11 June 1959: Hovercraft makes its debut on the Solent

SR-N1 hovercraft © Getty images
The Saunders-Roe Nautical 1, or SR-N1 for short, could hit 25 knots

“Is it an aircraft, or is it a ship”, asked The Times correspondent who’d been given the enviable task of wandering down to the shores of the Solent on a summer’s day in 1959 to report on the initial trials of the hovercraft.

He wasn’t being profound – he really didn’t know. In the next line of his write-up, he confesses to his readers that “the fine spray thrown up by the air cushion supporting the hull” had obscured his view, which provided him with “an unconvincing answer”. What he did know, though, was that he was in the presence of a pioneering new form of transport.

The SR-N1, developed by Saunders-Roe Ltd, was powered by a single Alvis Leonides engine, which delivered 435 horsepower to a vertical fan that could take the “flying saucer” to a top speed of 25 knots. It was 24-feet wide and ten-feet tall at its centre. Hovering 15 inches above the surface, the air driven through the four-bladed axial fan could be diverted through horizontal nozzles to give the pilot direction.

The National Research Development Corporation provided an initial funding of £150,000, or £3.1m today, with the aim of developing a larger vehicle for cross-Channel services, and eventually ginormous oceanic hovercrafts for carrying thousands of tonnes of freight at speeds of up to 120 knots.

While the latter would remain a pipe dream, the English Channel was crossed a few weeks later on 25 July 1959. It had been believed that the technology would make trips to the continent not only faster, but also more cost effective than ferries. This, however, was never the case, and in 2000, the service was stopped.

As for the SR-N1, in December 1959, Prince Philip got his hands on the controls and flew the hovercraft so fast, he put a ding in the bow. It was never repaired and forever after, it was known as ‘the Royal Dent’.

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  • Robin Paine

    There is a 700 page book, with 450 pictures called ‘On a Cushion of Air’, (available through Amazon, The Book Depository and Kindle), which tells the story of Christopher Cockerell’s discovery that heavy weights could be supported on a cushion of low pressure air, and the development of the hovercraft by those who were there, from the very early days through to the heyday of the giant 165-ton SRN.4, which crossed the English Channel starting in 1968 carrying 30 cars and 254 passengers at speeds in excess of 75 knots on a calm day. It was subsequently widened to carry 36 cars and 280 passengers with an A.U.W. of 200 tones and was later lengthened to an A.U.W of 325 tons and capable of carrying 55 cars and 424 passengers. The amazing point was that from 165 tons to 325 tons only 400 extra hp was required, although a bit of speed was sacrificed, proving conclusively that Christopher Cockerell’s theory was sound.

    Sadly, for economic reasons, the service came to an end on 1st October 2000. In total 6 SR.4s were built and the two remaining ones are in the Hovercraft Museum at Lee-on-Solent. See http://www.onacushionofair.com