Obituary: land speed record holder Charles Burnett III

British-born inventor and steam car record holder Charles Burnett III has been killed in a helicopter crash, aged 61. We look back on his achievements

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When a passion for speed combined with the knowledge that the Steam Land Speed Record had lain unbroken for over 100 years, British-born inventor Charles Burnett III could see nothing other to do than take up the challenge of smashing the record with a notable level of enthusiasm.

In addition to acting as an investor and businessman in Houston, Charles Burnett III possessed an eager appetite for speed. With various catamarans and mono-hulls he acquired a series of World Speed Records in both petrol and diesel classifications and was a Class II Offshore Powerboat Champion between 1993 and 1996.

Burnett’s enthusiasm for water speed led to him forming the highly successful UK offshore racing boat team ‘Vulture Ventures’ and in 1999 Burnett was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records with an Offshore Water Speed Record of 137mph. Many in the water speed community will likely recall Burnett’s efforts to get a steam powered Mercury outboard on a 2-litre catamaran – as well as his ever-colourful personality.

Burnett’s inherent interest in steam-power progressed further still when Lord Montagu introduced him to a student steam car project at Southampton University. Investing in the best engineers, Burnett supported what had simply been plans on paper to the creation of an impressive 3-ton, steam-propelled car called Inspiration that is 7.6m long and 1.7m wide.

Powered by a two-stage turbine that takes steam heated to 400 degrees C from 12 boilers via a tube network almost two miles in length, Inspiration is capable of developing 288kW, which is equivalent to 360hp. Inspiration’s bodywork is constructed from lightweight carbonfibre composite mixed with aluminium, all of which is wrapped around a steel space frame chassis.

The British Steam Car team travelled to Edwards air base in the Mojave Desert, California with the hope of exceeding the long-standing Steam Land Speed Record of 127.659mph. This had remained unbeaten since being set in early 1906 by American Fred Marriott in his Stanley Land Speed Record Car at the Daytona Beach Road Course.

The team had a number of tribulations to initially contend with but then Inspiration achieved success on 25 August 2009 when Charles Burnett III broke the existing Steam Land Speed Record with an average speed of 139.843mph over two consecutive runs over a measured mile.

Burnett reached a peak of 151.085mph on the return run and was thrilled with the result, stating: 'It was absolutely fantastic. I enjoyed every moment of it. The car really did handle beautifully. It is a privilege to be involved with such a talented crew, what we have achieved today is a true testament to British engineering, good teamwork and perseverance.'

The next day, on 26 August 2009, Inspiration had yet further success in the hands of team test driver Don Wales, grandson of speed legend Sir Malcolm Campbell, who successfully secured an average speed of 148.308mph over two consecutive runs over a measured kilometre.

The combined efforts of Charles Burnett III and Don Wales resulted in the British Steam Car team being presented with The Royal Automobile Club’s Simms Medal, awarded to those making a genuine contribution to motoring innovation by individuals or small companies that also exemplify the spirit of adventure.

Last week’s helicopter crash occurred in New Mexico and killed Burnett as well as Zimbabwean politician Roy Bennett, Mr Bennett’s wife Heather and co-pilots Jamie Coleman Dodd and Paul Cobb. Burnett’s long-term partner Andra survived the crash with serious injuries.

Speaking On Burnett, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu said: 'Charles helped a number of local charities including the National Motor Museum Trust. He will be remembered for his great generosity to charities and individuals, mischievous sense of fun, wonderful parties and love of fast vehicles.

'The sadness is that he was working on a number of exciting plans for the future including another steam car. While his death was premature, he went in the way that he might well have chosen, at speed.'

Images courtesy of Don Wales and

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