The legacy of Sir Christopher Cockerell living on in Hythe
PUBLISHED: 11:20 08 December 2016 | UPDATED: 11:20 08 December 2016
Hythe's most famous resident Sir Christopher Cockerell, inventor of the hovercraft, would have been proud to see Hampshire's newest passenger craft launch this summer. Viv Micklefield proves that his legacy lives on
“Everything is stacked against you, but for some reason some silly chaps seem to be driven by it (rather like a painter or composer of music), which is perhaps just as well or we should still be living in the Stone Age.” A typically acerbic reflection on the life of an inventor by the late Sir Christopher Cockerell, who often rallied against the Establishment but nonetheless remained patriotic to the end.
Indeed, by the time he died at the family home in Hythe in 1999 aged 88, Cockerell had hundreds of patents to his name. And more than 50 of these were associated with that most curious of hybrids, “neither an airplane, nor a boat, nor a wheeled land craft”, which he named, the hovercraft.
A passionate sailor, Cockerell moved to the south coast during the late 1950s, having already developed a life-saving World War Two radar defence system for the electrical company Marconi. His rudimentary, yet now legendary, kitchen table ‘experiment’ involving two empty tin cans rigged to a vacuum cleaner to create a cushion of air followed. This, he confidently predicted, would make boats go faster by reducing the amount of friction between the boat and the water. Yet, a frustrating three-year wait and financial worries ensued before Cockerell became technical director of the government backed Hovercraft Development Company - his career finally taking flight when a prototype built by Cowes based seaplane manufacturers Saunders and Roe crossed the English Channel in 1959, paving the way for a full commercial service by the mid-60’s.
“We still have people in the team who were involved in some of that early development of the hovercraft,” says Mark Downer, chief engineer at Griffon Hoverwork which, following in Cockerell’s footsteps, today designs and builds many of the world’s most technologically advanced hovercraft – some capable of carrying up to 200 people, at its Southampton factory having moved here from Hythe five years ago. Mark adds: “Being able to retain this expertise is very important to us. Back in the 1960s, TV programmes like ‘Tomorrow’s World’ suggested we’d all be flying around in hovercrafts within 20 years. Of course that didn’t happen, the hovercraft will never be mass market but it does its job extremely well and will always have its place.”
To get an idea of the different uses this amphibian vehicle has been put to over the decades it’s worth visiting the Hovercraft Museum at nearby Lee-on-the-Solent. With 80-plus exhibits and workshops housed within the historic HMS Daedalus ex-military hovercraft hangers, they come in all shapes and sizes.
“We’ve got the Hoverhawk, the first production hovercraft, as well as racing and rescue craft,” says the Museum’s founder Warwick Jacobs, who recalls meeting Cockerell: “He was quite a character - he lived in a little bungalow on the seafront so that he could watch the [hovercraft] trials but eventually resigned over the government’s decision to licence foreign companies to produce hovercraft in exchange for royalties.”
This was later to be overturned, and although there are examples of hovercraft made overseas Warwick admits that pride of place at the Museum goes to those made in Britain. “There’s even a hover Mini alongside one that was used in a James Bond movie, and you’ll find the giant cross-Channel hovercraft the Princess Anne, which we’re about to start renovating.
“A lot of these craft have been used for over 30 years and you can’t do much with an old hovercraft so we’re preserving a unique bit of our heritage, by looking after them for the nation.”
And, it seems, from ex-pilots to crew members Warwick is not alone in having a soft-spot for these rugged yet manoeuvrable craft that can turn in any direction.
“As a 16-year-old back in 1978 I was a beach boy on the last gas turbine hovercraft running in Portsmouth, and it was my job to load and unload the 58-seaters,” he explains. “In those days people were packed-in like sardines. There would be passengers squeezed on to bench seats and then there was all the luggage. I’d often be sat in the aisle on the floor!”
It’s all a far cry from conditions on board today’s 80-seater Island Flyer and Solent Flyer hovercraft, which have recently joined Hovertravel’s fleet on the world’s last remaining scheduled passenger service. The £10 million investment in the Griffon built craft sees passengers travelling between Southsea and Ryde not only enjoying a quieter journey, thanks to bigger propellers and two new low emission diesel-powered engines instead of the previous four - hovering just 1.5 meters above the water visibility is better, and getting on and off is quicker thanks to front loading ramps.
“We offer the fastest service across the Solent,” confirms Hovertravel’s marketing and commercial manager Loretta Lale, “On a calm day it can take as little as seven minutes.
“Each year we handle up to 900 thousand passenger journeys as well as carrying parcels for domestic and business use. During the day, there’s usually one pilot per craft plus one crew member. On late services, and when it’s foggy, we have an additional pilot for navigation.”
Describing it as “a unique job,” Loretta says: “We train both our pilots and others from around the world.” As Mark points out, “passenger and crew safety remains the top priority. Back in Cockerell’s day hovercraft were regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority. Now it’s the Maritime Coastguard Agency – the hovercraft is seen as a boat as opposed to an aircraft, which has a big impact on the way we’re regulated and the technical requirements. This affects everything from the strength of the structure to the navigation systems.”
Just like a boat, hovercrafts undergo a dedication and blessing ceremony which in the case of Hovertravel’s newest craft, was conducted by Sir Ben Ainslie, another Solent ‘flier’ at the cutting-edge of marine engineering. And with its nod to the hovercraft’s roots Cockerell would, surely, have approved of the newly introduced Union Jack livery.
“We offer a service to the local community, as well as being a tourist attraction, and are very proud to continue to fly the flag for Hampshire,” says Loretta.
Take a ride
Hovertravel terminals are located at Clarence Esplanade, Southsea and Quay Road, Ryde. Services run every 30 minutes between 6:15am and 8:30pm, with a 15 minutes service operating at peak times. Tickets can be bought at terminals or online at www.hovertravel.com.
Go back in time
See the largest number of hovercraft parked-up in one place as well as Sir John Thornycroft’s 19th century patented design and Sir Christopher Cockerell’s working models.
• Where: Hovercraft Museum, Marine Parade West, Lee-on-the-Solent, PO13 9NS
• When: Saturdays 10am-4pm; Wednesdays 12pm-4pm
• How: Adult tickets £7, children 5yrs and over £5; family tickets and concessions available. For more info and directions, visit hovercraft-museum.org