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Flying On Water



The HD-4 prepares for tests with the new Liberty engines; (inset) Inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

Everybody knows Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and many are aware he was responsible for the first manned aircraft flight in Canada when the Silver Dart lifted into the bone-chilling February air over the ice-covered Bras d’Or Lakes in 1909. But few realize he was also the force behind the world’s fastest boat, a futuristic-looking “winged watercraft” that set a speed record in 1919 that stood for more than a decade.

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On a warm summer’s day in 1861, on the Surrey Canal in southeast England, Thomas Moy was experimenting with the aerodynamics of wings by watching the underwater eddies caused by hydrofoils—small wing-like devices—attached to the hull of a boat being towed along. To his astonishment, the wings lifted the boat out of the water; Moy had discovered the principle of the hydrofoil.

Bell’s Silver Dart soared into the sky because of the air on its wings, creating lift and reducing drag. The effect of water on a hydrofoil—essentially an underwater wing—is almost the same; it causes a boat to rise out of the water. Bell had been intrigued by the idea of flight for years. Always extremely safety-conscious, he believed takeoffs and landings were the riskiest part of flying and decided that practising them on water would be less dangerous than on land.

Bell visited Cape Breton Island in the summer of 1885 and bought land on a commanding hillside overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes across the bay from the tiny village of Baddeck. Over the next few years he built a vast summer estate called Beinn Bhreagh, Gaelic for “beautiful mountain.” While there he and his collaborators performed remarkable experiments and achieved some of their greatest triumphs with airplanes and watercraft.

Early on, Bell realized he needed someone with engineering qualifications to assist him, and such a person arrived in the summer of 1906. His name was Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, a talented University of Toronto engineering graduate. Bell was so impressed with the young man’s eagerness and sailing knowledge that he asked him to stay. Baldwin accepted, and his two-week holiday turned into a lifelong career.

In many ways Bell and Baldwin were opposites. Yet, the contrasting characteristics of the mature inventive genius and the young practical engineer came together to produce an extraordinary partnership that was greater than the sum of its parts. Despite their skills, it still took Bell and Baldwin nearly a dozen years of trial and error, frustration and false hope, before they attained their amazing achievements with hydrofoils.

When Bell and Baldwin studied the problems of takeoff from water, they became increasingly intrigued by the idea of a float that could propel an aircraft over the water and into the air. But first they had to overcome the problem of water resistance. As a boat’s speed increases, water resistance against its hull also increases. Every time someone tried to make a boat go faster, the more the water would slow it down. Consequently, very little progress had been made in improving the speed of watercraft for several years.

Bell and Baldwin thought hydrofoils would help their floats attain high speed, an essential requirement for flight. By lifting the hull up out of the water, they hoped to overcome the drag water caused, allowing them to substantially increase speed without the need for a larger engine. Once Baldwin’s early experiments with hydrofoils in 1908 showed they generated a degree of lift and an increase in speed, he designed a boat to test them.

By mid-August he had finished it. Dhonnas Beag, which is Gaelic for Little Devil, was a light, narrow, six-metre-long craft, carrying a stabilizing outrigger on each side and a raised mounting in the centre for its engine and propeller. As it turned out, the little boat bedevilled them both. The slender craft achieved a speed of 24 kilometres an hour in self-propelled test runs without hydrofoils, in Bell’s opinion an “unprecedented feat in a boat driven by an aerial propeller.” Unfortunately, with hydrofoils installed and Baldwin at the controls, Little Devil began to dive into and out of the water, making him look like he was riding the marine equivalent of a bucking bronco.

Baldwin did some fine-tuning and reverted to towing Dhonnas Beag behind a motorboat before he finally got her to rise on her hydrofoils in October 1908. It was time to move on to self-propulsion, the most important stage of all. Success came quickly, and at the end of the month a self-propelled Dhonnas Beag lifted out of the water. Unfortunately, the boat became unstable and her hydrofoils twisted under the strain. The duo had met their match with Little Devil.

Bell and Baldwin refused to give in and designed a new boat, launched Dec. 31, 1908. Bell decided to call their hydrofoil vessels “hydrodromes,” and named this one Query. Baldwin made several self-propelled runs in early January 1909, but generally Query remained a question mark and refused to clear the water on her hydrofoils.

In August 1911, back at Beinn Bhreagh after a lengthy world tour with Bell and their wives, Baldwin designed another experimental watercraft, a full-sized version rather than a scaled down one. Bell called it HD, for hydrodrome. The flat-bottomed HD-1 was eight metres long and had two crosspieces, like stubby biplane wings, mounted at right angles to its body. The one at the front pivoted for steering, while the one at the rear contributed to lift. On Dec. 7, HD-1 attained speeds approaching 64 kilometres an hour, but failed to reach that speed again during additional trials.

Baldwin rebuilt HD-1 over the winter, making space for the installation of two engines for more power, as well as several substantial changes to her hydrofoils. On Sept. 21, 1912, an amazed Bell watched HD-1 speed by at over 80 kilometres an hour on two engines, the fastest yet. He called it “a red-letter day.” But it was about to turn black. In mid-October, while Baldwin positioned HD-1 for another test, he heard loud snapping noises and the hydrofoil began to disintegrate, tossing him into the frigid lake.

HD-1 would run no more. Baldwin thought he had collided with something, although more likely the team’s continuing problems with strength and structure had reappeared.

HD-1 may have sunk, but Baldwin’s enthusiasm was unsinkable. He salvaged her remains and launched a rebuilt model in late November, provisionally designated HD-2. As HD-1 had risen from the dead, someone thought the name Lazarus would be appropriate, but Baldwin chose the somewhat ominous Jonah because she had risen from the deep like the biblical character. Jonah lived up to her name right from the beginning. She reached speeds over 72 kilometres an hour during trials, but made Baldwin into an aquatic bareback bronco rider as she plunged in and out of the lake.

Afterwards, during a quick turn, Baldwin sensed something breaking off and Jonah, just like her namesake, began to go under. A subsequent inspection showed the front hydrofoil set had completely separated. Even after many design failures, neither Bell nor Baldwin questioned their choices of structural methods or materials. It was a surprising shortcoming, especially given Bell’s reluctance to automatically accept the calculations of others.

Bell thought Baldwin’s design for Jonah’s replacement, finished in July 1913, was the best so far. HD-3 was a metre shorter than HD-1 and had only one crosspiece, at the rear, which resembled biplane wings. Bell said it was a “beautiful machine;” others disagreed. One writer described it as a “chunky little quasi-airplane.” Unfortunately, Baldwin’s “beautiful” design did not fare well during trials. On a run in August 1913, HD-3 unexpectedly experienced the same problem as his other hydrofoils and tipped him into the water, right in front of the visiting Prince of Monaco. One of HD-3’s floats had been ripped off and the propeller ruined. That winter, Baldwin single-mindedly repaired the boat, overhauling both engines and installing stronger floats, but subsequent tests were inconclusive.

By the time the United States had entered World War I in 1917, Bell had finally convinced an originally skeptical U.S. Navy of the advantages of a hydrofoil vessel and the navy assisted by loaning him two aircraft engines. Because of the war, the two 350-horsepower Liberty engines the navy initially agreed to provide were replaced by 250-horsepower Renault ones, delaying the hydrofoil’s launch until Oct. 10, 1918.

By now, some people were beginning to believe that HD stood for “hope deferred,” and not hydrodrome. Despite the delays, the navy’s co-operation resulted in a completely new craft that was a clear break from all previous designs—HD-4. Baldwin called her “The Cigar.” She looked like a giant grey torpedo, over 18 metres long, rounded and tapered at both ends, with a canvas-covered, steel-reinforced, wooden hull. Four ladder-like hydrofoils were fitted to HD-4’s body, while the two loaned navy engines drove aircraft propellers, each mounted on a short cantilever outrigger that resembled a wing. Bell and Baldwin hoped her radical design would finally make HD-4 the boat that would reach the high speeds they had been trying to attain for so long.

The concepts behind HD-4 had been several years in the making, years of spectacular successes tempered by frustrating failures and major disappointments that sent Bell and Baldwin back to the drawing board on numerous occasions. Now, all their efforts and experience came together in HD-4, a winged watercraft way ahead of her time.

Right from her first run, the streamlined HD-4 rose smoothly up onto her hydrofoils at low speed and accelerated quickly in an even ride. In December 1918, HD-4 achieved over 86 kilometres an hour, her best speed for the year. The enthusiastic Bell sent a report to the U.S. Navy and, based on HD-4’s stellar performance, asked them to reconsider loaning the Liberty engines they had originally promised. In response, the navy sent the two larger 350-horsepower motors to Baddeck in July 1919.

On Sept. 9, Bell and a small party of interested observers stood on the shore at Beinn Bhreagh to watch Baldwin make another test run in HD-4. As Baldwin manoeuvred the cylindrical giant out into the quiet waters of the lake, he hit a large waterlogged object, causing some minor damage. After a quick inspection, Baldwin carried on with the trial and swung the monster hydrofoil into the start of a 1,600-metre course. As he gently increased power from the huge aircraft engines, HD-4 picked up speed rapidly, and then suddenly rose up out of the water onto her hydrofoils. Trailing a faint trace of black smoke and a huge billow of white spray, she roared down the course past the startled onlookers.

The dumbfounded spectators had to check their stopwatches a couple of times. Could this be true? HD-4 had just screamed by at the unheard of speed of 114.01 kilometres an hour, the fastest of any boat in history. It was a record she held at least through to 1929. Those who watched HD-4 speed past called it breathtaking, while those who actually got to skim over the waves in it were thrilled. William Nutting, editor of an American boating magazine, rode in HD-4, in his words “the most interesting speed craft ever built.”

“You notice you are travelling over waves 1 1/2 feet in height, waves that would take the bottom out of an ordinary hydroplane travelling at such a speed. There is no pounding or jolting of the kind with which everyone who has ridden in a racing hydroplane is familiar. A slight undulation like that you feel in a Pullman car is the only sensation.” Nutting also commented on HD-4’s noise: “If you want to hear anything for the rest of the day, stuff some cotton into your ears before the motors are started.”

Bell sent details of HD-4’s amazing record-setting feat to the Canadian, British and American navies. In response, a number of experienced naval officers went to Beinn Bhreagh to see several trial runs under different weather conditions and loading arrangements. Despite their favourable reports, no navy decided to buy her, so Baldwin began a new series of experiments using the HD-4 with her engines removed in 1921.

The Canadian navy sent the destroyer HMCS Patriot to tow the hydrofoil on several test runs during which she operated admirably. The officers who witnessed her stated HD-4 would make “an ideal target” for gunfire practice. Bell offered HD-4’s hull to the navy for this purpose, but for some reason they unexpectedly turned down his generous offer.

Despite their many efforts, Bell and Baldwin were unable to interest any navies in HD-4 as a target and reluctantly hauled her onto the shore at Beinn Bhreagh in the fall of 1921. It was a depressing end for a world record-breaker. Her stripped-down hull lay there, exposed to the weather for almost 40 years. Eventually, the Bell Museum at Baddeck recovered her shattered remains and now displays them beside a full-size replica of HD-4.

After several years of trial and error, experiencing many frustrations along the way, Bell and Baldwin finally succeeded in building the fastest boat in the world, but achieved little else with her at the time. Eventually, their groundbreaking work on “winged watercraft” went on to form the basis of another remarkable Canadian hydrofoil, HMCS Bras d’Or, which was commissioned in 1968. That ship attained trial speeds as great as 63 knots before she was laid up in 1971.

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