Jon Craig Arfons

Craig Arfons - On A Wing And A Prayer

by David Tremayne

Craig Arfons

I liked Craig Arfons. I only met him the once - when I stopped over in Sarasota between the Canadian and US Grands Prix in 1988 - but what I saw was an uncomplicated man, a racer, determined on just one thing: setting a new water speed record.

He had a shop in Bradenton, Florida, just up the road from the Great American Boat Yards operation owned by David Loebenberg, the mentor who had come to understand his dream and then to share it. David's money helped Craig immensely towards his goal, but he would have got there anyway; he was that kind of man. The strain that had taken father Walt Arfons to the Bonneville Salt Flats with the two Wingfoot Expresses and Uncle Art to three land speed records (and back twice to the flats even after his 600 mph accident in 1966), ran deep in him, too.

"You know, this could inspire a new explosion in water speed records," he said as we talked about his shiny white boat. "In five years I think 350 mph will be the record that used to be..."

If that might have sounded like an idle boast, it certainly wasn't meant to. Craig spoke quietly, without braggadocio. A poster on the wall said 'Life begins at 200 mph' and he had already been over that speed many times in dragsters. In Detroit in June 1981 he broke his neck when his innovative sidewinder machine didn't stop quite the way he'd hoped at the end of a quarter mile pass of 325 mph. A fortnight later, the crushed vertebrae wired together, he was testing a replacement.

When I saw it, his boat didn't really have a name - "We'll probably call it Green Monster in the family tradition" - he'd smiled. In the end, the windscreen wash people, Rain-X, who already had a motorsport history backing Mario Andretti in CART, came aboard. By the time of the ill-fated record attempt, it was officially known as the Rain-X Challenger. Craig had been impressed with the way Diva dragboats got up on the plane, "and the way they get over 225 in the quarter mile. I figured that'd be the way to go." The Challenger was based on a similar kit, albeit lengthened to 25 ft for increased stability. That left it two feet short of Ken Warby's record-holding Spirit of Australia in a game where length is safety, "but our boat actually has a longer wheelbase" (the distance between the front and rear planing points, because Challenger had short sponsons) "and that should make us handle better." In practice it didn't work out that way. Video film of both boats suggests that where Spirit was totally stable in pitch, Challenger very definitely wasn't.

The Challenger was the first record boat to use really hi-tech materials, eschewing traditionals such as wood or honeycomb aluminium in favour of carbon fibre. It was moulded in two halves, top and bottom, and once they had been bonded together the shell was filled with special density buoyancy foam. I was worried at the time that it appeared to have few internal bulkheads. It weighed in at a dramatic 1450 lbs, giving an all-up weight of a remarkable 2500 lbs when equipped with the General Electric/Westinghouse J85/CJ610 turbine that normally powers Learjets. The Rolls-Royce Orpheus in Donald Campbell's Bluebird weighed an impressive 980 lbs for a thrust of 5,000 lbs and a craft weight around 5,500; Craig's powerplant weighed only 365 lbs and put out 3300 lbs of thrust without reheat. With an afterburner, he spoke confidently of more than 4000. It made for a very favourable power to weight ratio.

The other thing that worried me about the boat was its aerodynamics. The conventional three-point hydroplane has proved itself wholly capable of speeds up to 340 mph - witness the peak of Warby's original needle-nosed Spirit of Australia - and there is no reason to suspect that the lobster-claw shape of Challenger would have put it at any particular disadvantage in comparison. But the whole key to Spirit was that massive rear wing, which damped out pitch as effectively as a mongoose can tackle a snake. Craig opted instead for a couple of inwardly-inclined vertical tail fins and left it at that, saying they generated a lift of around 800 lbs of lift at the transom. Challenger never went anywhere near a wind tunnel in its whole short life.

"I truly believe that a wind tunnel isn't necessary," said Craig. "It will only show the shape needed to lift its own weight. Instead, Jay MacCracken, a computer expert friend, has developed a system of 18 tapping points at strategic locations on the hull - 12 on the deck and six underneath - and they all plug into a computer on shore. Our plan is to work up to 100 mph, then hook up to the shore computer to feed in the data we obtain. Then we'll do the same at 150, 175, 200 and 250, each time getting the information to the computer.

"The computer reads all the data at intervals of one hundredth of a second and measures drag, lift and airspeed, and will tell us everything we need to know from 100 to 250. If the thing is going to fly, one of the points is going to warn us." Tragically, they did not.

Craig designed and built the boat himself, following the pattern established by Warby, with whom he had become friendly when he supplied the Australian with turbines for his American dragcar show. It was when he met up with Loebenberg that things really began to move. "I had a real interest in jets in boats after the Arwin project, where Craig and I worked together putting a pair of T58s into an offshore catamaran and ran the 1987 Mississippi River Race. At that time the water speed record was like Chinese to me. Then Craig showed me a video of Warby and we talked it over. Image is important to my company, and we came to issue a challenge to the Sydney Yacht Club." Craig inspired those around him and, infused with the dream, Loebenberg put up the $250,000 needed to get the project off the ground. "It's hard not to believe in Craig when you get to know him," he said. "The guy is unique. We hit it off and found we had lots in common." In the very short time I knew him, I sensed the same things. He was one of the good guys.

They took Challenger to Lake Manatee in Florida for its initial flotation tests, but the State Ordnance bureaucrats refused him the right to run it over the 20 mph speed limit. They transferred to nearby Lake Maggiore in July 1988. "We headed up there early on July 1 at 6am and afterwards they said that if we had asked for permission to run, we wouldn't have got it. But they also said they wouldn't prosecute us!

"She felt a bit squirrelly below 100 - until the back end came up - but after she was over 110 she felt real good. She really scooted on! I got up to 160 in a quarter mile and held her there for another quarter, and she felt so comfortable at 160 I knew I could have gone on to 200."

Shortly afterwards he persuaded the Sebring council to let him use 3.5 mile Lake Jackson, and on August 27 began the push towards 250 mph. There were some insurance problems, and then they had to run in a quartering wind and a four-inch chop which became a foot in the measured distance. "The boat was fantastic. I was elated with the way it performed in that situation. It took a battering, sure, but there wasn't even a hairline crack in the structure.

"I gained more respect for the water because of it and, believe me, you feel every bump!

"I accelerated at nine feet per second, which means Jackson is just long enough to break the record, but only just. So we'll fit the afterburner and test again in late November."

They did, successfully, and the attempt was dialled in for July 1989. The people of Jackson had taken Craig to their hearts and ignored, as so many did, smear suggestions that there had been something not quite kosher about the manner in which he had acquired his engines. "I want to break that record, and I want to do it at Jackson," he said. "The city council has been very supportive."

He'd made a lot of progress in a short time, having only begun design work in September 1987, and his prospects looked good.

But then came the fateful run, when Challenger began porpoising heavily before corkscrewing wildly out of control before crashing violently.

How fast was he going? Opinions varied, just as there had been confusions over whether the speeds quoted previously had been mile and kilometre averages or simply peaks. "He was doing around 420," said Loebenberg initially, "and he averaged 370 through the kilo before he shut off the afterburner. He covered the kilo in four seconds. The parachute failed simultaneously, and the engine torqued the boat on to its right sponson. It bounced twice, veered to the right and became airborne, and then helicoptered to the right. The reduction in speed was too much for it. It couldn't maintain its stability." Later he told me the American Power Boat Association had ratified his 375 mph pass speed.

As it hit the water Challenger broke into two, the cockpit and the tail. "That was just as intended," said Lobenberg. "The cockpit stayed intact. But the seat belts tore away and threw him through the windshield. We have a photo of his head and an arm, and both legs, sticking through it." Arfons suffered serious internal injuries. Paramedics resuscitated his heart as they sped him to the shore, and put him on life support as they raced to the Highland Medical Centre. He had two broken legs, a broken pelvis and massive internal bleeding. He was listed dead on arrival.

"It was truly a tragedy," said David. "A lot of people have done this, and died, but they were all intelligent. That boat was the best ever built, the best bit of equipment ever to do the job. Craig was a very intelligent man, very patriotic. He had the highest degree of integrity of any human being I have ever known. He was a very good friend. His son Chad has lost his best friend, as well as his father." The two had always been very close. Craig was 39, Chad 17.

In the tests before the final run Arfons had attained a maximum speed of 275 and then, on a run at the time kept secret, 294.6 mph. The team had been accelerating it hard then, to monitor its behaviour. On July 8 he had 'matched' Warby's record with a peak of 320, although he still had a way to go officially to match Warby's 317 record, on which the Australian had peaked at 345. Comparing peaks and averages has always been a folly of record breaking.

I called the APBA on July 25, and then spoke to timer Gene Whipp's assistant Corky Black. "Craig made a couple of test runs Saturday," he said, "with the fastest run timed over the kilo at an average of 220 mph. Late in the evening the boat hopped and he popped the parachute. As far as I was aware he wasn't using the planned automatic deployment device, but popped it himself and the boat came back down okay. We estimated a 300 mph peak at that time.

"Gene has been around fast boats a long time and felt there was a flaw in the boat that made it hop. Something in the aerodynamics. It had never been in a tunnel." Warby had suggested strongly that Arfons should have it checked out in Lockheed's Marietta facility, but Craig had refused.

"Gene told Craig he thought there was a flaw, but Craig said he felt it was the water conditions. He was a great guy; we got to know him and the family well in the previous week, and he was aware of what he was doing. He knew what he was into. It was his decision and he was the only one in control of his own fate. The boat had never been at those speeds, though, and there was nobody could tell what it might do. It was a hundred per cent professional effort, but when you're dealing with the unknown you have no idea what might happen at those speeds.

"The boat never made it through the kilo that Sunday. Weather and water conditions were perfect, but the boat blew over before the end of the kilo. It hopped again like it did before, then went back down and tripped on the transom just enough for the left sponson to dip in. Then it broke up. We estimated its speed at that time as around 340 to 350 mph, but the 370 and 420 figures are just exaggeration."

Craig knew the dangers of the undertaking, and was always careful. "We want to work up to the record gradually," he promised. "We want to build up even more data before we go for it, so we know more about high-speed boat behaviour than anyone else. That knowledge is going to be pretty valuable." This wasn't just an egotistical endeavour; he and Loebenberg wanted to develop the commercial benefits of their unique data.

Craig Arfons was only 39 when Fate reached out for him, and the water speed record was to be but the beginning of the record trail. "In my head I have the design for a Sound Barrier car," he said that time in Sarasota. "Matter of fact, I'd have preferred to have done the car record first, but for that now you really need to go supersonic. The water record will give us credibility and is much less costly."

The Arfons family way had always been to make the product, set the record, and then look for the money. Craig figured a new water record would be the ideal way of soliciting the massive support a land attempt needed. The Arfons way had also always been to accept the risks and to push forward without letting fear get in the way. Craig was upholding that tradition to the full when the Rain-X Challenger flipped that day on Lake Jackson and snatched him from the life he loved so dearly.