Lesson 29 (The hovercraft)

What is a hovercraft riding on when it is in motion?

Many strange new means of transport have been developed in our century, the strangest of them being perhaps the hovercraft. In 1953, a former electronics engineer in his fifties, Christopher Cockerell, who had turned to boat-building on the Norfolk Broads, suggested an idea on which he had been working for many years to the British Government and industrial circles. It was the idea of supporting a craft on a ‘pad’, or cushion, of low-pressure air, ringed with a curtain of higher pressure air. Ever since, people have had difficulty in deciding whether the craft should be ranged among ships, planes, or land vehicles — for it is something in between a boat and an aircraft. As a shipbuilder, Cockerell was trying to find a solution to the problem of the wave resistance which wastes a good deal of a surface ship’s power and limits its speed. His answer was to lift the vessel out of the water by a great number of ring-shaped air jets on the bottom of the craft. It ‘flies’, therefore, but it cannot fly higher — its action depends on the surface, water or ground, over which it rides.

The first tests on the Solent in 1959 caused a sensation. The hovercraft travelled first over the water, then mounted the beach, climbed up the dunes, and sat down on a road. Later it crossed the Channel, riding smoothly over the waves, which presented no problem.

Since that time, various types of hovercraft have appeared and taken up regular service. The hovercraft is particularly useful in large areas with poor communications such as Africa or Australia; it can become a ‘flying fruit-bowl’, carrying bananas from the plantations to the ports; giant hovercraft liners could span the Atlantic; and the railway of the future may well be the ‘hovertrain’, riding on its air cushion over a single rail, which it never touches, at speeds up to 300 m.p.h. — the possibilities appear unlimited.


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