Never underestimate the power of fantasy! Before Englishman Christopher Cockerell could build that first hovercraft in his Norfolk shed, he had to imagine it. And once the Ministry of Defense took it off their “secret” list in 1959, it wasn’t long before giant hovercraft were carrying 400 passengers and 50 cars at a time back and forth across the English Channel. Cockerell was knighted for his creation.
The basis of the invention was a flexible skirt, which maintained the smallest-possible leakage path for the air that supported the vehicle. All that was needed for support was modest air pressure, acting over the entire underside of the machine.
At one time, it was predicted that “hover-cars” might take to the roads, but the difficulties of starting, stopping and turning led Cockerell to say, “Driving a hovercraft is like driving a car with four flat tires on ice.” What he meant is that the fans providing guidance to the hovercraft had very little thrust in relation to the vehicle’s weight, so the operator must think far, far ahead! Other obstacles to tarmac use were the camber of roads (which makes the machine slide off to the side) and the rapid deterioration of the skirts from pavement abrasion.
The “Triumph of Imagination” in these Photoshopped images is more inspired by England’s Hawker Siddeley Harrier V/STOL aircraft. While a helicopter lifts itself by pushing a large mass of air downward at a moderate speed, Harrier’s much smaller downward-directed jets accelerate a lesser mass of air to a much higher velocity, and in doing so, it uses a great deal of fuel (combat radius of 200 to 300 miles). That would be the case for this hover-cycle. Once aloft, Harrier rotates its lift jets gradually aft, accelerating to speeds at which its wings take over the support task and the jets become purely propulsive. It then maneuvers as an airplane.
Many times on long trips to and from races in a van, I have imagined easing back on the yoke, seeing the earth fall away below and flying.
Artist: Toby Wheeler