a jet engine brought back to running condition? ®

Similar topics

Broader topics

Other stories you might like

  • Twitter founder Dorsey beats hasty retweet from the board
    As shareholders sue the social network amid Elon Musk's takeover scramble

    Twitter has officially entered the post-Dorsey age: its founder and two-time CEO's board term expired Wednesday, marking the first time the social media company hasn't had him around in some capacity.

    Jack Dorsey announced his resignation as Twitter chief exec in November 2021, and passed the baton to Parag Agrawal while remaining on the board. Now that board term has ended, and Dorsey has stepped down as expected. Agrawal has taken Dorsey's board seat; Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor has assumed the role of Twitter's board chair. 

    In his resignation announcement, Dorsey – who co-founded and is CEO of Block (formerly Square) – said having founders leading the companies they created can be severely limiting for an organization and can serve as a single point of failure. "I believe it's critical a company can stand on its own, free of its founder's influence or direction," Dorsey said. He didn't respond to a request for further comment today. 

    Continue reading
  • Snowflake stock drops as some top customers cut usage
    You might say its valuation is melting away

    IPO darling Snowflake's share price took a beating in an already bearish market for tech stocks after filing weaker than expected financial guidance amid a slowdown in orders from some of its largest customers.

    For its first quarter of fiscal 2023, ended April 30, Snowflake's revenue grew 85 percent year-on-year to $422.4 million. The company made an operating loss of $188.8 million, albeit down from $205.6 million a year ago.

    Although surpassing revenue expectations, the cloud-based data warehousing business saw its valuation tumble 16 percent in extended trading on Wednesday. Its stock price dived from $133 apiece to $117 in after-hours trading, and today is cruising back at $127. That stumble arrived amid a general tech stock sell-off some observers said was overdue.

    Continue reading
  • Amazon investors nuke proposed ethics overhaul and say yes to $212m CEO pay
    Workplace safety, labor organizing, sustainability and, um, wage 'fairness' all struck down in vote

    Amazon CEO Andy Jassy's first shareholder meeting was a rousing success for Amazon leadership and Jassy's bank account. But for activist investors intent on making Amazon more open and transparent, it was nothing short of a disaster.

    While actual voting results haven't been released yet, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky told Reuters that stock owners voted down fifteen shareholder resolutions addressing topics including workplace safety, labor organizing, sustainability, and pay fairness. Amazon's board recommended voting no on all of the proposals.

    Jassy and the board scored additional victories in the form of shareholder approval for board appointments, executive compensation and a 20-for-1 stock split. Jassy's executive compensation package, which is tied to Amazon stock price and mostly delivered as stock awards over a multi-year period, was $212 million in 2021. 

    Continue reading
  • Confirmed: Broadcom, VMware agree to $61b merger
    Unless anyone out there can make a better offer. Oh, Elon?

    Broadcom has confirmed it intends to acquire VMware in a deal that looks set to be worth $61 billion, if it goes ahead: the agreement provides for a “go-shop” provision under which the virtualization giant may solicit alternative offers.

    Rumors of the proposed merger emerged earlier this week, amid much speculation, but neither of the companies was prepared to comment on the deal before today, when it was disclosed that the boards of directors of both organizations have unanimously approved the agreement.

    Michael Dell and Silver Lake investors, which own just over half of the outstanding shares in VMware between both, have apparently signed support agreements to vote in favor of the transaction, so long as the VMware board continues to recommend the proposed transaction with chip designer Broadcom.

    Continue reading
  • Perl Steering Council lays out a backwards compatible future for Perl 7
    Sensibly written code only, please. Plus: what all those 'heated discussions' were about

    The much-anticipated Perl 7 continues to twinkle in the distance although the final release of 5.36.0 is "just around the corner", according to the Perl Steering Council.

    Well into its fourth decade, the fortunes of Perl have ebbed and flowed over the years. Things came to a head last year, with the departure of former "pumpking" Sawyer X, following what he described as community "hostility."

    Part of the issue stemmed from the planned version 7 release, a key element of which, according to a post by the steering council "was to significantly reduce the boilerplate needed at the top of your code, by enabling a lot of widely used modules / pragmas."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022