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The Drama of the Hanning-Lee WHITE HAWK

by Bob Johnston

(Last Update January 17, 2014)

Note: For more on this subject, links to other internet sources as well as Posted Messages and Correspondence appear following Bob Johnston's article (see below)


Frank and Stella Hanning-Lee & WHITE HAWK

Reprinted from Illustrated London News 18 Oct 52

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 time 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.

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]

Correspondence & Posted Messages

WHITE HAWK: Courtesy of Abigail Kabaker the archivist for the Town of Garrett Park; here is an article published in "THE GARRETT BUGLE" .
Vol. 1. No. 1 Monday, June 7 1954

[17 Jan 14] "What's a Hydrafoil ?
Everybody wants to know what is the queer looking craft in Mike Groman's [sic. Gorman] yard, 11111 Kenilworth Ave. It's a hydrafoil--
jet-propelled speed boat that will go faster than 200 miles per hour ! It is 26 feet long, and Mike says the bow
rides out of water when it is going at top speed.

The birdlike boat belongs to Mr. Henning-Lee [sic] a friend of Mike's Dad who is keeping it in Mike's yard for awhile.
Its hull is damaged a little so that it needs new aluminum sheeting before it can be launched again. It burns kerosene for fuel.

Called the "White Hawk", this hydrafoil was built in Great Britain, both hull and engine. According to Mike, it is the only boat of its kind in the world and was built for experimental purposes.

We bet Mike hopes he will get a ride in it when it has been repaired."

Abigail Kabaker provided a little bit of background:

At the time of the article, many of the Bugle reporters were elementary school students, thus Mike Gorman, a rising sixth grader is the main subject, not his father William Gorman. They also did much of the typing and editing which accounts for the typos in Names.

I have not been able to find out how Mr Hanning-Lee knew the Gormans. Would any of you have an idea?

Thank you very much,

Abigail Kabaker
Archivist
Town of Garrett Park, MD

 

Another WHITE HAWK Information Source

[3 Feb 02] At the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney last week, I came across the following book: Guetat, Gerald G.; Classic Speedboats - The Summit 1945-1962, published in 2000 by MBI Publishing Company, 729 Prospect Ave, PO Box 1, Osceola WI 54020-0001 USA. Printed in Spain. ISBN 0-7603-0916-7. The book had a section about the WHITE HAWK with few paragraphs about the craft and the Hanning-Lees as well as two photos, both of which are different to those found on the websites of Leslie Field or Simon Lewis. One shows the craft in a semi-submerged condition, apparently after one accident, the other is a nice bow quarter view of the craft foilborne. The rest of the book deals with water speed record breakers and classic speedboats. -- Martin Grimm (seaflite@alphalink.com.au)

Hanning-Lee WHITE HAWK Revisited

[9 May 01] When the Hanning-Lees attempted the water speed record on Lake Windermere in the early 1950s, my father was the Rolls Royce mechanic that went to sort out starting problems on the Derwent engine. If you want the full story, it was a bit of a shambles with nothing planned. It was all left to RR, as the mechanics that accompanied the boat did not have a clue. My father I think at the time was Test Superintendent at the RR factory in Barnolswick where the engine was tested. It may have been fitted there, but I am not sure of this. I also know that he also went up to Barrow on a number of occasions -- Keith Weightman" (weightman@eircom.net)

Hanning-Lee WHITE HAWK Update

[24 Nov 00] My feature on the WHITE HAWK was printed in the summer edition of FAST FASTS, the Speed Record Club magazine. I interviewed the son who was 7 years old at the time of the Windermere attempts and got a good deal of information out of him as well as some superb photos. He was very helpful indeed, it was just a shame that his dad had died only last year, as no doubt he could have filled in all the gaps! I will post the whole article on my web site. I also had a long and totally absorbing talk with the boat's designer Ken Norris and spent most of a day with him at his aircraft company at Bournemouth Airport. He is of course involved in the new QUICKSILVER boat, and I had the opportunity to see wind tunnel and tank models of that as well as some of the drawings. It was a wonderful day for a record enthusiast! I also spoke to the photographer who covered the runs for a major news agency and got some nice anecdotes from him. -- Simon Lewis (simon.lewisbooks@virgin.net)

Need More Info on WHITE HAWK

[21 Jan 00] I am researching the hydrofoil WHITE HAWK which unsuccessfully attempted the water speed record at Windermere in 1952-3. I have a number of photos and various press cuttings, plus the recollections of a US Navy officer who was involved with a trial run of the boat in the USA in 1952 for the Navy. Any info you could supply would be gratefully received. -- Simon Lewis (simon.lewisbooks@virgin.net)

Response...

[21 Jan 00] If you have visited this web page and Leslie Field's webpage of newspaper clippings then you already know all that we know about the Hanning-Lees. This was a fascinating couple, and I always thought that their life would make a good movie script. Please share with us (and with Leslie Field) anything else you may find of interest so that we can post it for others to enjoy. If you know somebody whose hobby is genealogy, they may be able to tell you how to go about locating any descendents or relatives that may still be alive and willing to share info. -- Barney C. Black (Please use the BBS to reply)

Who Knows the Fate of the Hanning-Lees?

[18 Sep 99] After Frank and Stella Hanning-Lee arrived in the U.S. in 1953 with the intention of testing WHITE HAWK "on Lake Mead or perhaps a lake in Florida" they disappear from sight. Does anyone know anything at all about what became of Frank, Stella or the WHITE HAWK? Any information at all would be most appreciated. I maintain a large website in Vancouver, BC devoted to unlimited hydroplanes and other high-speed watercraft. A few months ago I ran across a picture of the WHITE HAWK in the New York Times November 4, 1952 and I have been intrigued about the boat and Frank and Stella Hanning-Lee ever since. I have put together a web page (The Hanning-Lees and WHITE HAWK) with several articles and photos from the British press, a piece by Kevin Desmond, and a link to your own Bob Johnston's personal reminiscence of his experiences with the couple. -- Leslie Field, Vancouver, BC, CANADA (leslie@lesliefield.com)


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