The British aircraft and marine engineering company Saunders-Roe built the first practical man-carrying hovercraft for the National Research Development Corporation, the SR.N1, which carried out several test programmes in 1959 to 1961 (the first public demonstration was in 1959), including a cross-channel test run in July 1959 piloted by Peter (“Sheepy”) Lamb, an ex-naval test pilot and the Chief Test Pilot at Saunders Roe. Christopher Cockerell was on board, and the flight took place on the 50th anniversary of Louis Blériot’s first aerial crossing.
The SR.N1 was powered by a single piston engine, driven by expelled air. Demonstrated at the Farnborough Airshow in 1960, it was shown that this simple craft could carry a load of up to 12 Marines with their equipment as well as the pilot and co-pilot with only a slight reduction in hover height proportional to the load carried. The SR.N1 did not have any skirt, using instead the peripheral air principle that Sir Christopher had patented. It was later found that the craft’s hover height was improved by the addition of a skirt of flexible fabric or rubber around the hovering surface to contain the air. The skirt was an independent invention made by a Royal Navy officer, C.H. Latimer-Needham, who sold his idea to Westland (by then the parent of Saunders-Roe’s helicopter and hovercraft interests), and who worked with Sir Christopher to develop the idea further.
The first passenger-carrying hovercraft to enter service was the Vickers VA-3, which in the summer of 1962 carried passengers regularly along the north Wales Coast from Moreton, Merseyside, to Rhyl. It was powered by two turboprop aero-engines and driven by propellers.
During the 1960s Saunders-Roe developed several larger designs which could carry passengers, including the SR.N2, which operated across the Solent in 1962 and later the SR.N6, which operated across the Solent from Southsea to Ryde on the Isle of Wight for many years. In 1963 the SR.N2 was used on an experimental service between Weston-super-Mare and Penarth under the aegis of P & A Campbell, the paddle steamer operators.
Operations by Hovertravel commenced on July 24, 1965 using the SR.N6 which carried just 38 passengers. Two 98 seat AP1-88 hovercraft were introduced on this route in 1983, and in 2007 these were joined by the first 130 seater BHT130 craft. The AP1-88 and the BHT130 were notable as they were largely built by Hoverwork using shipbuilding techniques/materials (i.e. welded aluminium structure and diesel engines) rather than the aircraft techniques used to build the earlier craft built by Saunders-Roe/British Hovercraft Corporation. Over 20 million passengers had used the service as of 2004 – the service is still operating (2010) and is by far the longest, continuously operated hovercraft service.
In 1966, two cross-channel passenger hovercraft services were inaugurated using SR.N6 hovercraft. Hoverlloyd ran services from Ramsgate Harbour, England, to Calais, France, and Townsend Ferries also started a service to Calais from Dover, which was soon superseded by that of Seaspeed.
As well as Saunders-Roe and Vickers (which combined in 1966 to form the British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC)), other commercial craft were developed during the 1960s in the UK by Cushioncraft (part of the Britten-Norman Group) and Hovermarine based at Woolston (the latter being ‘Sidewall Hovercraft’, where the sides of the hull projected down into the water to trap the cushion of air with ‘normal’ hovercraft skirts at the bow and stern). One of these models, the HM-2, was used by Red Funnel between Southampton (near the Woolston Floating Bridge) and Cowes.
The world’s first car-carrying hovercraft was made in 1968, the BHC Mountbatten class (SR.N4) models, each powered by four Bristol Proteus turboshaft engines. These were both used by rival operators Hoverlloyd and Seaspeed to operate regular car and passenger carrying services across the English Channel. Hoverlloyd operated from Ramsgate, where a special hoverport had been built at Pegwell Bay, to Calais. Seaspeed operated from Dover, England, to Calais and Boulogne in France. The first SR.N4 had a capacity of 254 passengers and 30 cars, and a top speed of 83 kn (154 km/h). The Channel crossing took around 30 minutes and was run rather like an airline with flight numbers. The later SR.N4 Mk.III had a capacity of 418 passengers and 60 cars to the Isle of Wight . These were later joined by the French-built SEDAM N500 Naviplane with a capacity of 385 passengers and 45 cars; only one entered service and was used intermittently for a few years on the cross-channel service until returned to SNCF in 1983. The service ceased in 2000 after 32 years, due to competition with traditional ferries, catamaran, the disappearance of duty-free shopping within the EU and the advancing age of the SR.N4 hovercraft and the opening of the Channel Tunnel.
The commercial success of hovercraft suffered from rapid rises in fuel prices during the late 1960s and 1970s, following conflict in the Middle East. Alternative over-water vehicles such as wave-piercing catamarans (marketed as the SeaCat in the UK until 2005) use less fuel and can perform most of the hovercraft’s marine tasks. Although developed elsewhere in the world for both civil and military purposes, except for the Solent Ryde to Southsea crossing, hovercraft disappeared from the coastline of Britain until a range of Griffon Hovercraft were bought by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
In Finland, small hovercraft are widely used in maritime rescue and during the rasputitsa (“mud season”) as archipelago liaison vehicles. In England, hovercraft of the Burnham-on-Sea Area Rescue Boat (BARB) are used to rescue people from thick mud in Bridgwater Bay. Avon Fire and Rescue Service became the first Local Authority fire service in the UK to operate a hovercraft. It is used to rescue people from thick mud in the Weston-super-Mare area and during times of inland flooding. A Griffon rescue Hovercraft has been in use for a number of years with the Airport Fire Service at Dundee Airport in Scotland. It is used in the event of an aircraft ditching in the Tay estuary. Numerous fire departments around the U.S./Canadian Great Lakes operate hovercraft for water and ice rescues, often of ice fisherman stranded when ice breaks off from shore.
In October 2008 The Red Cross commenced a flood-rescue service hovercraft based in Inverness, Scotland. Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service received two flood-rescue hovercraft donated by Severn Trent Water following the 2007 UK floods.
Since 2006 hovercraft have been used in aid in Madagascar by HoverAid, an international NGO who use the hovercraft to reach the most remote places on the island. The Scandinavian airline SAS used to charter an AP1-88 hovercraft for regular passengers between Copenhagen Airport, Denmark, and the SAS Hovercraft Terminal in Malmö, Sweden.
In 1998, the US Postal Service began using the British built Hoverwork AP1-88 to haul mail, freight, and passengers from Bethel, Alaska, to and from eight small villages along the Kuskokwim River. Bethel is far removed from the Alaska road system, thus making the hovercraft an attractive alternative to the air based delivery methods used prior to introduction of the hovercraft service. Hovercraft service is suspended for several weeks each year while the river is beginning to freeze to minimize damage to the river ice surface. The hovercraft is able to operate during the freeze-up period; however, this could potentially break the ice and create hazards for villagers using their snowmobiles along the river during the early winter.
In 2006 Kvichak Marine Industries of Seattle USA built, under license, a cargo/passenger version of the Hoverwork BHT130. Designated ‘Suna-X’, it is used as a high speed ferry for up to 47 passengers and 47,500 pounds of freight serving the remote Alaskan villages of King Cove and Cold Bay.
An experimental service was operated in Scotland across the Firth of Forth (between Kirkcaldy and Portobello, Edinburgh), from 16 to 28 July 2007. Marketed as Forthfast, the service used a craft chartered from Hovertravel and achieved an 85% passenger load factor. As of 2009 the possibility of establishing a permanent service is still under consideration. [dead link]
Since the channel routes abandoned hovercraft, and pending any reintroduction on the Scottish route, the United Kingdom’s only public hovercraft service is that operated by Hovertravel between Southsea (Portsmouth) and Ryde on the Isle of Wight.
From the 1960s, several commercial lines were operated in Japan, without much success. In Japan the last commercial line had linked Oita Airport and central Oita but was shut down in October 2009.
Hovercraft are still manufactured in the UK near to where they were first conceived and tested and the Isle Of Wight. They can also be chartered for a wide variety of uses including inspections of shallow bed offshore wind farms and VIP or passenger use. A typical vessel would be a Tiger IV or a Griffon. They are light, fast, road transportable and very adaptable with the unique feature of minimising damage to environments.
First applications of the hovercraft in military use was with the SR.N1 through SR.N6 craft built by Saunders-Roe in the Isle of Wight in the UK and used by the UK joint forces. To test the use of the hovercraft in military applications the UK set up the Interservice Hovercraft Trials Unit (IHTU) base at Lee-on-the-Solent (now the site of the Hovercraft Museum). This unit carried out trials on the SR.N1 from Mk1 through Mk5 as well as testing the SR.N2, SR.N3, SR.N5 and SR.N6 craft. Currently the Royal Marines use the Griffonhoverwork 2400TD hovercraft, the replacement for the Griffon 2000 TDX Class ACV as a tactical craft. The 2000 was deployed by the UK in Iraq.
In the US, during the 1960s, Bell licenced and sold the Saunders-Roe SR.N5 as the Bell SK-5. They were deployed on trial to the Vietnam War by the United States Navy as PACV patrol craft in the Mekong Delta where their mobility and speed was unique. This was used in both the UK SR.N5 curved deck configuration and later with modified flat deck, gun turret and grenade launcher designated the 9255 PACV. The United States Army also experimented with the use of SR.N5 hovercraft in Vietnam. Three hovercraft with the flat deck configuration were deployed to Dong Tam in the Mekong delta region and later to Ben Luc. They saw action primarily in the Plain of Reeds. One was destroyed in early 1970 and another in August of that same year after which the unit was disbanded. The only remaining U.S. Army SR.N5 hovercraft is currently on display in the Army Transport Museum in Virginia. Experience led to the proposed Bell SK-10 which was the basis for the LCAC-class air-cushioned landing craft now deployed by the U.S. and Japanese Navy.
The Soviet Union was the world’s largest developer of military hovercraft. Their designs range from the small Czilim class ACV, comparable to the SR.N6, to the monstrous Zubr class LCAC, the world’s largest hovercraft. The Soviet Union was also one of the first nations to use a hovercraft, the Bora, as a guided missile corvette, though this craft possessed rigid, non-inflatable sides. With the fall of the Soviet Union most Soviet military hovercraft fell into disuse and disrepair. Only recently has the modern Russian Navy begun building new classes of military hovercraft.
The Finnish Navy designed an experimental missile attack hovercraft class, Tuuli class hovercraft, in the late 1990s. The prototype of the class, Tuuli, was commissioned in 2000. It proved an extremely successful design for a littoral fast attack craft, but due to fiscal reasons and doctrinal change in the Navy, the hovercraft was soon withdrawn.
The Hellenic Navy operates four Russian-designed Zubr class LCAC. This is the world’s largest military air-cushioned landing craft.
The People’s Army Navy of China operates the Jingsah II class LCAC. This troop and equipment carrying hovercraft is roughly the Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Navy LCAC.
Small commercially manufactured, kit or plan-built hovercraft are increasingly being used for recreational purposes such as inland racing and cruising on inland lakes and rivers, marshy areas, estuaries and inshore coastal waters.
The Hovercraft Cruising Club is dedicated to encouraging, supporting and developing the safe & considerate operation of recreational cruising hovercraft. It organises training, informal hover-events, and offers world-class hovercraft design tools, advice on safe operation, member discounts and craft insurance. It has an active and informative club member forum.
The Hovercraft Club of Great Britain, founded in 1966, regularly organizes inland and coastal hovercraft race events at various venues across the United Kingdom.
In August 2010 the Hovercraft Club of Great Britain hosted the World Hovercraft Championships at Towcester Racecourse The World Hovercraft Championships are run under the auspices of the World Hovercraft Federation. Similar events are also held in Europe and the US.
A real benefit of air cushion vehicles in moving heavy loads over difficult terrain, such as swamps, was overlooked by the excitement of the British Government funding to develop high-speed hovercraft. It was not until the early 1970s that the technology was used for moving a modular marine barge with a dragline on board for use over soft reclaimed land.
Mackace (Mackley Air Cushion Equipment), now known as Hovertrans, produced a number of successful Hoverbarges, such as the 250 ton payload “Sea Pearl” which operated in Abu Dhabi and the twin 160 ton payload “Yukon Princesses” which ferried trucks across the Yukon river to aid the pipeline build. Hoverbarges are still in operation today. In 2006, Hovertrans (formed by the original managers of Mackace) launched a 330 ton payload drilling barge in the swamps of Suriname.
The Hoverbarge technology is somewhat different from high-speed hovercraft, which has traditionally been constructed using aircraft technology. The initial concept of the air cushion barge has always been to provide a low-tech amphibious solution for accessing construction sites using typical equipment found in this area, such as diesel engines, ventilating fans, winches and marine equipment. The load to move a 200 ton payload ACV barge at 5 kn (9.3 km/h) would only be 5 tons. The skirt and air distribution design on the high-speed craft again is more complex as they have to cope with the air cushion being washed out by a wave and wave impact. The slow speed and large mono chamber of the hover barge actually helps reduce the effect of wave action giving a very smooth ride.
The low pull force enabled a helicopter to pull a hoverbarge across snow, ice and water in 1982.
Several attempts have been made to adopt air cushion technology for use in fixed track systems, in order to utilize the lower frictional forces for delivering high speeds. The most advanced example of this was the Aérotrain, an experimental high speed hovertrain built and operated in France between 1965 and 1977. The project was abandoned in 1977 due to lack of funding, the death of its lead engineer and the adoption of TGV by the French government as its high-speed ground transport solution.
A test track for a tracked hovercraft system was built at Earith near Cambridge, England. It ran southwest from Sutton Gault, sandwiched between the Old Bedford River and the smaller Counter Drain to the west. Careful examination of the site will still reveal traces of the concrete piers used to support the structure. The actual vehicle, RTV31, is preserved at Railworld in Peterborough and can be seen from trains, just south west of Peterborough railway station. The vehicle achieved 104 mph (167 km/h) on 7 February 1973 but the project was cancelled a week later. The project was managed by Tracked Hovercraft Ltd., with Denys Bliss as Director in the early 1970s, only to be axed by the Aerospace Minister, Michael Heseltine. Records of this project are available from the correspondence and papers of Sir Harry Legge-Bourke, MP at Leeds University Library. Heseltine was accused by Airey Neave and others of misleading the House of Commons when he stated that the government was still considering giving financial support to the Hovertrain, when the decision to pull the plug had already been taken by the Cabinet.
Despite promising early results, the Cambridge project was abandoned in 1973 due to financial constraints, but parts of the project were picked up by the engineering firm Alfred McAlpine, only to be finally abandoned in the mid-1980s. The Tracked Hovercraft project and Professor Laithwaite’s Maglev train system were contemporaneous, and there was intense competition between the two prospective British systems for funding and credibility.
At the other end of the speed spectrum, the Dorfbahn Serfaus has been in continuous operation since 1985. This is an unusual underground air cushion funicular rapid transit system, situated in the Austrian ski resort of Serfaus. Only 1,280 m (4,200 ft) long, the line reaches a maximum speed of 25 mph (40 km/h). A similar system also exists in Narita International Airport near Tokyo, Japan.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the U.S. Department of Transport’s Urban Mass Transit Administration funded several hovertrain projects which were known as Tracked Air Cushion Vehicles or TACVs. They were also known as Aerotrains since one of the builders had a licence from Bertin’s Aerotrain company. Three separate projects were funded. Research and development was carried out by Rohr, Inc., Garrett AiResearch and Grumman. The UMTA built an extensive test site in Pueblo, Colorado, with different types of tracks for the different technologies used by the prototype contractors. They managed to build prototypes and do a few test runs before the funding was cut.
The Hoover Constellation was a spherical canister-type vacuum cleaner notable for its lack of wheels. Floating on a cushion of air, it was a domestic hovercraft. They were not especially good as vacuum cleaners as the air escaping from under the cushion blew uncollected dust in all directions, nor as hovercraft as their lack of a skirt meant that they only hovered effectively over a smooth surface. Despite this, original Constellations are sought-after collectibles today.
The Flymo is an air-cushion lawn mower which uses a fan on the cutter blade to provide lift. This allows it to be moved in any direction, and provides double-duty as a mulcher.
The Marylebone Cricket Club owns a ‘hover cover’ that it uses regularly to cover the pitch at Lord’s Cricket Ground. This device is easy and quick to move, and has no pressure points, making damage to the pitch less likely. The system is quite popular at major pitches in the UK.