Memorable Manitobans: Albert Walter Fia (1915-2004)
Born at Lethbridge, Alberta on 1 January 1915, after serving overseas with the Canadian Army during the Second World War, he earned a master’s degree in engineering at the Royal Military College of Science (now the Defence Academy) at Shrivenham, Oxforshire, UK. At the same time, he served with the British Ministry of Supply in their guided weapons program.
In 1946, the Canadian aviation industry, which had been bolstered by the war effort, suddenly went into decline. The president of Bristol Aerospace, Murray Auld, sought to use Manitoba’s unique “… geographic location as an advantage in competing for business.” Above Churchill, a layer of the atmosphere called the Aurora Belt is uniquely thick – creating the stunning northern lights. During the Cold War, phenomena that interfered with aerial navigation – such as the northern lights – were considered a top research priority. With the promise of leading a new cutting-edge rocketry program, Auld convinced Fia to resign his commission with the army to become Bristol’s new director of rocket division, and in 1958, he moved to Winnipeg with his young family.
His interest in rockets was sparked by the V2, the German weapon of the late Second World War; by Sputnik, the satellite the Russians launched a year before he joined Bristol; and by the success of the numerous sounding rocket projects that were part of International Geophysical Year. “I saw a hunger to explore space and I could see the potential for using rockets as a peaceful instrument,” he said of his decision to join Bristol. “Rocket engineering is an unforgiving discipline,” he 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 a sounding rocket named the Black Brant – after a species of northern goose. Unlike orbital rockets, sounding rockets use their energy to achieve mission requirements and then return to earth.
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 its rocket production with larger Black Brants, and a fuel-production facility at Rockwood. The rocket has been used to launch numerous experiments, including planetary telescopes and cosmic ray detectors.
Shortly after his retirement in 1981, by this time known as the “Father of Canadian Rocketry,” Fia was presented with a NASA Public Service Medal, the first person outside of the United States to receive the honour. The Fort Churchill launch facility was named a national historic site in 2009. He died at the Grace Hospice in Winnipeg on 5 June 2004.
“Black Brant rockets aid knowledge, exports” by Albert Fia, Winnipeg Free Press, 12 July 2002, page 17.
Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 6 June 2004, page 14.
The Canadian Space Program: From Black Brant to the International Space Station by Andrew B. Godefroy, Springer, 2017.
“Black Brant Sounding Rockets are a 50-Year-Old Success Story,” Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.
Black Brant, Wikipedia.
This page was prepared by Lois Braun and Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 23 June 2020