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Hovercrafts: Cool, but Pretty Much Useless

Posted August 28, 2013 10:37 AM by HUSH

In the category of "News That Surprised No One," last week tourists on a beach in Kaliningrad, Russia were exposed to an ill-timed hovercraft invasion rehearsal. In the middle of sunbathers and swimmers, a Zubr-class hovercraft-the world's largest air-cushioned vehicle-deployed armed marines onto the beach and expelled visitors from the Baltic shore. Russian officials say they don't know why beachgoers were on a military base; local newspapers say they don't know why a hovercraft was on a public beach. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Something crazy happening in Russia? Old news. It happened on video too? Snooze. The Russian government is ambiguous about its mistake? Yawn.

Perhaps the only thing noteworthy about this footnote in everyday Russia would be the presence of a hovercraft. Though amphibious hovercrafts captured the imagination when they were first publically revealed in the 1950s, today they remain relatively pointless. So the fact that a hovercraft is even in discussion is somewhat notable.

Prior to World War II, there were many attempts to develop a vehicle which floated on a cushion of air. In fact, engineers at the Ford automotive plant in 1929 invented what they called "levapads." Levapads were metallic disks, shaped akin to poppet valves, which distributed high-pressure air underneath the device to create lift. Three or more levapads had to be implemented to increase load stability, but engineers at Ford believed they had a major breakthrough. Initially it was believed that the levapads could be used to replace casters on heavy equipment, allowing friction-free transportation of machinery. However, by the 1950s, Ford began envisioning cars which levitated by the use of its levapads. It was a bold concept/hallucination because Ford didn't have a way of powering the cars forward; eventually the idea died.

Instead two separate hovercraft designs were being developed concurrently in 1959; one by Christopher Cockerell, an Englishmen who created the SR.N1 (pictured left), and the other by the cooperation of Curtiss-Wright and Studebaker-Packard, who created the Air Car (in the video at right). While neither design was particularly robust, the SR.N1 proved to be more reliable and easily upgraded, and project engineers at Curtiss-Wright had trouble maintaining the Air Car's stability on uneven terrain. Once the SR.N1 was outfitted with more power, rudders and a rubber skirt to raise the craft's running height, the hovercraft concept was finalized. By 1962, the first commercial hovercraft entered operation, and by 1968 hovercrafts had established ferry services across the English Channel.

The last significant commercial hovercraft service, which carried up to 1.25 million passengers a year, was discontinued in 2000. Mainly, fuel costs began to outweigh the revenue brought in by the novel vehicles and high-speed catamarans have proved more proficient. In the 1960s, when fuel was pretty cheap, it was easy to supply a vehicle which could burn 1,200 gallons of fuel per hour. As time waned and oil prices surged, hovercrafts became increasingly inefficient. Furthermore, the skirts on hovercrafts are easily damaged by debris or even rough seas. The skirts of hovercrafts are manufactured in as few pieces as possible, meaning a damaged skirt wasn't a simple patch-job. According to Roger Syms, a hovercraft historian, "When you have a car, you don't expect that you'll have to change the tires every night. There would have to be a huge advancement in skirt technology [to revitalize the hovercraft industry]."

So in 2013, most hovercrafts in production are comparatively small with niche roles. These types of hovercrafts can typically be operated by only one engine to achieve operating discounts, and the small skirts are easy to replace. Small-sized hovercrafts became popular with fire departments and rescue organizations in Nordic and Eastern European countries thanks to the rasputitsa, a time of the spring where melting snow cakes much of the landscape with mud. They're also used by Canadian and American rescue squads to save ice fisherman who get stranded on the Great Lakes. Hovercrafts have increased access to remote parts of Alaska, as they're used to deliver mail in the bush and ferry passengers across islands. Let's not forget about Hovercraft racing, which tests a driver's aptitude of transitioning across terrains while racing other drivers. It's also worth mentioning that hovercrafts have been imagined as a type of golf cart that won't leave tracks, but that was mostly a joke.

There are few needs for or operators of large-sized, multiple engine hovercrafts. For the most part, militaries are the only spendthrifts with the pockets for hovercraft upkeep, and only the Russian and Chinese militaries seem intent on building more. The new U.S. military version is in design, but its $4 billion budget has yet to be approved. The only large, production hovercraft which finds a commercial use would be the Hoverbarge, a collection of air-cushioned barges which can be used through a variety of terrains, and can even be pulled by helicopter.

Unfortunately, as novel as the hovercraft is, it seems destined for the scrapheap. There remain few uses for the vehicle outside of rescue operations and military landings, and considering the costs of their operation, one assumes the military will find a more suitable alternative as soon as possible. So next time you see a hovercraft, take a moment to savor it, as it just may be last time.

Resources

TIME - Massive Hovercraft Startles Russian Beachgoers...

Wikipedia - Hovercraft; SR.N1

PopSci - Why Aren't Hovercraft More Useful?

Jalopnik - The Legend of Ford's Flying Car Debunked

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#1

Re: Hovercrafts: Cool, but Pretty Much Useless

08/28/2013 8:30 PM

They are great as beach landing vehicles.

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#2

Re: Hovercrafts: Cool, but Pretty Much Useless

08/29/2013 1:16 PM

A buddy of mine has several of them. They don't climb hills worth a darn and surprisingly despite being lightweight and floating on a cushion of air some do not actually float on water if the engine gives out.

Or at least they don't float well enough to do the operator, fuel tanks, engines, and electrical systems any good!

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#3

Re: Hovercrafts: Cool, but Pretty Much Useless

08/31/2013 6:23 AM

Yeah...
I'll sumarise.
The Russians are the bad guys...
Henry Ford invented the hovercraft...
Groan... more Xenophobic claptrap.

In the interests of balance lets say maybe Snowden doesn't think he'll get justice in a country that stll has Guantanamo Bay operating outside of any legal jurisdiction.
I also get the feeling that if the US (and UK) hadn't made such a huge fuss about the whole thing, would have just quietly gone away...
It smacks of school kids squabbling over a ball.

Right... now..
Who wants to discus Syria

Del
(BTW can I cave my ball back?)

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#4
In reply to #3

Re: Hovercrafts: Cool, but Pretty Much Useless

09/05/2013 5:53 AM
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#5
In reply to #4

Re: Hovercrafts: Cool, but Pretty Much Useless

09/05/2013 10:44 AM

tee hee... that's a great sign
Del

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