55 years ago today the world’s first passenger hovercraft entered service. The very first service ran across the Dee Estuary between Rhyl in North East Wales and Moreton Beach, Merseyside.
The first hovercraft was invented and patented by Christopher Cockerell in 1952, although several other inventors before this had experimented with technology along similar lines. The Patent Office was initially unsure whether to class the new invention as an aircraft or a boat, and the hovercraft seemed like a sci-fi dream come true when it first appeared. In 1959 one crossed the English Channel to huge enthusiasm from the public. Sir Christopher was knighted for services to engineering in 1969.
The crossing of the Dee Estuary was revolutionary, as previously the journey, by road, had taken more than two hours. The new hovercraft passenger service was scheduled to make 12 trips per day, taking 30 minutes per trip, at a cost of £2 for a return ticket. The hovercraft involved, a Vickers VA3, weighed 12 tons, and was run by British United Airways.
Unfortunately it soon ran into problems, despite launching in the summer, weather problems meant it only operated for 19 days out of a scheduled 54, and rarely managed the proposed 12 trips a day. Eventually disaster struck and the engines failed halfway through the journey. Passengers were taken off and attempts made to moor the hovercraft, but it broke free and drifted out to sea, eventually smashing into the promenade wall at Rhyl.
If you want to find out more about the invention of hovercraft, design, construction and their impact on passenger transport then our Transport History Collection is the place to look!