What happened to passenger hovercraft?

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine

It’s 60 years since the British inventor Christopher Cockerell demonstrated the principles of the hovercraft using a cat food tin and a vacuum cleaner. Great things were promised for this mode of transport, but it never really caught on. Why?

The hovercraft slides down a concrete ramp and into the Solent. Its engines, propellers and fans hum as it crosses from Southsea, in Hampshire, to Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, travelling 4.4 nautical miles in under 10 minutes.

The journey is more than twice as quick as the catamaran from Portsmouth to Ryde and more than four times as quick as the Portsmouth-to-Fishbourne ferry.

Hovercraft cross the sand to arrive on the concrete landing pad near the centre of Ryde, the Isle of Wight’s largest town. This amphibious mode of transport, with its rapid disembarkation – not needing the building of a pier or port – was seen as the future once. But the Solent is now thought to be the only place in western Europe where a full passenger service operates.

The cross-Channel service from Dover to Calais closed in 2000. The two vessels, the Princess Anne and the Princess Margaret, could carry only 52 cars. Larger ferries and cheaper-to-power catamarans, as well as the Channel Tunnel, proved too much competition. Routes in Japan and Sierra Leone have also since ceased.

 

The Princess Margaret on her last voyage to Calais

The Princess Margaret on her last voyage to Calais

“The problem militating against expansion has always been the noise for residents, who have to hear the hovercraft all day, 365 days a year,” says Warwick Jacobs, who runs the Hovercraft Museum, at Gosport, Hampshire. “The sound can travel quite a way, depending on the wind speed. We could have had hovercraft running on the Thames, for instance, but they’d have been too noisy.”

Recent models are quieter than their predecessors because of more efficient engines, while plans are in place to build electric-powered hovercraft, which will reduce the decibel count even further, Jacobs says.

The Princess Margaret did make it down the Thames in 1979 but it was too noisy for regular usage

The Princess Margaret did make it down the Thames in 1979 but it was too noisy for regular usage

The Hovertravel service between Southsea and Ryde survives because hovercraft are best suited to short routes like those across the Solent, says Robin Paine, co-author of On a Cushion of Air, a history of hovercraft. “There is also a need because the tide at Ryde goes out half a mile – hence the reason for Ryde Pier to accommodate conventional ferries, whereas the hovercraft can deliver people straight into Ryde.”

It’s 60 years since inventor Christopher Cockerell demonstrated the principle of hovercraft travel – discussed in abstract terms since the 18th Century – in an eccentrically British way. He experimented with vacuum cleaner tubes and empty cat food and coffee tins, finding that when placing a small can inside a larger one and blowing air through the smaller can, it hovered above the bottom surface of the larger object. A working prototype was ready by 1955, which Cockerell called the “hovercraft”, obtaining a patent in 1956.

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The boat has a high maneuverability and can be used to supply remote settlements, for passenger and freight transportation, protection of water bodies, as well as a type of official vehicle for law enforcement structures.

Sir Christopher Cockerell

  • Born the son of a museum curator in 1910, he studied engineering at Cambridge
  • He helped make the first radio direction finder, used by British bombers during World War Two
  • Cockerell also worked with the team at Marconi that developed radar
  • He was knighted in 1969 and died in 1999

A cushion of air is created by a large fan underneath. A “skirt” surrounding the craft prevents too much air from escaping. Because the craft is moving through air rather than water, it can go faster than a conventional boat of similar power. It can also travel over land and sea.

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