History of Hovercraft
A hovercraft, also known as an air-cushion vehicle or ACV, is a craft capable of travelling over land, water, mud or ice and other surfaces. Hovercraft are hybrid vessels operated by a pilot as an aircraft rather than a captain as a marine vessel.
Hovercraft use blowers to produce a large volume of air below the hull that is slightly above atmospheric pressure. The pressure difference between the higher pressure air below the hull and lower pressure ambient air above it produces lift, which causes the hull to float above the running surface. For stability reasons, the air is typically blown through slots or holes around the outside of a disk- or oval-shaped platform, giving most hovercraft a characteristic rounded-rectangle shape. Typically this cushion is contained within a flexible “skirt”, which allows the vehicle to travel over small obstructions without damage.
The first practical design for hovercraft was derived from a British invention in the 1950s to 1960s. They are now used throughout the world as specialised transports in disaster relief, coastguard, military and survey applications as well as for sport or passenger service. Very large versions have been used to transport hundreds of people and vehicles across the English Channel, whilst others have military applications used to transport tanks, soldiers and large equipment in hostile environments and terrain.
Although now a generic term for the type of craft, the name Hovercraft itself was a trademark owned by Saunders-Roe (later British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC), then Westland), hence other manufacturers’ use of alternative names to describe the vehicles.
The idea of the modern hovercraft is most often associated with a British mechanical engineer Sir Christopher Cockerell. Cockerell’s group was the first to develop the use of an annular ring of air for maintaining the cushion, the first to develop a successful skirt, and the first to demonstrate a practical vehicle in continued use.
Cockerell came across the key concept in his design when studying the ring of airflow when high-pressure air was blown into the annular area between two concentric tin cans, one coffee and the other from cat food and a hair dryer. This produced a ring of airflow, as expected, but he noticed an unexpected benefit as well; the sheet of fast moving air presented a sort of physical barrier to the air on either side of it. This effect, which he called the “momentum curtain”, could be used to trap high-pressure air in the area inside the curtain, producing a high-pressure plenum that earlier examples had to build up with considerably more airflow. In theory, only a small amount of active airflow would be needed to create lift and much less than a design that relied only on the momentum of the air to provide lift, like a helicopter. In terms of power, a hovercraft would only need between one quarter to one half of the power required by a helicopter.
The hovercraft became an effective transport system for high-speed service on water and land, leading to widespread developments for military vehicles, search and rescue, and commercial operations. By 1962, many UK aviation and ship building firms were working on hovercraft designs, including Saunders Roe/Westland, Vickers-Armstrong, William Denny, Britten-Norman and Folland. Small-scale ferry service started as early as 1962 with the launch of the Vickers-Armstrong VA-3. With the introduction of the 254 passenger and 30 car carrying SR.N4 cross-channel ferry by Hoverlloyd and Seaspeed in 1968, hovercraft had developed into useful commercial craft.
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
Hovercraft can be powered by one or more engines. Small craft, such as the Hov Pod, usually have one engine with the drive split through a gearbox. On vehicles with several engines, one usually drives the fan (or impeller), which is responsible for lifting the vehicle by forcing high pressure air under the craft. The air inflates the “skirt” under the vehicle, causing it to rise above the surface. Additional engines provide thrust in order to propel the craft. Some hovercraft use ducting to allow one engine to perform both tasks by directing some of the air to the skirt, the rest of the air passing out of the back to push the craft forward.
Hov Pod have been used extensively for commercial applications but large passenger craft use for large scale operations across the English channel dwindled out out a few years ago. For more on the history of hovercraft see a BBC article here.