Hovercraft: ATV of the Boating World

The hovercraft is capable of traversing ice, mud, water, and land. Its amphibious nature makes it an extremely versatile craft.

The brainchild of British inventor and engineer Dr. Christopher Cockerell, the hovercraft came to fruition in the 1950s. Dr. Cockerell worked during World War II for Macaroni Wireless Telegraph Company. His work revolved around developing radar systems for use in the war.

Infantry landings (such as those of D-Day and Normandy in France) set the wheels in motion for his invention of the hovercraft. He wanted to develop a vehicle that would allow troops to transition from one medium to another quickly, efficiently, and without the discomfort of getting drenched.

What is a Hovercraft?

Today’s hovercraft looks quite different from Dr. Cockerell’s original experiments with “a tin of cat food, an empty tin of coffee, and a hairdryer”.(McIntyre, Aaron. “Evolution of the Hover Craft”. Prezi. prezi.com/aajqv9ij8mr7/evolution-of-the-hover-craft/. 9/3/2013. 8/9/2019). According to Justin Parkinson of the BBC, Dr. Cockerell used a “vacuum cleaner” instead of a hairdryer in his experiments. Regardless of which small appliance gave birth to the idea, modern-day hovercraft are quite different than the original prototype. Modern hovercraft are behemoths capable of transporting up to 400 people, and upwards of 50 cars. Equipped with an engine and a propeller, this ingeniously designed craft seamlessly transitions from sea to land and everything in between. Hovercraft can conquer difficult terrain challenges including the conditions listed below.

  • Snow
  • Ice
  • Swamp
  • Water
  • Grass
  • Mud
  • Sand

How is this possible? The hovercraft was designed to be supported above terrain by an air cushion. This cushion is made of downward directed air. A difference in air pressure capable of suspending the craft is created between its hull and the terrain it is traversing. Hovering is the action that results when the high air pressure environment underneath the hull and low air pressure above it create lift. A hovercraft is propelled forward by engines, propellers, and a large rear fan. The first hovercraft, the SRN1, crossed the English Channel in 1959. Propellers help these all-terrain boats move through air and water, directing its trajectory as it glides. The air cushion located beneath the hovercraft creates very little resistance when compared to the water resistance that traditional boats encounter. Consequently, hovercraft are more fuel-efficient than many boats. 

Are Hovercraft Easily Piloted?

Hovercraft of the past and present have faced handling issues. As long as the surface which the hovercraft is traveling over is relatively flat, piloting one is as safe as directing a boat or plane. Provided the pilot has sufficient experience, hovercraft travel is enjoyable, quick, and novel. The addition of side fans for turning, and a front fan for braking, have attempted to address these handling issues by creating a safer, more stable, and predictable piloting experience. Hovercraft can reach speeds of up to 90 mph. Unfortunately, they are more likely to be used as military vehicles than civilian transport. According to Justin Parkinson’s 2015 BBC article “What happened to passenger hovercraft?”, The Solent (which is the strait separating the Isle of Wight from England), is “now thought to be the only place in western Europe where a full passenger service operates”. The Catamaran proved to be more cost-effective and comfortable for travelers. The hovercraft, although efficient, fast, and capable of carrying large amounts of cars and people, was not favored for commercial passenger transport.

What Niches do Hovercraft Fill?

Military-grade hovercraft can carry up to 65 tons of equipment and soldiers. The ability of hovercraft to transition easily from one terrain to the next is seen as very advantageous from a military standpoint. Hovercraft are also useful as humanitarian response and disaster response vehicles. Their unique ability to hover over surfaces is extremely useful during disasters such as oil spills which would ruin other types of craft. The hovercraft is an indispensable caveat in the history of transportation.