An Introduction to the Personal Hovercraft

SLIDESHOW: A closer look at the personal hovercraft in the company of UK-based Vortex.

A personal hovercraft might seem to be a somewhat eccentric mode of transport. However, this impression could be set to fade as luxe models start to appear and people begin to use such craft in tandem with yachts.

“We are in the equivalent of the Wright brothers period for aircraft,” suggests Filip Przybysz. “There’s still a lot of mystery around them because, unlike aircraft, you don’t see them often. People know what they are but aren’t quite sure how they work. But there’s going to be a lot more development. They’re going to get beyond niche appeal.”

Indeed, far from talking about some new hot-shot tech, Przybysz, marketing director of an Indiana-based company called Neoteric, is referring to engineering that is 70 years old but that is only now seeing a recreational market take-off. In fact, more commonplace waterborne toys can step aside — here comes, on a cushion of air, the hovercraft. Although air cushion vehicles have been understood in principle since 1716, it was Christopher Cockerell’s exploration of the use of ‘air lubrication’ to reduce hydrodynamic drag in the 1950s that introduced the modern era of the hovercraft.

“We’re selling more personal hovercraft to people who want something different but who also appreciate their flexibility,” he adds. “After all, hovercraft will take you where other machines won’t — into shallow waters, over ice, snow, sand, concrete. They’re the four-wheel drive of boats. For people who really want to explore, the hovercraft can take them there.”

Certainly the market for these vehicles (typically in the US$20,000 to US$65,000 range) is growing, even though there are only a handful of companies making personal hovercraft. Most are made under government contract for the military and, occasionally, for public transport services. Rob Anderson, of Utah-based Mad Hovercraft, suggests that perceptions are changing too. “There’s the ‘cool’ factor through to an appreciation of what an out-of-this-world experience hovercrafts can offer,” he says. “I would buy a hovercraft over a jet ski or boat unless I’m needing to transport heavy loads. Why? Because they are fun, versatile, functional and bizarre. And the experience of flying is very different to just pulling on the throttle of a jet ski. It’s like a video game. You have to unlock each level of the experience yourself.”

There are challenges to ownership, as Keith Smallwood, managing director of UK-based manufacturers Vortex stresses. The considerable noise can put some off, although the development of slower, larger fans are abating that; and some countries, such as the UK, impose a 12-knot speed limit on most waterways; 15 knots and a hovercraft can properly rise above the water, creating almost no wash and very little spray. This is one reason why some 20 percent of the market for recreational hovercraft might still be attributed to high-performance, single-seater racing craft, and to those used for corporate activities, both on private waters.

But what was once seen as the biggest stumbling block is increasingly now seen as a challenge. Hovercrafts are extremely difficult to steer and even more so to stop, such that training is required. (Neoteric runs its own ‘flight school’ for would-be hovercraft pilots.) Advances in hovercraft design are also improving the situation. Neoteric, for example, has pioneered a reverse-thrust system and, more recently, computer-driven fly-by-wire controls, which is making piloting that much easier.

Personal hovercraft, which, with their rubber cushions and obtrusive power units, can often look somewhat makeshift, are getting a style overhaul too. Michael Mercier is an engineer and founder of Mercier-Jones, a US-based maker of what it calls ‘supercraft’: personal hovercraft kitted out to luxe standards that see prices reach new highs of US$80,000–200,000. Just as importantly, they come with a patent-pending hybrid drive train and propulsion system that is side- rather than rear-mounted. That not only greatly reduces noise levels and enhances control (it means the craft is steerable more like a boat, able to go forwards, backwards and sideways) but allows the vehicle to look more like a sports car on water.

“I’d always seen a disconnect between what is possible in the styling of cars and that of hovercraft. The fact is that the technology used for so long in hovercraft has limited its design language,” explains Mercier, who now has his craft in prototype-testing phase and is taking orders ready for manufacture. “There have been incremental improvements in personal hovercraft but I have been surprised that there haven’t been attempts to re-think them until now. Now that there are we can expect to see more people running hovercraft from their yachts, for example, even the advent of four-seater craft.”

Such craft are already available too: Vortex recently launched a ‘family’ craft powered by Toyota engines, with a seven- to nine-seater craft having been under development. Indeed, it would make for the kind of tender that might attract more interest than the yacht from which it was dispatched and would certainly draw a crowd as it pulled up right outside the shoreline restaurant.

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Keith Smallwood, managing director of UK-based manufacturers Vortex.

Keith Smallwood, managing director of UK-based manufacturers Vortex.

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