A Puffalo! A Puffalo! My kingdom for a Puffalo!, Part 3

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The first Bell Aerospace Model 7380 Voyageur, Grand Bend, Ontario, December 1971. Michael L. Yaffe, “Air Cushion Cargo Craft Tested in Canada.” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 20 December 1971, 58.

Yours truly was so fascinated by the story of the Air Cushion Landing System that I decided to dig further still. Thus, let it be known throughout the land that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bell Aerosystems Company, a subsidiary of Bell Aerospace Corporation later known as the Bell Aerospace Company Division of Textron Incorporated, was the most experienced manufacturer of air cushion vehicles / hovercrafts in North America. The American company, for example, held the license for the designs of British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC), an undisputed world leader. Indeed, Bell Aerosystems re-engined 7 British-made BHC SR.N5s in the 1960s, which were redesignated SK-5 Model 7232s. The American company also built 3 SK-5 Model 7255s in 1968, for the United States Army. Many of these hovercrafts saw action during the Vietnam War.

Working in cooperation with BHC and four federal / Canadian departments (Transport; Manpower and Immigration; Industry, Trade and Commerce; and Regional Economic Expansion), via the Program for the Advancement of Industrial Technology, Bell Aerospace developed the Model 7380 Voyageur. The Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce actually provided half of the funding, for a time, for Project Voyageur, as the 10-year agreement was initially called. In turn, Bell Aerospace would give to the federal government half of the proceeds from the sale or operation of the two prototypes. The federal government wanted to create a hovercraft industry in Canada, to a large extent in the hope of helping with the exploitation of northern resources.

The truth is that the hovercraft seemed to have a very bright future. Indeed, the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute, a private lobby group, organised a series of symposiums on this type of vehicle in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first of these was held in 1967.

In any event, Bell Aerospace’s original plan was to set up shop in facilities near Halifax and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, vacated around March / April 1970 by Fairey Canada Limited, a subsidiary of a British organization by the name of Fairey Group Limited, possibly via a company known as Fairey Aviation Limited. Nova Scotia’s industrial development agency, Industrial Estates Limited, was to finance the acquisition of these facilities and of the equipment contained therein. The Department of Regional Economic Expansion, on the other hand, was to provide a grant. For some reason or other, Bell Aerospace decided not to proceed, causing a great deal of confusion and consternation in Halifax and Ottawa. In the end, the American company set up Bell Aerospace Canada, a division of Textron Canada Limited, at Grand Bend, Ontario, on the shore of Lake Huron. The factory opened around January 1971.

Fleet Manufacturing Limited of Fort Erie, Ontario, a company formerly known as Fleet Aircraft Limited mentioned in a November issue of this blog / bulletin / thingee, fabricated most of the hull structure of the Voyageur. The elevated crew cabin, on the other hand, was made by Freightliner Canada Limited of Mississauga, Ontario, a subsidiary of an American truck manufacturer, Consolidated Freightways Corporation. Bell Aerospace Canada assembled the elements provided by its subcontractors. Thanks to its modular construction, the Voyageur could be taken apart fairly quickly, which greatly facilitated its transport in an airplane, a train or trucks. And yes, the basic flatbed design of the vehicle meant that it could be used to carry passengers and / or a few automobiles, when used as a ferry.

This being said (typed?), the Voyageur was primarily designed to operate in the Arctic with a useful load comparable to that of a Lockheed C-130 Hercules military / civilian transport plane, that is about 18 150 kilograms (40 000 pounds). The first prototype was tested in December 1971. Its experienced chief test operator / pilot, Jacques Robitaille, had piloted one of the two BHC SR.N6 hovercrafts that transported hundreds of people on the site of the Exposition universelle et internationale de Montréal, or Expo ‘67, held, you guessed it, in 1967.

The Canadian Coast Guard and at least one commercial operator, MacKenzie Air Limited of Edmonton, Alberta, a subsidiary of Edmonton-based Kaps Transport Limited, used a Voyageur for a little while. The new hovercraft seemed to have a bright future ahead of it. This being said (typed?), Bell Aerospace Canada was unable to find customers. Only 4 Voyageurs, the largest hovercraft ever built in Canada, were actually made.

And yes, there is a Hercules, a CC-130 Hercules of the Royal Canadian Air Force to be more precise, in the amazing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. And no, there will be no pontificating on this world famous flying machine, but back to our story.

It is worth noting that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Voyageurs were powered by two ST6 Twin Pac gas turbines. This industrial / vehicular engine was derived from the world famous PT6 turboprop / turboshaft engine developed by a Longueuil, Québec company known by several names over the years:

- Canadian Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company Limited,

- United Aircraft of Canada Limited,

- Pratt & Whitney Aircraft of Canada Limited, and

- Pratt & Whitney Canada Incorporated.

Regardless of its name this world famous company was, and still is, a subsidiary of the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Division of American aerospace giant United Aircraft Corporation / United Technologies Corporation.

The United States Army was sufficiently impressed by the Voyageur’s performance in trials initiated in 1972 that it ordered 2 prototypes of a developed version known as the LACV-30, meaning Lighter, Amphibian Air Cushion Vehicle 30 tons (useful load of about 27 200 kilogrammes / 60 000 pounds). The 1975 trials of a prototype were so satisfactory that the United States Army ordered 24 production examples of the new transport vehicle. For some reason or other, Textron transferred the project to an American subsidiary, Bell Aerospace Textron Incorporated, in 1978. The first production LACV-30 entered service in 1982.

It is worth noting that Bell Aerospace Canada had begun to look for other customers for a militarised Voyageur as early as 1974. A few Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, showed an interest. For some reason or other, none of these discussions led to an actual order. Over the following years, Bell Aerospace Canada apparently did not do much. It went out of business around October 1986. As promising as it was in the early 1970s, the hovercraft did not prove all that popular as time went by. Pity.

The end. Until next week.

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Rénald Fortier