Science

Geek's Guide

Fancy that! Craft which float over everything on a cushion of air

A hidden British engineering gem: The Hovercraft Museum

By Gareth Corfield

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Geeks' Guide to Britain Did you know that the word “hovercraft” was once patented? And did you know that Great Britain is a world leader in the design and manufacture of the floaty transporters, and has been for half a century?

These and other surprising facts – including that some of the largest commercial hovercraft ever to be used in revenue service spent their lives shuttling booze cruisers back and forth across the English Channel – can be found at the Hovercraft Museum, at Lee-on-Solent in the south of England.

A century ago, what is now the site of the museum was known as HMS Daedalus and used as a Fleet Air Arm seaplane base. Back in the early days of aviation, and especially naval aviation, the station was at the forefront of naval and aviation technology alike. Seaplanes and skilled pilots were in great demand by the Royal Navy for anti-submarine patrols, and a new training base had to be set up to fill the service’s demand.

Thus came about the “temporary” Naval Seaplane Training School at Lee-on-Solent, with the new training school being based around a large local property, Westcliffe House. Slipways and hangars were duly erected, with the former leading down into the waters of the Solent itself; of the latter, one of the original J-class hangars, capable of being erected by just 15 men in three days, survives to this day.

After the First World War ended in November 1918, demobilisation meant the demand for seaplane training dropped sharply. What was now known as the RAF Seaplane School, following the amalgamation of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Army’s Royal Flying Corps into the then-new Royal Air Force in April 1918, was shuttered for two years. In 1920 the station re-opened once again for RAF seaplane training, gradually expanding as the years went by.

As the lean years of the 1920s and 30s came and went, the School of Naval Co-operation, as Lee-on-Solent base was then known, gradually assumed an increasingly important role in the RAF; HQ 10 Group was based there (the formation would play an important role in the defence of the western part of the UK during the Battle of Britain) and RAF Coastal Command put down its roots at Lee-on-Solent in the early 1930s. With new formation headquarters came demands for more space, including 120 acres to the north of the site for levelling into a new aerodrome. That survives to the current day as the civilian Solent Airport.

The Second World War brought dramatic change. Fighter aircraft were based at Lee-on-Solent to help stave off German air raids. A Stuka dive-bomber raid in August 1940 killed 14 people and destroyed 42 aircraft on the ground, though only three of those were the all-important fighters used for defending Britain. The D-Day Museum describes Lee-on-Solent as one of the busiest airfields on the south coast during D-Day, hosting no fewer than 10 squadrons from the RAF, Royal Canadian Air Force and US Army Air Force during the invasion of occupied France.

435 sorties were made from Lee-on-Solent during 6 June, 1944 – the largest number from any Allied airfield on the day of the invasion landings.

The rise of the hovercraft

Following the war, Lee-on-Solent became a hub for Royal Navy aviation. Within a decade the last of the seaplanes had departed, helicopters came and went and jet aircraft, in the form of Gloster Meteors, took up residence. At the end of the 1950s it briefly acquired yet another official naval name, HMS Ariel, before reverting back to the old HMS Daedalus moniker.

In 1961 the Armed Forces were looking at a new form of amphibious transport: the hovercraft.

Thanks to the large hangars and slipways, Lee-on-Solent was a natural home for an experimental hovercraft unit. Marconi engineer Dr Christopher Cockerell patented the word “hovercraft” in 1954, as a result of his experiments on how to put troops ashore on a beach quickly – and while keeping them dry, something traditional landing craft (as used during D-Day) generally did not achieve.

Cockerell’s theories came to pass with the Saunders-Roe SR.N1, the first practical hovercraft. A Pathe News reel of the SR.N1's launch:

SR.N1 hovercraft, lurking at the back of a hangar. Picture courtesy of Warwick Jacobs, the Hovercraft Museum

The technology caught on rapidly, and caught the public’s imagination into the bargain. Not only were the Royal Marines equipped with hovercraft, but the floating vehicles were also entering commercial service as direct competitors with ferry services. The Joint Inter-Service Hovercraft Trials Unit was based at HMS Daedalus for many years, until its closure as part of wider planned defence cuts in 1981. Some have pointed out the Royal Marines’ job of retaking the Falkland Islands after their invasion by the Argentine military junta of General Galtieri.

Hovering around

To truly appreciate the hovercraft, one should actually ride one of the things. This is easily done by a short journey along the coast from Lee-on-Solent to Britain’s only scheduled hovercraft service, which operates between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

Operated by Hovertravel, whose sister company Griffon Hoverwork also builds the craft operated by the travel firm, the service runs about every half an hour during the day, with more frequent services during the morning rush hour and a gradual winding-down into the evening.

Hovertravel’s Ryde base. Pic: Reg reader

The ride is about 10 minutes long and is surprisingly smooth. Your correspondent popped across the Solent from Southsea to Ryde, enjoying lunch in a local hostelry before making the return journey. It was fast and smooth despite the age of the craft (the rear of the two pictured above). Hovertravel is in the process of introducing two brand-new craft to service, complete with interiors that strongly resemble quality first-class railway carriages.

Hovertravel’s chief pilot, Captain Steve Attrill, told us about the unique position that hovercraft pilots occupy in practical and legal terms; while the craft’s operators are called pilots, reflecting their almost-but-not-quite-flying qualities, the qualifications they are required to hold are all maritime. Steering the craft is tricky in a high wind, such as the ones the Solent is famous for, he said, because while changing a hovercraft’s heading with its rudders is straightforward, getting its track to change – the path it takes across the ground, regardless of which way the nose is pointing – can be a more involved process. Skill and patience are everything.

Having visited Ryde and sampled the delights of the Isle of Wight, including its 1938 vintage tube train, we then proceeded along to Lee-on-Solent for the main event: the museum.

A 1938 Stock tube train on the Isle of Wight. Pic: Reg reader

The museum

The museum itself occupies the seaward corner of the Solent Airport, complete with its original sheds and a truly huge collection of hovercraft of all shapes and sizes.

Central to the collection are the two former Hoverspeed cross-Channel hovercraft, named after Princesses Anne and Margaret. One of these two is open to visitors, with a restored car deck and interior in the same condition as when she left revenue service.

The SR.N4 Princess Anne hovercraft. Static outdoor storage does take its toll

Another key museum exhibit is one of the original Joint Hovercraft Trials Unit machines; in this case, a BHC-7 Wellington.

XW255, the BHC-7 hovercraft at the Hovercraft Museum in Lee-on-Solent

In the early days, the Ministry of Defence didn’t know whether to classify hovercraft as naval vessels or aircraft. In an unusual outbreak of pragmatism, they named it both: the serial number XW255 on the bows, seen in the picture above, is a military aircraft serial number, while just out of shot on the vertical fin is a NATO warship pennant number, P235.

Inside the BHC-7’s wardroom (naval term for the officers’ mess) is a display of plaques and pictures from its time touring the world, flying the flag for British industry; much as the government wants to see happening again today.

“Since 1989 the hovercraft has had a home at the base in the shape of the Hovercraft Museum,” founder Warwick Jacobs told The Register, “and for almost 30 years longer continued the relationship with hovercraft with the arrival of the 50 tonne BH7 in December 1989 and the giant SRN4s in 1994 and later 2000, when the biggest, Princess Anne and Princess Margaret, arrived after 31 years’ cross-Channel service.”

These two latter craft are huge: so huge, in fact, that they’re surprisingly difficult to photograph properly. Put it this way: the car decks could comfortably hold around 50 vehicles. The interior displays contain smaller hovercraft, and a section on the infamous Calais booze cruise which will doubtless bring a smile to the older generation’s faces.

Inside the Princess Anne’s vehicle deck, looking at the vehicle control room

Also operating an exhibition in the Hovercraft Museum is the Gosport Aviation Society, who record for posterity not only the history of the Lee-on-Solent airfield and seaplane base, but also the nearby Fleetlands maintenance, repair and overhaul base, long associated with Royal Naval helicopter operations.

“Today more than 200 hovercraft have been in and out the base and led to hovercraft being a worldwide accepted form of transport. In 1995 the base closed, but four land agents have enabled the hovercraft museum to remain and grow,” continued the Hovercraft Museum’s Jacobs, who added that the museum contains “everything from James Bond hovercraft [used in Pierce Brosnan flick Tomorrow Never Dies] to Top Gear craft and ex Royal Marine Iraq war craft and vessels.”

Model hovercraft on display at the Hovercraft Museum, Lee-on-Solent. They have an extensive collection depicting hovercraft through the ages

If you’re reading this on the day it is published, you may also be interested in the Hovercraft Museum’s annual Hovershow, which includes hovercraft rides, kids’ activities, and all the good technical detail we’ve given you a taster of above.

After you’ve toured the museum – for real technological aficionados, you probably want to give it four or five hours; a family will probably want to move on after two or three – you can have a look at the Fleet Air Arm Memorial, just south of the site on the main Maritime Parade road that now bisects the old hovercraft slipway, cutting the museum off from the Solent proper. ®

Getting there

GPS

50.807433, -1.209456

Postcode

PO13 9NS

By train: The nearest railway station is Fareham on the South West Mainline, operated by South Western Railway. From there you probably want to take a taxi, unless you fancy a semi-urban hike of about three miles.

Coach: The X5 bus between Gosport and Southampton is an option, via the Richmond Road bus stop which serves the museum. Gosport is served by, among other things, the Gosport Ferry from Portsmouth.

Car: As the museum itself says: “The museum is 5.5 miles from the M27 Junction 11. For satnav users, please use PO13 9NS which will take you to Marine Parade West on the seafront. There is free parking on seafront and slipway.”

Entry

£8 for adults; £5 for children; ages 4 and below go free. Family tickets (two adults and up to three kids) are £22. Taking out membership entitles you to free entry.

Opening times

The volunteer-run museum is normally open on Saturdays between 10:00am and 4:00pm. Other seasonal opening days and times are published on their website.

Online resources

The Hovercraft Museum website: https://www.hovercraft-museum.org/

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