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The Drama of the Hanning-Lee WHITE HAWK

by Bob Johnston

It was during the New York Boat Show of 1952 that we first heard about Frank and Stella Hanning-Lee. On the floor at the Old Madison Square Gardens, where the Boat Show was held, was a high speed hydrofoil boat. It was advertised that the craft had been brought to the United States from England with the objective of seeking the world's speed record for marine craft. At this t
ime the US Bureau of Aeronautics was interested in hydrofoils to be used to improve the landing characteristics of seaplanes in rough water. Some experimental work was underway funded by the Bureau and managed out of the Office of Naval Research. It was decided that the US Navy would make an investigation into this particular craft and as Hydrofoil Project Officer, I was given the task of looking into the vehicle.

Frank and Stella Hanning-Lee & WHITE HAWK - Reprinted from Illustrated London News 18 Oct 52

Bill Carl (then with John H. Carl and Sons of Long Island) and Tom Buermann (of Gibbs and Cox) were two New Yorkers involved with the hydrofoil program. Upon contacting them regarding the Boat Show hydrofoil, they both reported that they had seen the craft and that the owners and operators were Mr. and Mrs. Hanning-Lee, from England. Both Bill and Tom had talked with the Hanning-Lees and had learned that they wanted nothing to do with the US Navy. They were seeking commercial support and were convinced that they would be well paid for their efforts. They of course expressed interest in obtaining any contributions that Gibbs and Cox or John H. Carl would care to make.

With this information in hand, I visited the Boat Show to see the craft. It was named the WHITE HAWK and had a beautifully made all-aluminum hull. The steel foil system consisted of a full span U-foil forward and a single tail foil aft. The aft strut-foil assembly was steerable. The hull looked like an airplane fuselage and was wrapped around a Rolls Royce Derwent jet engine. The Derwent gave the craft a thrust-to-weight ratio greater than one, so all you had to do was point it skyward and you had a rocket! The hull contained a single seat cockpit forward of the gas turbine. Now the problem became how we could get the Navy involved in the future of the WHITE HAWK.

Tom, Bill, and I put our heads together and decided that the two New Yorkers would attempt to arrange a meeting with the Hanning-Lees on the basis of our being interested in investing in their project. I was to be a civilian interested as a private investor. If the Hanning-Lees could have seen the Johnston's bank account, what a joke that would have been! In any event we were granted an appointment to meet with them in the Grammercy Park Hotel. That evening meeting with them turned out to be a very interesting affair. Not so much from what we learned, but from the display put on by Mrs. Hanning-Lee.

The two of them had a pleasant two-room suite, a bedroom and a sitting room. Our appointment was just before the evening dinner hour, and we were informed that our time would be limited as they had a dinner engagement with a very important representative from a major oil company. We met in the sitting room of their suite and began to learn a bit about them and their craft.

The WHITE HAWK had been designed, built, and paid for by the United Kingdom's aircraft industry for the purpose of challenging the world's marine speed record. Both of the Hanning-Lees were pilots and promoters of WHITE HAWK. Mr. Hanning-Lee was a former submarine officer, during WWII in the Royal Navy, a very pleasant and likable fellow. His wife was a statuesque, attractive woman with long blond hair and a very business like attitude. Both had strong British accents and used quite cultivated English.

After a rather short chat Mrs. Hanning-Lee dismissed herself, as she had to get ready for their dinner appointment. She left the bedroom door open and stayed tuned into and joined in the continuing conversation. In whatever stage of her dressing or undressing she might be in, she would pop back into the sitting room and enter into the conversation. Her abrupt appearances and disappearances did not help the flow of the talking and did take our minds off what was being said! It was made quite clear that they wanted no help from the US Navy. On this note the meeting ended with no commitments on either side.

Some time went by before we heard anymore about the WHITE HAWK or the Hanning-Lees, perhaps about three months. Then one day I got a call from Bill Carl that the Hanning-Lees had contacted him. Apparently their campaign to raise funds had not been very successful. The only commitment they had obtained was for fuel to power the craft for a speed attempt. They had asked Bill if they could anticipate any support based on our conversations at the Grammercy. Bill confessed to them that the meeting had been an attempt by the US Navy to learn more about them and their craft. He further revealed to them that I was a Naval Officer in the assignment of Hydrofoil Project Officer with the Office of Naval Research. But the Hanning-Lees expressed to Bill that they no longer had any reservations about Navy support. This is what had led to Bill's call.

We put our heads together in Washington and decided to try and get them to make a demonstration run for us. Our proposition was that if the Hanning-Lees would furnish the craft and pilot, the Navy would pick up the expense for the other costs for a run over a measured mile. If they exceeded a speed of 100 miles per hour, the Navy would be interested in talking to them about a test program. The Hanning-Lees agreed to this. The Navy put some extra funds into the John H. Carl and Sons contract and, with Bill Carl as project manager, we started the process of getting the WHITE HAWK over a measured course. Bill has always claimed that we under-funded the effort which is probably right, but Bill in his usual enthusiasm worked diligently on the task.

Our first troubles came about when the Hanning-Lees confessed to us that they had never run the craft. In their eagerness to get to the USA to raise funds, they had left England as soon as the craft was completed. They didn't know the last time the turbine had been run, so now we needed aircraft mechanics to put the engine in operating condition. Bill suggested that we seek help from Grumman Aircraft, with whom Bill had a working arrangement. An appointment was made with Mr. Jake Swirbul, a founder and then president of Grumman. He was most cordial in offering us the assistance of two mechanics. Since this was for the Navy he even stated that there would be no cost.

The thing that I remember most about this meeting with Mr. Swirbul and Grumman, who was later to become my employer, was an interruption we had from an unhappy employee. Mr. Swirbul had what was called an open door policy. This employee came to Mr. Swirbul's office and asked if he could speak to him. Mr. Swirbul excused himself and told the man to come right in. The man stated his problem which was that he wanted to borrow a company hand-power drill and that his foreman had refused him permission. Mr. Swirbul asked how long he had been an employee of Grumman. His answer was 14 years. With that Mr. Swirbul said, "and you have never taken a drill?" The individual vehemently said, "No, sir!" Mr. Swirbul called the man's foreman and directed him to give the fellow a drill. I think that attitude displayed in the President's office entered into my consideration to join Grumman in later years. But back to the Hanning-Lees.

The location chosen for the measured mile was near Eaton's Neck on the northern shore of Long Island. Here there was sheltered water and the availability of the US Coast Guard to assist in the event. The more we learned about the craft, the more we became concerned about the safety of the pilot. There were no instruments on board to give an indication of speed. Even the turbines instrumentation was quite limited. Further, when the pilot closed and secured the overhead hatch, it could only be opened from the inside. The Coast Guard agreed to furnish a helicopter with a rescue crew on board complete with an ax to break the pilot out in the event of an accident. The Coast Guard also furnished other boats along the measured mile to mark the course and to provide rescue assistance if required.

Finally, the course was laid out, the gas turbine was in operating condition along with the WHITE HAWK, the safety features and communications were organized, and the day was selected for the trial. By now the news of the event had spread throughout the hydrofoil community, and on the day of the trial about a hundred hydrofoilers had gathered on Long Island.

The night before the trial was most interesting. Several of us had dinner with the Hanning-Lees. The question was brought up as to who would pilot the hydrofoil, since both of the Hanning-Lees had expressed capability. The discussion that followed revealed the concern both had for the safety of the venture. They discussed openly between the two of them who would be the pilot. They finally stated that it would be best for Commander Hanning-Lee to make the run because in the event of an accident, Mrs. Hanning-Lee would be able to take care of their young son. We also learned that Mrs. Hanning-Lee had been born and grown up in Connecticut! She had met the Commander during the war, had married, and gone to live in England. In a few short years she had developed a thick English accent.

At last the great day had arrived. We selected an early morning run as the winds were light and the sound was calmer. By about 0630 everyone and everything were in place. Enough private boats were available so that all observers could be a witness to the trial, and the Coast Guard had them well clear of the measured course. The Commander was in the WHITE HAWK with the turbine running nicely about a quarter of a mile before the start boat of the mile. The signal to go was given and for the first time the WHITE HAWK was underway on its own power. The craft quickly picked up speed and was foilborne well before reaching the start of the mile. The vessel hit the start line well up on its foils, running quite stable, and from the sound of the turbine seemed to be near full power.

For the next quarter of a mile things seemed to be going beautifully when suddenly the craft disappeared into a cloud of white water spray. The WHITE HAWK emerged from the spray intact and afloat. The hatch was opened, and the Commander came out in apparently an OK condition. When the excitement died down and we could get to the Commander we asked what had happened? His reply was that sitting in that enclosed space he had no idea of the speed he was making. All he knew was that things on the water were coming at him very fast. He had lost his nerve and had chopped the throttle.

An examination of the craft revealed that everything was intact except the turbine had ingested a quantity of water and would have to be cleaned before anymore running. Events were called off for the day, and the attempt was rescheduled for the following morning. Our Grumman mechanics worked diligently through the day and night to clean the turbine and by dawn the next day the craft was ready to go. However, the winds had come up over night and the water over the course was rough. So another delay had to be taken. The Navy representatives decided that we could no longer keep all our assistants waiting around and called off the trial at Eaton's Neck. We had seen enough in the short run to want to pursue the matter further. The .Navy asked the Hanning-Lees to come forth with a proposal to permit the Navy to conduct trials at Patuxent Naval Air Test Center.

About three weeks later the Hanning-Lees arrived in Washington with a proposal and a very pushy lawyer. The proposal far exceeded our available funding. It was based on an achieved mile per hour basis demonstration. Each time the speed exceeded certain thresholds the cost per mile per hour went up by a sizable margin. The cost of reaching 125 miles per hour along with the living costs and salaries for both of the Hanning-Lees was just more than we could afford. Instead of offering some revision the lawyer demanded an immediate contract. That really spoiled the entire negotiations and the discussion was terminated. In the meantime, the interest in hydrofoil-supported sea planes was diminishing. Even though the Hanning-Lees eventually called and said they would accept any proposition the Navy would make, the end of this venture had arrived.

Sometime later the Hanning-Lees came to see me at the Office of Naval Research. They were in rather drastic financial shape. I must say that I liked the two of them. They were true entrepreneurs and really quite likable and pleasant to visit with when they weren't trying to get rich off the Navy. They had gone broke in trying to promote their craft and didn't have enough funds to return them or their craft to England. They had both taken jobs in retailing to keep their son in school and to save enough to go home. Unfortunately there was nothing I could do to help them. The WHITE HAWK was stored at a gas station in Silver Spring and they were having trouble paying the storage costs. That is the last I ever heard of the Hanning-Lees or the WHITE HAWK. If any of you know "the rest of the story" let me know and we'll print it in the IHS Newsletter.

For More Information...

[The Hydroplane History Website, compiled by Leslie Field, contains reprints of several contemporary news articles about the Hanning Lees and WHITE HAWK, including fascinating photos. Click on any of the photos to see an enlarged version. Also visit Simon Lewis's website to read his account of recent interviews with decendents and associates of the Hanning-Lees -Editor]