The Ignominious HMCS Bras d’Or

Hydrofoils hold a special place in my heart regardless of the fact that I have never seen one in action – much less ridden in one.   I remember being an awestruck kid when SPECTRE agent Count Lippe escapes the Royal Navy in the James Bond movie Thunderball.  The front of his yacht detaches and turns into a high speed hydrofoil!  Or the stories of my parents travelling to Macau from Hong Kong in the 1960s – again by high speed hydrofoil!

It would be years later before I learned the strong Canadian connection with the history of hydrofoil development.  Alexander Graham Bell maintained a summer estate along the northern shore of Cape Breton Island’s great inland sea – the Bras d’Or Lake.  Bell was a restless, inventive genius and was fascinated with powered flight. With the long term assistance of a new Toronto engineering graduate, Casey Baldwin, he set out to design aircraft that could take off and land on water – being a softer place to crash.  Their pioneering work on float design metamorphosized into hydrofoil boat design.  This is a boat that utilizes an underwater foil to generate lift in water rather than air resulting in pushing the hull out of the water and significantly reducing energy losses from drag.   On September 9, 1919, Baldwin piloted the torpedo shaped HD-4 on Lake Bras d’Or and unleashed 700 bhp from a pair of 12 cylinder Liberty aircraft engines.  The ship lifted out of the water onto her hydrofoils and made history by reaching a speed of 114 km/h. 

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Bell and his wife Mabel died soon afterwards in 1922, but their sizeable estate made it possible for Baldwin to continue his hydrofoil research and development for the next two decades. It was an idyllic existence for an inventor with house servants and assistants and an annual $10k budget to spend entirely at his discretion but he never attained commercial success. Baldwin lacked the practical experience of working as an engineer in the real world and although he did achieve notable innovations, he progressed as much as he blundered and he died early in 1948. But the work of others is always built upon the work of those who came before and both Bell and Baldwin were instrumental in bringing the HMCS Bras d’Or to life.

In his memoirs, Churchill confessed that the Battle of the North Atlantic and its U-boat threat frightened him the most during WW2.  This is an often overlooked struggle that spanned the entire 6 years of the Second World War conflict.   Disrupting the lifeline of seaborne freight from Canada would make the UK prone to German invasion and there could never be an Allied invasion of Europe without the UK as a staging area.   Canada’s Naval fleet and its fighting ability grew as the war progressed and by 1944 assumed full responsibility of escorting convoys from North America to the UK.  This expertise in anti submarine warfare (ASW) became Canada’s naval role in the post war NATO alliance and the expansion of the fleet in the 1960s made it an opportune time to develop a new craft for this role.  Something cheaper than a frigate or destroyer, something made in large numbers and primarily something fast enough to surprise an enemy sub with an attack after detection had been made.   Canada proposed a 40 m, 180 tonne ship with a maximum speed of 18 knots hull down, and 60 knots hull foilborne!    The British were preoccupied with hovercrafts, the Americans with fully submerged foil designs so Canada had its specialized field of surface piercing foils all to itself.   The contract for a fast hydrofoil escort with hull number 400  (FHE-400) was awarded to de Havilland Aircraft of Canada (DHC) in August 1960.   In a move of pure serendipity, DHC poached numerous engineers from the recently cancelled Avro Arrow program.  Marine Industries Limited of Sorel, QC would receive the major subcontract of actually building the hull, deck and suprastructure.

The complexity and the unknown technology invariably resulted in many mistaken choices being made.  Welding of the all aluminum hull was not completed until 1966 and the original $10 million budget had grown to $23 million not including the projected $7 million for the weapons system alone.  A British 2400 bhp Paxman diesel engine would drive twin props mounted on pods on the rear/main foil but even then it had the reputation of unreliability.  A Pratt & Whitney gas turbine aircraft engine capable of producing 30,000 bhp would provide power while foilborne.  However the JP5 aviation fuel it used was extremely flammable and the engine room seemed to suffer chronic hydraulic fluid leaks enveloping the environment with a pink mist that the crew was forced to breathe.  The foils were constructed of a new steel alloy that was capable of withstanding the estimated stresses of 100,000 psi but its susceptibility to corrosion in salt water was not well understood and would prove devastating later.  The foil design did prove sound, giving the ship the stability of a much larger vessel in rough seas.

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Cross sectional view of the HMCS Bras d’Or. (1) are the drive props driven by the diesel engine with the hull immersed. (2) are the specially developed supercavitating propellors driven by the Pratt & Whitney jet turbine during hydrofoil operation costing $750k to develop and manufacture … and ultimately sold as scrap.

But then on November 5, 1966, one of those annoying hydraulic fluid leaks sprayed onto the hot body of a small auxiliary gas turbine that generated electricity and a raging fire broke out, nearly destroying the ship.  It took a year for the government to decide on whether to repair the damage and the program budget was raised to $50 million ($310 million in today’s money).  The all aluminum construction was particularly prone to heat damage and several structural members and deck beams had to be replaced.   On April 9, 1969 the HMCS Bras d’Or made her successful maiden voyage.  In June of 1969 she set the top speed record for a warship at 62 knots or 115 km/h, exceeding her very design parameters.

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In June of 1971, the Bras d’Or took its longest journey of 4000 km from Halifax down to Bermuda.  On a side visit to the US Navy’s HQ at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, the ship astounded USN personnel with her speed and performance but it was secretly plagued with diesel engine problems which of course did not impact her hydrofoil performance.   On her return home she had logged 650 hours at sea with 100 hours foil up.  But serious cracks had developed on her center foil and elsewhere.  Citing cost overruns and the lack of foreign sales or interest and a policy shift from ASW activity to sovereignty protection, the Liberal Government decided to mothball the ship for 5 years.  That became 10 years and finally the ship was stripped to sell off her parts as scrap.  In 1983, the gutted ship became a land exhibit at the Musée Maritime du Québec.

Meanwhile Canada could never give up her ASW duties because that would invite the US Navy to patrol Canadian waters and further their claims that the Northwest Passage is international water and not sovereign Canadian territory.   So instead of creative out of the box thinking by using a fleet of small, quick vessels manned by a small crew – it’s back to conventional ASW with the Halifax class frigates and the four Victoria class submarines. 

It was not a waste of money.  Building the Bras d’Or showed how necessary computer aided design was in modern shipbuilding and that lesson was applied to both the building of the Iroquois class destroyers and Halifax class frigates.   The Automated Action Control Centre computer developed for the Bras d’Or for $10 million found a home in the Iroquois’ as was knowledge learned from turbine applications in the Bras d’Or such as the use of water separators and filters to extend their life expectancy.   Its lightweight sonar system found a home in the new Dutch frigates and remains amongst the most reliable and lightest sets in NATO.  The use of microprocessor electronics developed the Canadian electronics industry to compete worldwide. Most importantly, sharing the Canadian knowledge with the Brits and Yanks assures us access to their defense project developments.

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A mock up of what an operational HMCS Bras d’Or could have looked like. A VDS sonar is carried at the stern with ASW torpedo tubes, missile launchers alongside the superstructure, a forward mounted 3 inch cannon. The slightly bulbous bow forefoot incorporates a small sonar array for hullborne use. The appearance is very similar to the Italian Navy’s Sparviero class hydrofoils that are used for coastal patrols.

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Although it appears that US pressure was predominantly responsible for cancelling the Arrow program, the Bras d’Or was abandoned under the guise of fiscal responsibility.  Time and time again the Canadian government has compromised defense spending decisions for political expediency.  Instead of examples of long term vision & leadership, we get dithering, wasteful spending and delayed procurement of critical military hardware.  Most recently, in the late 1980s the Conservative government decided to purchase 50 AugustaWestland EH-101s for $6 billion to replace our fleet of aging 1960s era Sea King helicopters.  When the Liberals swept to power in 1993, they cancelled this deal  to score points for reducing the federal deficit but incurred a $500 million penalty.   However, the problem remained unaddressed and 30 hours of maintenance were required for every hour of flying time for the Sea Kings.  It took until 2005 for the Liberals to finally decide to purchase Sikorsky H-92 Superhawks with the first delivery not until 2013 …  three decades later.

And once again, in 2010 the Conservative government agreed to buy 65 F-35 Lightings to replace our aging CF-18 Hornets for $9 billion BUT without an open competitive bidding process.   The opposition Liberals seized upon this unpopular decision and campaigned to cancel the deal during the next election.   In 2015 the Liberals once again formed the government and cancelled the deal promising to go with one of many other lower priced options only to purchase 88 F-35s in 2023 for $19 billion with the first four to be delivered in 2026 and completed by 2032.   A decade of dithering delay leaving the Canadian Armed Forces flat footed during a period of increased Russian and Chinese hostility.

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