Friendly, frequent and fast: Christopher Cockerell, hovertravel and the Isle of Wight31st October 2017
The Solent is the birthplace of hovertravel in the UK. The oldest commercial hovercraft route runs from Southsea to Ryde on the Isle of Wight and the cross Channel shipping company, Hovertravel, started the route 52 years ago in 1965 and haven’t stopped since.
In April 2016, Hovertravel updated its fleet and launched into a new era of modern hover passenger services as strong as ever. Two Griffon 12000TDs christened the Solent Flyer and Island Flyer, are now zipping between Portsmouth and Ryde almost 40 times a day.
Lee-on-the-Solent boasts the world’s only museum dedicated to hovercraft, which is located at HMS Daedalus, a former airfield where Christopher Cockerell developed the prototype hovercrafts in the 1950s.
Christopher Cockerell invents ‘the Concord of the sea’
Using an empty treacle tin, a hair dryer and some weighing scales, Cockerell proved that a concentrated curtain of circular air was capable of lifting heavy loads. In 1955, Cockerell had built working hovercraft models and introduced the technology to the British government, who immediately dubbed it top secret.
However, despite his distinguished career as an engineer and demonstrating a working model, Cockerell found it hard to get his idea off the ground. The private sector was the hardest of all, due to its limited definitions of amphibious vehicles. Aircraft manufacturers dubbed the hovercraft a ship, and shipbuilders swore the hovercraft was, in fact, an aircraft. Cockerell found this humorous in later life but was frustrated at the time.
Thankfully, the UK government discovered that the Swiss were working on ACV (Air Cushioned Vehicle) technology. Before they could be beaten, the government released Cockerell’s patents and allowed him to work with the engineering company Saunders & Roe to manufacture a passenger carrying hovercraft.
After only a few months of design, prototyping and testing, the first hovercraft to carry four people was unveiled to a public audience, dubbed the SR-N1. On 25th July 1959, the hovercraft launched from Calais straight into the English Channel in an attempt to cross to Dover, exactly 50 years after the first crossing by airplane. Cockerell was proud to be one of the 4 crew onboard and was officially used as ‘human ballast’ and was therefore charged with using his weight to counterbalance the craft and keep it stable.
‘It was amazing we ever got through it!’
Two hours and three minutes later, they landed in Dover harbour to a large crowd of cheering onlookers. Cockerell famously said to the media, ‘I can’t do an interview, it’s time for breakfast’, and later said the crossing was a piece of cake. Diaries discovered after his death reveal that Cockerell thought it was ‘a nightmare’ and he wrote ‘it was amazing we ever got through it!’
Today, hovercraft are used all over the world. They take children to school on the Aleutian Islands, they are used by the American, Chinese, Korean and Russian militaries, they break ice in Canada, and serve a wide range of purposes on every corner of the globe.
Cockerell Rise is named after the inventor and has a plaque dedicated to him. The plaque marks the location of White Cottage, where Cockerell lived and worked throughout his life. Unfortunately the cottage has been demolished, but the garage where he worked still stands to this day.
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