Developing the germ of an idea: Maurice Joseph Brennan and his hovercraft

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The Folland / Hawker Siddeley Hoverstretcher in action. Anon., “Airborne comfort.” The Calgary Herald, 9 June 1961, 19.

How is life, my reading friend? One hopes you have no need of the device shown in the photograph with which yours truly introduces this week’s brief, yes, yes, brief, edition of our blog / bulletin / thingee. An edition or issue on hovercraft. Yeah! Sorry.

As was mentioned in a previous issue of our you know what, in June 1959, a British firm by the name of Saunders-Roe Limited tested one of the first full size / successful air cushion vehicles, or hovercraft, the Saunders Roe SR.N1.

Does the word Roe ring a bell? Yes, that’s right. Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe, founder of A.V. Roe & Company Limited (Avro), one of the great aircraft manufacturers of the 20th century, was / is the first British subject to perform, in July 1909, a controlled and sustained flight in a British-made powered airplane in the British Empire. He was mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2018. Avro, in turn, was mentioned several / many times in our you know what since October 2018.

And yes, the father of the hovercraft was / is Christopher Sydney Cockerell, a British engineer mentioned in January 2019, August 2019 and August 2020 issues of that same you know what.

In early 1960, a brilliant aeronautical engineer associated with the design of the SR.N1, Maurice Joseph Brennan, joined the staff of a relatively small division of Hawker Siddeley Aviation Limited, a subsidiary of Hawker Siddeley Group Limited, as chief engineer. Before its takeover by this British industrial giant mentioned on numerous occasions in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018, said division had been known as Folland Aircraft Limited.

Born in April 1913, Brennan attended the University of Glasgow, in Glasgow, Scotland, where he studied aeronautical engineering. A private pilot since 1931, Brennan graduated in 1934 and soon got a job at Hawker Aircraft Limited. He went to Saunders-Roe Limited in 1936 and gradually moved up in the hierarchy, becoming chief designer in 1953. Brennan left that position in 1959 to become the assistant chief engineer at Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Limited, a subsidiary of the engineering conglomerate Vickers-Armstrong Limited. As was said (typed?) in the previous paragraph, he joined the staff of a relatively small division of Hawker Siddeley Aviation where he occupied the position of chief engineer.

Fully cognisant of the potential importance of hovercraft, the management of Hawker Siddeley Aviation asked Brennan to work on robust commercial hovercraft projects. One only needs to mention small vehicles liked the Hoverbarrow and Hoverstretcher. Mind you, the engineering team also worked on a Hovertruck with a 5 Imperial ton (5.1 metric tonnes / 5.6 American tons) payload or, to be more precise, a series of Hovertrucks, using a vehicle known as the Ground Effect Research Machine (GERM) as a proof of concept prototype – as the germ of an idea so to speak.

The Hoverstretcher was developed in cooperation with the Royal Army Medical Corps of the British Army. It could be towed behind a utility vehicle or pushed by two individuals who guided it the way one would guide a lawnmower. The Hoverstretcher worked all right but it produced a sizeable amount of dust when moving over dry ground, which was not exactly ideal for the people on the pair of stretchers carried by the Hoverstretcher. THIS HOVERCRAFT WAS ALSO A WEE BIT NOISY, and why am I typing in capital letters?

And yes, the Hoverbarrow was intended for construction sites. It was a neat but impractical idea. Hovercraft work best on fairly flat ground. They are also quite expensive and somewhat fragile.

Gradually put aside during the early 1960s, Brennan’s hovercraft were scrapped at some undisclosed dates. Sadly, Hawker Siddeley Aviation called it quits before a prototype of the Hovertruck actually lifted off the ground.

Brennan himself left his chief engineer position in 1961, in favour of another chief engineer position within Hawker Siddeley Aviation, this time with the division formerly known as Avro.

The fact that none of the Hawker Siddeley hovercraft went beyond the prototype stage did not endanger the future of the firm. You see, my reading friend, the brightly illuminated future many hovercraft promoters dreamed of during the early 1960s quickly turned into a pretty limited, if not gloomy one. Although suitably intrigued, most potential customers were not intrigued enough to actually buy examples of most of the hovercraft developed in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, including Canada.

A case in point might be the giant taco, sorry, sorry, the hovercraft developed by Hover-Jak Limited of Richmond Hill, Ontario. (Hello, EP!)

I do not know about you but I for one am sad that the aforementioned brightly illuminated future did not come to pass. It would have cool to see television footage of the transoceanic hovercraft weighing 100 000 Imperial ton (101 600 metric tonnes / 112 000 American tons), almost twice the displacement of RMS Titanic, mentioned (in all seriousness?) during a visit to Australia, in November 1960, by Dennis Hennessey, the chairperson of Hovercraft Development Limited (HDL), a subsidiary of the United Kingdom’s National Research Development Corporation created to handle all licensing agreements employing ideas developed by Cockerell.

And, yes, Hawker Siddeley Group had to acquire a license from HDL to work on hovercraft.

In the late 1970s, Brennan left British Aerospace Aircraft Group, a government-owned firm created in 1977 by the merger of Hawker Siddeley Aviation and other firms, to become technical director at Sheriff Aerospace Limited. Sadly, this small newly created

British firm went into receivership in 1984 before the prototype of its 4-seat twin engine light / private aircraft, the Sheriff, could be completed.

Would you believe that the Sheriff project was launched by Forester Richard John Britten, an aeronautical engineer mentioned in an August 2020 issue of blog / bulletin / thingee? And yes, you are indeed correct, in 1953, Britten had founded Britten-Norman Limited, a firm mentioned in May 2018 and August 2020 issues of our you still know what, with fellow engineer and pilot Nigel Desmond Norman.

Brennan passed away in January 1986, at the age of 72.

And that is it for today. Back to the salt mines.

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Rénald Fortier