Page last updated at 23:05 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 00:05 UK

Hovercraft still afloat 50 years on

By Brian Milligan
Business reporter, BBC News


Former pilot Stuart Syrad recalls the hovercraft's early days

It all began with a tin of cat food, an empty coffee tin and a hairdryer.

Griffon hovercraft on the Solent
Today's hovercraft are the product of 50 years of experience

When air was forced between the two tins, the ensemble began to float on its own little cushion of air.

Thus, through a combination of eccentricity and genius, Sir Christopher Cockerell invented the hovercraft, in a shed, in a boatyard, in Norfolk.

For years afterwards, the invention was kept top secret, as the government wanted to explore its military potential.

But on 11 June 1959, the SRN-1 was finally unveiled to the world's press, at the Saunders Roe boatyard at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Until then, the company had been known as a manufacturer of flying boats.

In response to pressure from the photographers present, the SRN-1 was then towed out to sea and took to the water for the first time.

Five weeks later, the same hovercraft crossed the Channel, from Calais to Dover, on the 50th anniversary of Louis Bleriot's pioneering flight in 1909.

"People called it the flying saucer, because it looked so strange," says Stuart Syrad, one of only four SRN-1 pilots still alive.

"Driving it was very sweaty work."

Heyday of hover

In the years that followed, before noise and fuel economy was ever an issue, the hovercraft certainly looked like it might become a regular form of public transport.

SRN-1 completing its first Channel crossing in 1959
Name: Saunders Roe Nautical 1
Launch: 11 June 1959
Length: 31ft 5in
Beam: 25ft
Speed: 35 knots
Built: Cowes, Isle of Wight
First Channel crossing: 25 July 1959 (pictured above)

A commercial service was launched across the River Dee in 1962.

By 1968, two giant SRN-4's were plying their way across the Channel.

Over 33 years of service, the Princess Anne and the Princess Margaret carried about 80 million passengers and cars in what was then the fastest crossing time.

But competition from the Channel tunnel, and the end of duty-free alcohol and cigarettes, meant the service became uneconomic.

It closed in 2000.

The only remaining passenger hovercraft now work between Portsmouth and Ryde on the Isle of Wight.

Craft skills

While there may not be much demand for passenger-carrying hovercraft in the UK, there is huge demand from other countries, particularly from Indonesia and India.

Swamps, deserts, mudflats and river deltas are perfect territory for the hovercraft. One British company, Griffon Hoverwork, boasts that more than half the operational hovercraft in the world were made at its factories on the Solent.

"The UK has sold more commercial hovercraft than any other country in the world," says Ben Bradley-Watson of Griffon. "The UK leads the world in design, manufacture and operation of hovercraft."

Griffon hovercraft on the Solent
Griffon's hovercraft are exported all over the world

One man who has lived and loved hovercraft as much as Sir Christopher Cockerell is John Gifford, the technical director of Griffon.

At the age of just 15, he had already built his first machine. Since his father was friends with Sir Christopher, he even managed to get it inspected by the inventor himself.

We caught up with him as he piloted a Griffon 2000 across the choppy waters of the Solent.

"We've got a very wide range of customers," he says. "The RNLI, the Royal Marines, coastguards, and oil exploration companies." Business is apparently booming. "We're getting bigger demand rather than less demand," he says.

In a series of unobtrusive sheds at Hythe, on the west side of Southampton Water, you see what he means.

In the first one, a hovercraft for the Kuwaiti coastguard is taking shape.

Next door, a hybrid hover-and-landing craft is being built for the Ministry of Defence.

"It's a typical mix of our business these days," says the boss of Griffon, Adrian Went.

Less bovver

One spin-off of Sir Christopher Cockerell's invention has been the hover mower. Like its counterpart, it works on the principle of a cushion of air.

Flymo lawnmower in action
Hovercraft technology is used in gardens across the UK

The leading brand, Flymo, has a 40% share of the British lawnmower market.

But although gardeners in the UK have adopted the hover technology in their millions, very few of the mowers are exported.

Flymo is owned by a Swedish company, but the mowers are still built in County Durham, where the factory supports hundreds of jobs.

So Sir Christopher's tin of Maxwell House and tin of Kit-e-Kat have quite a lot to answer for.

For that reason, they are the star exhibits at the world's one and only hovercraft museum.

Appropriately that is based on the Solent, the spiritual home of a British invention and a British business which is still very much afloat.


Brian Milligan talks to Griffon Hoverwork's John Gifford

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