The Hovercraft - an idea that came out of the air


The Hovercraft - an idea that came out of the air

The Hovercraft, or more technically, the air-cushioned vehicle (ACV), was devised by English engineer Christopher Cockerell in 1953, but took many further years to bring to fruition, as his idea was then locked away by the British Government.

Cockerell was eventually knighted in 1969.

Cockerell came from a background in radio and electronics. When he became the owner of a small Norfolk boat and caravan hire company, he found himself pondering how to increase the speed and efficiency of water-borne transport.

It occurred to him that if the entire craft were lifted from the water, it would effectively have no drag. This, he conjectured, would give the craft the ability to attain a much higher maximum speed than could be achieved by the boats of the time ploughing through the water and the resistance that brought.

He tested his theories using a modified vacuum cleaner and two tin cans. By 1955, he had built a working model from balsa wood, and had filed his first patent for the hovercraft, but struggled to get investors interested in the invention.

Cockerell then approached the Government, but this merely resulted in the invention being put on the secret list for several years, so that no one could take the idea any further. It remained classified until 1958, when news of similar developments on the continent finally prompted some action.

Although now a generic term for the type of craft, the name Hovercraft itself was a trademark owned by Saunders-Roe who were the first to build a commercial model named the SR.N1. The concept was subsequently taken forward by the British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC), then Westland.

On 11 June 1959, the full scale prototype was first shown to the public, and it successfully crossed the Channel a few weeks later. Cross-Channel operation was to become the first major deployment of the concept, with the initial smaller craft evolving into large capacity vessels, carrying 418 passengers along with 60 cars, operating some major routes for a period, although these have now ended. Currently the only public hovercraft service in the world still in operation is by Hovertravel, and runs between the Isle of Wight and Southsea (pictured).

Hovercraft are now mainly used as specialised transport enabling access to difficult-to-reach areas for disaster relief, coastguard, military and survey applications. The concept is also popular for personal-built craft and water sports.

Further reading

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