For the legions of travellers who used it to hop across the channel, the hovercraft was a vision of the future. Little did they know that by the beginning of the 21st century it would be no more than a footnote in cross-channel transport history.
Here, The Engineer reports on the work of Hovercraft Developments, set up by the government to ‘realise the possibilities of the “hovercraft” principle’ dreamed up by Christopher Cockerell in 1956.
Outlining the company’s key areas of research, the article explains that the primary objective was the development of so-called ‘flexible skirts’, the plastic extension attached to the outer edge of the craft that retains the cushion of air created by the fan. Developments here, reported The Engineer, represent, ‘an important advance which has changed the hovercraft from an interesting development into one having commercial capabilities…’
The article describes test facilities that included a 150ft x 40ft tank with a wavemaker able to generate 10ft waves. This was used to evaluate the performance of 10ft-long test models which were used to create accurate simulations of full-size craft ‘travelling at 70 knots over 12ft waves’.
The primary aim was to examine the potential of the technology for regular cross-channel operations. ‘The hovercraft development programme is largely concerned with the passenger/car ferry, and involves the study of wind speed and significant wave heights found in areas, such as the mid North Atlantic, the Straits of Dover and the Solent,’ said the article.
In a separate test, ‘self-propelled models are tethered to a post and follow a circular course, about 90ft in diameter, which is partly over land and partly over water. This permits quantitative tests to be carried out with the model travelling over level ground, beaches, water and obstacles.’ Further testing was carried out on the HD1 research craft, a full-scale wooden test bed used to evaluate various different skirt configurations.
The dream of cross-channel hover-ferries became a reality in 1966 with the inauguration of two services from Ramsgate and Dover to Calais. A number of commercial hovercraft were developed during the late 1960s and the world’s first car-carrying vessel made its debut in 1968.
Sadly, due to pressure from traditional ferries and the channel tunnel, the services ceased in 2000.