Like a Film script...

The Hanning-Lee WHITE HAWK Hydrofoil

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Some while later Frank, minus lawyer, contacted Johnson and suggested they might actually make a new deal but by then it was really too late. The Hydrofoil project was being wound down, sea planes were no longer considered a good long term bet and even when Frank said he'd consider any reasonable offer, the answer was still negative. The boat was being stored at a service station in Silver Spring but even that was costing more than the Hanning-Lees could afford so it went back to Stella's mother's in Boston. POPULAR MECHANICS ran a feature in August 1953 in which it was said to have run 125 mph in England. This is almost certainly not true. Kevin Desmond quotes no more than 70 mph was recorded and here we come to the crux of the matter. Ken Norris says that later experiments with foils showed that above a certain speed (70-80 mph) the foil "cavitates". In effect it builds up a low pressure area over the top surface of the foil and at a given speed this causes the water to break away from the surface of the foil, much as an aircraft wing would do in a stall situation. This ruins the lift, two thirds of it would suddenly vanish and cause the whole thing to fall back down into the water abruptly. The foil is designed to run in the water, unlike a hydroplane and it simply cannot do it's job with the stall-effect that eventually builds up. Ken says that this was not appreciated at the time as nothing with foils had gone anything like as fast as WHITE HAWK!

This would explain the porpoising effect that the craft exhibited on Windermere and may also explain the abrupt end to the Navy trial run. Yes, Frank is said to have bottled-out but what may have happened is that the boat reached the cavitation point, fell back into the water and, mindful that any flaw might ruin a potentially lucrative agreement, Frank took the blame rather than admit there was a problem with the design.

It's possible he did lose his nerve but for a man who had seen so much action in the war, already experienced one near disaster and still gone ahead with other runs as if nothing had happened, this seems out of character. Further to that we only have the late Bob Johnson's story of the Navy tests to work from (published on an Internet site) and it's clear that he wrote the story from memory, some of which is bound to be rather hazy with the passing of almost 50 years - he states for example that the boat had been built by the British aircraft industry, that it had never been run and that it was a single-seater, all of which are inaccurate. The author is fairly satisfied that Frank Hanning-Lee didn't lose his nerve in the Navy run but that the boat suffered the cavitation that Ken Norris has described.

The Hanning-Lees did venture out to Nevada and stayed at the Sahara Hotel on Las Vegas while trying to arrange a run on Lake Mead but nothing came of this and they returned to Boston and worked hard to save enough money for a return to Britain. Frank finally made it back to Southampton by sea, with the boat as cargo in 1954 but on arriving was hit by the final twist of fate - he hadn't the funds to get the WHITE HAWK through customs! Quite what charge was levied is not known but one surmises that the craft had been out of the country long enough to be classed as an import and the tariff was simply more than the Hanning-Lees could afford. The customs and excise impounded the boat and that is the last anyone knows of it. Inquiries at the Customs House in Orchard Place Southampton brought a swift and polite response that records relating to this period in time have long-since been destroyed and that sadly there is no chance of the boat lying undiscovered in the corner of a warehouse as the entire docks had been rebuilt since the 50's. If the craft had been discovered during the rebuilding (assuming it had not already been disposed of) it would have been sold for scrap!

Stella and Vaughan arrived by air some weeks later and picked up the pieces after their transatlantic adventure. Frank went ahead with his flying boat idea and contacted Tom Fink at Imperial once again, but the plane never got off the drawing board. The experience gained in fibreglass work stood Frank and Stella in good stead in their later business ventures. Frank outlived his wife and died in late 1998. Vaughan went on to study aeronautical engineering at Queen Mary's while younger brother Mark works in California as a computer software writer for industry. Ken Norris of course went on to design both Bluebird K7 and CN7 with his brother Lewis achieving the rare (unique?) feat of penning both water and land speed record holders. Later he was team manager for Thrust 2 and consulted on the supersonic Thrust SSC. His current project is QUICKSILVER, the jet boat in which Nigel MacKnight plans to challenge Ken Warby's water speed record. A remarkable man.

Perhaps the sad thing about all this, is that WHITE HAWK was simply never going to break the record in it's foil-riding form, the laws of physics were simply not going to let it. But what a story! One wonders if someone in Hollywood looking for a film scenario might like to try this one for size? It has it all, a dashing war hero, a glamorous strong-willed heroine, secret technology, spies, intrigue, action, dramatic accidents and a cruel twist in the tail!

ęSimon Lewis /2005


The Author would like to offer his thanks to...

Vaughan and Mark Hanning-Lee for information on their remarkable parents, Ken Norris for his help with the technical aspects and recollections of the boat's design stage, Geoff Hallawell for use of his superb photos, Barney Black of the International Hydrofoil Soc who published the Bob Johnson story on-line (http://erols.com/foiler), Leslie Field for use of photos from his Hydroplane History site (http://www.lesliefield.com) and Chris Fabiashi for finding both of these web sites in the first place and his constant encouragement during the research.

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