The Hovercraft's Journey - From Plan to Present

Published: 30th October 2009
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Today, hovercrafts are used for passenger transport, emergency rescue, military use, and often simply sport and pleasure, but how have they reached this position?

The ideas behind using air pressure to hover were first documented in 1716 by Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish Scientist.

Remarkably though, the first demonstration of a hovercraft wasn't until just fifty years ago, in 1959, when Sir Christopher Cockerell's design was built after ten years of attempted development and successfully crossed the English Channel.

Funded by the National Research Development Corporation, and manufactured by Saunders Roe, the vehicle was only built after the army, navy and RAF had expressed a complete lack of interest in it.

However, the version that went across the channel lacked one important feature that people recognise as a part of the hovercraft today: it didn't have a skirt.

Without a skirt, the craft needed a far greater amount of pressure to stay above the surface, and the fact it was floating was far more obvious. Fortunately, once its ability to cross the channel was shown plenty of people became interested; companies began their own research and development into hovercrafts, and from that came the idea of capturing the pressure underneath the hovercraft by using a skirt.

This meant that larger, more efficient hovercrafts could be made, and that they could carry a greater load with less energy required. Transport hovercrafts, capable of carrying not just large amounts of passengers but cars as well, began being made. These are used in areas of Alaska in the US, where ice and snow can cover rivers and make for hazardous crossings for land-based vehicles, and to ferry people to the Isle of Wight in the UK for holidays or business.

Once all these uses were demonstrated, and advances were made that enhanced the hovercrafts ability to travel on terrain that even tracked vehicles would have difficulty with, such as mud flats or swamp land, the military became interested again, and hovercrafts are now used as personnel carriers in plenty situations, even being deployed in the recent Iraq war.

They've also proved useful in rescue situations as well, with the Red Cross utilising them during floods, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute having an active group of them for use on river estuaries or mud flats.

For a while, there was even talk of hover technology being used instead of trains, but these projects suffered from funding difficulties and issues with how platforms would deal with the rush of air created by these vehicles. Because of this, hovercraft seem to have found their niche and remained filling it for the moment. Whether they'll expand again in the future, nobody knows.
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Written by Tom Sangers on behalf of St Maur, a hotel on the Isle of Wight.

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