In 1946, the Canadian aviation industry, which had been bolstered by the war effort, suddenly went into decline. The loss of large air force overhaul contracts threatened to close the doors of many large companies such as Winnipeg-based Bristol Aerospace. Bristol President, Murray Auld, sought to use Manitoba’s unique “… geographic location as an advantage in competing for business.” Above Churchill, Manitoba, a layer of the atmosphere called the Aurora Belt is uniquely thick – creating the stunning northern lights. Murray Auld recognised an opportunity to compete in the field of scientific rocketry.
During the Cold War, phenomena that interfered with aerial navigation – such as the northern lights – were considered a top research priority. In 1954, the Canadian Army established a scientific or ‘sounding rocket’ launch facility at Fort Churchill. These early-day rockets generally incorporated military thrusters and were difficult to move and transport. Murray Auld realized what he needed was a Canadian engineer who could create a purely scientific rocket. One of the few Canadian’s with the experience necessary to lead the project was Lieutenant-Colonel Albert Fia.
Fia had served overseas with the Canadian Army during World War II. In 1957, Fia earned a Master’s degree in Engineering at Shriven Royal Military College while serving with the British Ministry of Supply on their Guided Weapons Program. In 1958, with the promise of leading the new cutting-edge rocketry program, Murray Auld convinced Fia to resign his commission with the army and move to Winnipeg as Bristol’s new Director of Rocket Division.
“Rocket engineering is an unforgiving discipline,” Fia recalled. “Every other engineering design can be tested on the ground whereas a rocket can only be tested when fired.” Once a rocket is fired, the engine would crash to the earth, making every mistake time consuming and costly. A breakthrough came in 1961, when Bristol teamed up with the Canadian Forces, which provided the fuel for Fia’s engine and hardware. The resulting rocket was named the Black Brant – after a species of northern goose.
The Black Brant III was first commercially available in 1964. It could reach heights of 177 kilometers with a payload of 27 kilograms. The Black Brant series boasted a success rate close to 90%; the highest – by far – of any sounding rocket ever produced. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) adopted the Black Brant as their primary sounding rocket – firing as many as 95 per year from the Fort Churchill test site alone. Bristol soon expanded their rocket production with larger Black Brant’s, and a fuel-production facility, which still operates in Rockwood, Manitoba.
Shortly after his retirement in 1981, Albert Fia was honored with a NASA public service medal. The Fort Churchill launch facility is still standing and was named a national historic site in 2009. Today, Bristol is a division of Magellan Aerospace and continues to produce highly advanced rocket and satellite systems for NASA at their factory in Winnipeg.
An example of a Black Brant rocket can be seen on display at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.