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article number 251
article date 07-11-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Dangerous! Les Staudacher Designs and Pilots His Water Speed Record Entre, 1961
by Jim Moynihan

From October 1961 American Modeler, Original title: The Astonishing Mr. Staudacher … From Church Pews to Jet Hydroplanes.

• In September 1952, at Loch Ness in Scotland, the morning mists swirled and lifted to reveal a mirror-smooth lake surface. A sleek, low silhouette speed boat crouched on the water then whined away from the shore. Accelerating rapidly down the official mile course, the ‘Crusader’ began its timed run.

John Cobb made the first pass through the traps at 206.89 mph. Slowly he worked the boat around to go through in the opposite direction for the mandatory second trip to claim a world record clearly within his grasp. A few ripples marred the surface as he began his second run, once again the roar of exhaust gases echoed around the hills as he pushed the British jet wide open.

Suddenly, a fountain of spray erupted then slowly subsided. John Cobb and his Crusader were gone.

A second English record seeker, in July 1955, guided a jet powered boat into the measured mile on Lake Ullswater in England. This time the blue challenger was successful and Donald Campbell and his ‘Bluebird’ racked up a new mark of 202.32 mph. Every year he ran until 1960 when he quit.

Don Campbell in his Bluebird K7 at Lake Ullswater in1955. The front floats are called ‘sponsons’.

The existing record that he established in 1959 on Lake Coniston is 260.35 mph. In the process he made one run of 286 mph-plus.

One who followed the progress of Donald Campbell intently was sure he could go much faster. His name, Lester Staudacher, the boat he built to do the job, the ‘Tempo Alcoa.’ Although a quirk of fate kept the record from him, he did become the second man to exceed 200 mph on the water and live. To understand the boat, it will help to know something of Les.

Born and reared in Kawkawlin, Michigan, a small town outside of Bay City, the 49-year-old challenger operates a thriving wood working company there. His main product is church pews, his most unusual is racing hydroplanes. When the Staudacher shop opened up in the thirties, Les made a bit of everything. During World War II, he produced parts for destroyer escorts built at neighboring Bay City.

After the war, he became a leading supplier of church pews. Having a love of boats, he built several large pleasure cruisers designed by John Hacker of Detroit. The Hacker-designed ‘My Sweetie’ was Les’ first Unlimited Class (anything goes; water prop) racing hydroplane. With John Hacker and later Ted Jones, he built many Gold Cup contenders including ‘Miss Pepsi’, ‘Shanty’, ‘Maverick’, ‘Hawaii Kai’, the ‘Gales’ and the ‘Such Crusts’ of Detroit, and ‘Tempo 7’ for Guy Lombardo.

Les Staudacher and Guy Lombardo (in cockpit of Tempo Alcoa).

Over 35 Unlimiteds have been born in the Kawkawlin shop. The 1958 running of the Gold Cup saw the first five places taken by Staudacher boats! In a sport replete with unusual people and fast living, Les stands for normalcy. He is a devoted family man; with his wife and three children, he takes an active part in civic and church activities.

Three years ago Les built America’s first jet boat, actually a floating test bed to gain experience in operating a jet on the water. Not exceptionally fast, it served its purpose well and was retired. Then in 1959, Les, Guy Lombardo and the Alcoa Aluminum Company decided on Tempo Alcoa. The new speed challenger, built in 2½ months, was the J-13 launched in August 1959.

The name combined co-owner Guy Lombardo’s old Tempo with that of the Alcoa concern which provided the materials to specification as well as lending design assistance. The “J” designates the boat as a jet and Guy contributed his old racing number, 13. The basic J-13 design is evidence of Les’ conviction that a “standard” Unlimited hydro could do the job with sufficient power. The “lobster claw” appearance results from deleting the forward deck to forestall high speed lift.

To a certain extent, lift is desirable in a racing hydro since it helps get the hull up “on plane” and relieves sponson loads, thus greatly reducing immense drag from wetted surfaces. But too much lift can cause Unlimiteds to soar out of the water into 100’ high inside loops.

Fortunate indeed is the driver who survives this kinds of a ride. Two of hydro racing’s great drivers, Lou Fageol and Joe Taggart, were severely injured this way and Italy’s Selva was killed.

Not good! Don Campbell starts to flip in 1967. It was fatal.

Optimum set-up is to operate a boat “light” for maximum speed without taking off. This has been developed to such a fine degree that we have seen Unlimiteds run a backstretch mile in a race with sponons about a foot off the water, the hull at an angle of attack to the air of about three degrees, and only the prop in the water.

This would be too close to disaster in a jet hull speed range, hence the entire Tempo Alcoa, forward deck was eliminated. Total hull design lift at 300 mph was 1,800 pounds, with the center of pressure just forward of the CG. The lateral stability of the three point hydro was retained by normal sponson placement and the addition of an aft planing surface to replace the riding point provided by the prop on a conventional hull.

Directional stability presents no problem except at low speeds and when coming up on plane. Two skid fins were fitted and an air fin added to the cowl—although initial test runs were made without cowling and air fin. A standard racing type water rudder did a fine job. Torque is no sweat with a jet. The high placement of the thrust line which was unavoidable caused some difficulties in getting up on plane.

Guy was advised by a Navy Blue Angel pilot to install an ejection seat, so Lea consulted with North American Aviation at Columbus, Ohio. The idea was dropped as Les felt that weight and uncertainty on the water of such a “loaded weapon” was not worth it. He also figured there wouldn’t be time to react and eject if something did go wrong.

North American’s Dr. Robert Laidlaw, their Chief Aerodynamicist, who wind tunnel-tested the scale model hull, reported it to be completely stable. Les was right so far. . . .

3-view of the Tempo Alcoa.
2244x1656 size available. to open in new window.

Front view.

Aluminum, used in greatly increasing quantities for standard hydros, was chosen as the sole construction material for Tempo Alcoa to provide highest possible ratio of strength to weight with a non-exotic metal. Frames were plate and 3” channel, side and bottom stringers were 3/4 “ channel. Sponson structure was built up of angle and channel stock, bottom skin was tapered rolled sheet, 1/10” thick at the bows and 3/16” thick at the trailing edge.

Hull bottom skin, .125” thick sheet and over 35’ long, formed a one-piece bottom and wrapped around the bow to the slant seam near the cockpit (see drawing). A fairing strip then covered the cut required to wrap the sheet around the bow. Fuel tanks of spun aluminum held 165 gallons of kerosene. Also “spun” was the cowling, cowl nose ring and accessories engine nose cover.

Engine placement was pretty much dictated by the fact that it was a turbojet using exhaust gas for thrust. The powerplant had to be an available surplus unit, of these the Allison J-35 was selected. This engine had been used by the Air Force in its Republic F-84 Thunderjet fighter. It is an axial flow gas turbine with eleven stages of air compression and a single stage hot gas turbine wheel, all on a common shaft supported by four main bearings.

Cutaway view of a typical axial flow turbojet. This one has only seven compressor stages visible to the left and has 2 turbine blade wheels on the right. While the text implies that turbojets use exhaust gas for thrust, in reality turbojets produce their thrust at the front compressor blades.

At 100% power at sea level it produces 5,600 pounds of static thrust at 7,700 rotor rpm. Bear in mind that the entire boat with engine only weighed 5,800 pounds! A standard aircraft 24 volt electrical system with a heavy duty aircraft battery in the bow, runs the fuel boost pump and other accessories.

Starting is via an external power supply carried in another boat and plugged into a connector in J-13’s starboard side. This is manually disconnected when the turbine lights-off. This set-up is necessary since the engine starter which draws 1,200 amperes from a 24-volt source at zero speed only drops to 600 amperes at light-off rpm. Although the engine could be fully cowled as drawn, it wasn’t run with the cowl simply because it was too awkward to remove for engine servicing during tests.

In August 1959, the big turbine wound up for the first time on the waters of Saginaw Bay near Kawkawlin. The hull drew smoothly away from the tender and Lea began his first runs. Originally, the bow plane seen on the plans between the sponsons did not exist. It was added after these initial trials to help get the hull up on plane and to reduce spray at the engine intake.

The high engine thrust line created an odd situation in the water. As the boat began to move with the hull well down, that high thrust line tended to make it plow along. As speed increased so did water drag and absolute full power was required to continue the rate of acceleration.

Finally a speed was attained where the sponson angle of attack forced the bow up and, finally, all the way up on-plane. This occurred at about 90 mph. When completely on-plane the water drag fell off instantly to a very low value.

Tempo Alcoa J-13.

With the slow response of a jet to its throttle changes, the boat began to accelerate at a fantastic rate before it could be held in check by reduced power. From popping out of the water at about 90, to over 200 mph took but 5 or 6 seconds! In addition, both sponsons did not “pop” at precisely the same moment so healthy reflexes were required to combat any veering before the turn got bad enough to spin out the boat.

Once on top it was a smooth, if hard, ride. Accelerometers measured 10-G’s-plus vertically during 200 mph or more rides across a lightly rippled surface. Early fast runs exceeded the 225 mph mark . . . thus, Les was over the first hurdle simply by going that fast and living to tell of it.

Shakedown runs completed, the boat was ready for a crack at the world title. Bill Stead of ‘Maverick’ fame suggested Pyramid Lake near Reno, Nevada, as an inland fresh water lake with enough room, shielded from winds by mountains on all sides. The Reno Regatta was going to be run there so the official mile and necessary checkers would be on hand.

So the Tempo team went west. At Pyramid, the test runs to check everything out after the trip began. On November 22, while Les was coming down from over 200 mph, his foot bounced a bit on the throttle. This sent a gob of raw fuel to the turbine which immediately threw its buckets and tail cone right out the tail pipe . . . finis to that engine. No harm came to hull or driver.

Another jet was installed and runs resumed the next afternoon. One dash topped 260 and the group was ready for a try at the mile. They knew she could go more than fast enough. Guiding the craft in to refuel before assaulting the mile, Les spotted a photographer on shore. Having made photo arrangements beforehand, he turned for a fast pass down the shore line.


Staudacher was headed toward a low promontory of land when he backed off to come in. This was standard procedure, but a light puff of breeze ruffled the surface ahead of him and the boat just would not slow down in the “fast water.” Les tried turning but only induced a skid.

He hit the shore head-on doing about 150 mph. The boat literally took off over a 12 foot embankment, sailed through the air for 130 feet and landed in normal position to slide 70 feet across a sand bar! Miraculously, Les suffered only minor bruises, but the boat needed repairs. Its right sponson was damaged badly and other hull damage was incurred. That ended the record attempt for 1959 but the gang knew they had the world’s fastest boat . . . if only unofficially!

The writer inspected the boat at Les’ shop in May 1960; it looked brand new again after the repairs. Les had wanted to make the first 300 mph runs without a driver aboard, the boat remotely operated by radio control. We had suggested Bramco as competent and closeby. The hull was ready to go via radio guidance in June. First check runs were to be on Saginaw Bay.

R/C readers of this magazine have already read the details of this episode in past issues. The boat ran well and upon Les’ command to open her up, power was increased until she was doing about 180. Suddenly, that fatal fountain of spray erupted and ‘Tempo Alcoa’ emulated the English ‘Crusader!’

A post mortem on the recovered remains showed that the right sponson had come off. Metal angles to which the sponsons were bolted had failed. These, inspected closely after the Pyramid accident, had appeared sound. Later analysis by advanced lab techniques indicated basic structure failure not visible to the eye.

The engine, thrown from the boat, was never found; the hull was scrapped. Les had driven the boat a few days prior to its radio runs; he was fortunate nothing let go when he was aboard.

Details of installations in the Tempo Alcoa.
2068x576 size available. to open in new window.

Basically, the boat was a sure-fire winner. A new hull draws nearer to its first trials on Saginaw Bay. The latest jet racer is quite different and incorporates the costly lessons learned with ‘Tempo Alcoa’. ‘Tempo’ was an exceptional boat, probing into a speed range about which very little was known.

If all goes well, 1961 will bring a new record on water to the United States. If the record is broken, our prediction is that it will be over 275 mph. The boat, financed by Robert B. Evans, is the ‘Miss Stars and Stripes’; the designer, builder and driver will be a quiet competent church pew builder named Staudacher.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Les Staudacher crashed in another attempt then gave up the quest although he still designed very successful racing boats. In 1964 Donald Campbell’s ‘Bluebird K7’ hit 276 MPH. Donald Campbell later died trying to better this record. In 1978 and Ausie, Ken Warby reached 317 MPH.

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