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Cockerell’s cushion of air carries his Hovercraft

Posted in Engineering, Famous Inventors, Inventions, Ships, Technology on Tuesday, 30 August 2011

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This edited article about hovercraft originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1048 published on 10 April 1982.

hovercraft, picture, image, illustration

The Hovercraft by John S Smith

Fast flights across the English Channel at the amazing altitude of only two metres have sped millions of holidaymakers and their cars on the first leg of their Continental holidays. The craft in which they travelled was a hovercraft, which rides over land or water on a cushion of air. In addition to being used as ferries between England and France, hovercraft also link Hong Kong and Macao on the coast of southern China, ports in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Smaller versions are also ridden by sports enthusiasts.

The hovercraft’s secret is the cushion of air which forms inside a skirt under the vessel and raises it from the water or ground over which it is travelling. The principle sounds simple, but putting it to work was a headache for the inventor, Christopher Cockerell, who was later given a knighthood in recognition of his work.

In 1953, Cockerell was experimenting with ways of reducing the drag effect on the hulls of ships as they ploughed their way through the sea. Using model boats, he tried various ways of smoothing their passage through water including the use of a layer of air under the hull to produce a friction-reduced surface.

When this proved unsuccessful, Sir Christopher tried other ideas. He built models with rigid side-walls, and other with end-doors on hinges, given buoyancy by air pumped into the centre. Thinking about the results of all these experiments, Cockerell began to consider using a cushion of air which could be pumped into the centre of a hull and then allowed to escape at a controlled speed from around the edges.

Over a week-end, he translated his drawing board idea into a model which he made from two empty coffee tins and a small industrial electric fan. To his great delight the idea worked well, and Cockerell went on to build a better model, powered by a vacuum cleaner motor. That worked too, and in December, 1955, Cockerell applied for a patent for his first hovercraft.

His next task was to find a manufacturer willing to build a prototype, or a backer able to finance this. However, he firstly had to define his vehicle. Was it an aircraft? The aircraft industry said “It’s not an aeroplane, try the shipping industry.” The shipbuilders said “It’s not a sea-going vessel, try the aircraft industry.”

These rebuffs must have been a disappointment to the inventor, but Cockerell persevered and eventually he went to the National Research Development Corporation. This body promised help and Cockerell felt that he now had a chance of making some progress.

Government money was provided for the Saunders-Roe Company Ltd. to build test models of the hovercraft and try them out in a tank. In May, 1959, the first full-sized hovercraft, the SRN-1, was launched – if that is the word for a form of transport that is perhaps both aircraft and ship combined.

The SRN-1 proved that a hovercraft could travel as easily over land or marshy areas as it could over water. Today, hover craft of many types and sizes from giants to small military versions are skimming their way across land and water all over the world.

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