In 1952 the British inventor Christopher Cockerell worked with air lubrication with test craft on the Norfolk Broads. From this he moved on to the idea of a deeper air cushion. Cockerell used simple experiments involving a vacuum cleaner motor and two cylindrical cans to create his unique peripheral jet system, the key to his hovercraft invention, patented as the 'hovercraft principle'. He proved the workable principle of a vehicle suspended on a cushion of air blown out under pressure, making the vehicle easily mobile over most surfaces. The supporting air cushion would enable it to operate over soft mud, water, and marshes and swamps as well as on firm ground. He designed a working model vehicle based on his patent. Showing his model to the authorities led to it being put on the secret list as being of possible military use and therefore restricted. However, to keep Britain in the lead in developments, in 1958 the National Research and Development Corporation took on his design and paid for an experimental vehicle to built by Saunders-Roe, the SR.N1.
Saunders-Roe, the SR.N1.
The craft was built to Cockerell's design and was launched in 1959 and made a crossing from France to the UK on the 50th anniversary of Bleriot's cross Channel flight. He was knighted for his services to engineering in 1969. Sir Christopher invented the word 'Hovercraft' to describe his invention..
The British aircraft manufacturer Saunders Roe which had aeronautical expertise developed the first practical man-carrying hovercraft, the SR-N1, which carried out several test programmes in 1959 to 1961 (the first public demonstration in 1959), including a cross-channel run. The SR-N1 was powered by one (piston) engine, driven by expelled air. Demonstrated at the Farnborough Airshow in 1960, it was shown that this simple craft could carry a load of up to 12 marines with their equipment as well as the pilot and co-pilot with only a slight reduction in hover height proportional to the load carried. The SR.N1 did not have any skirt instead using the peripheral air principle that Sir Christopher has patented. It was later found that the craft's hover height was improved by the addition of a 'skirt' of flexible fabric or rubber around the hovering surface to contain the air. The skirt was an independent invention made by a Royal Navy officer, Latimer-Needham, who sold his idea to Westland (parent company of Saunders-Roe), and who worked with Sir Christopher to develop the idea further.
The first passenger-carrying hovercraft to enter service was the Vickers VA-3, which in the summer of 1961 carried passengers regularly along the North Wales Coast from Wallasey to Rhyl. It was powered by two turboprop aero-engines and driven by propellers.
During the 1960s Saunders Roe developed several larger designs which could carry passengers, including the SR-N2, which operated across the Solent in 1962 and later the SR-N6, which operated across the Solent from Southsea to Ryde on the Isle of Wight for many years. Operations commenced on 24th July 1965 using the SR-N6 which carried just 38 passengers. Two modern 98 seat AP1-88 hovercraft now ply this route, and over 20 million passengers have used the service as of 2004.
As well as Saunders Roe and Vickers (which combined in 1966 to form the British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC)), other commercial craft were developed during the 1960s in the UK by Cushioncraft (part of the Britten-Norman Group) and Hovermarine (the latter being 'sidewall' type hovercraft, where the sides of the hull projected down into the water to trap the cushion of air).
The world's first car-carrying hovercraft made their debut in 1968, the BHC Mountbatten class SR-N4 models, each powered by four Rolls-Royce Proteus gas turbine engines, were used to start the regular car and passenger carrying service across the English Channel from Dover, Ramsgate and Folkestone in England to Calais and Boulogne in France. The first SR-N4's had a capacity of 254 passengers and 30 cars, and a top speed of 83 knots (96 mph). The later SR-N4 MkIII's had a capacity of 418 passengers and 60 cars. The French-built SEDAM N500 Naviplane with a capacity of 385 passengers and 45 cars, of which only one example entered service, was used for a few years on the cross-channel service. The service ceased in 2000 after 32 years, due to competition with traditional ferries, catamarans, and the opening of the Channel tunnel.
In 1998, the US Postal Service began using the British built Hoverwork AP.1-88 to haul mail, freight, and passengers from Bethel, Alaska to and from eight small villages along the Kuskokwim River. Bethel is far removed from the Alaska road system, thus making the hovercraft an attractive alternative to the air based delivery methods used prior to introduction of the hovercraft service. Hovercraft service is suspended for several weeks each year while the river is beginning to freeze to minimize damage to the river ice surface. The hovercraft is perfectly able to operate during the freeze-up period, however, it could potentially break the ice creating hazards for the villagers using their snowmobiles for transportation along the river during the early winter.
The commercial success of hovercraft suffered from rapid rises in fuel prices during the late 1960s and 1970s following conflict in the Middle East. Alternative over-water vehicles such as wave-piercing catamarans (marketed as the Seacat in Britain) use less fuel and can perform most of the hovercraft's marine tasks. Although developed elsewhere in the world for both civil and military purposes, except for the Solent Ryde to Southsea crossing, hovercraft disappeared from the coastline of Britain until a range of Griffon Hovercraft were bought by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
irst applications of the hovercraft in military use was with the SR.N1 through to the SR.N6 craft built by Saunder Roe in the Isle of Wight in the UK and used by the UK joint forces. To test the use of the hovercraft in military applications the UK set up the Interservice Hovercraft Trails Unit (IHTU) base at Lee-on-the-Solent in the UK (now the site of the Hovercraft Museum). This unit carried out trials on the SR.N1 from Mk1 through Mk5 as well as testing the SR.N2, 3, 5 and 6 craft. Currently the Royal Marines use the Griffon 2000TDX as an operational craft. This craft was recently deployed by the UK in Iraq. In the US, during the 1960's, Bell licenced and sold the Saunder Roe SRN-5 as the Bell SK-5. They were deployed on trial to the Vietnam War by the Navy as PACV patrol craft in the Mekong Delta where their mobility and speed was unique. This was used in both the UK SR.N5 curved deck configuration and later with modified flat deck, gun turret and grenade launcher designated the 9255 PACV. One of these craft is currently on display in the Army Transport Museum in Virginia. Experience led to the proposed Bell SK-10 which was the basis for the LCAC now deployed. The former Soviet Union was one of the first few nations to use a hovercraft, the Bora Hovercraft, in a side-wall configuration, as a guided missile corvette.
Text kindly gathered from WIKIPEDIA to which I am a contributor.Pictures used under non commercial license from HOVERCRAFT MEUSEM