Aid that rides on a cushion of air

Familiar Hovercraft passenger ferries are also carrying supplies to

More than 100,000 people in an isolated area of Zambia, central Africa, are hoping for the sight next year of a large British-built Hovercraft roaring toward them across the Zambezi River, carrying food and other provisions.

It is no coincidence that the machine will be built in the United Kingdom. Air-cushion vehicles were invented on the Isle of Wight, off England's south coast, 40 years ago. Most of the estimated 2,500 Hovercraft in service around the world today were built either in Britain or made elsewhere under UK license.

After enjoying widespread international interest for a time as large-scale passenger carriers, (for example, on the cross-Channel journey between England and France), their novelty faded as hydrofoils and other speedy craft came into use.

But today, Hovercraft are attracting reawakened attention.

Their versatility in a wide range of roles - from delivering aid in developing nations, to land-mine clearing, to seaside recreation - is becoming widely appreciated.

Inhabitants of the town of Kalabo, on Zambia's Barotse Flood Plain, are used to seeing small Hovercraft, called River Rovers, skimming the waters above the 50-mile dirt road that is washed out by torrential rains for six months of the year, making it unusable by ordinary vehicles.

But according to David Wiltshire, director of the charity HoverAid, based at Gosport, southern England, "a much larger machine is required to help so many needy people."

Humanitarian tool

HoverAid, a registered charity that has been using air-cushion vehicles as humanitarian tools since the 1970s in many parts of the developing world, is currently spearheading a bid to replace the eight-seat River Rover Hovercraft with a single vehicle capable of carrying 80 people or an equivalent weight in freight.

"We have used River Rovers to great effect in places as far apart as Nepal, China, Papua New Guinea, and the tributaries of the Amazon River," says Mr. Wiltshire, who works closely with Christian missions and local aid organizations.

"If we can get a much larger Hovercraft operating in western Zambia as a permanent ferry, the people of the Barotse Plain will benefit hugely. They will then be certain of receiving supplies throughout the year, and they will be able to reach markets for their own produce," Wiltshire adds.

The use of Hovercraft for humanitarian purposes is only one role for the machine invented by British engineer Sir Christopher Cockerell in the 1950s.

Since 1967, large passenger-carrying Hovercraft have plied the English Channel, riding a stable cushion of air over often-rough seas and making the crossing between Dover and Calais, France, typically in 35 minutes compared with an hour and a half by seagoing ferries.

The United States Marines have some 100 of the giant machines in service, and used them during Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.

Newer applications

Britain's Ministry of Defense even sees a future for Hovercraft in safely traversing areas sown with land mines. A Royal Marines spokesman said, "The air cushion they ride on doesn't trigger the detonators, so it's possible to cross a minefield and get to safe ground without sustaining damage or casualties."

A firm in Scotland has developed a sporting version of the Hovercraft ridden by one person, Jet-ski style.

Mitchell Sorbie, managing director of Sorbie Research International, says the "hover-jet," which is 10 feet long and just over four feet wide, will sell for 2,500 ($4,000), compared with up to 8000 ($12,500) for a jet ski. He says the top speed of a hover-jet will be 65 to 70 m.p.h.

"It is quieter, safer, and cheaper, and we believe there is a market for it worldwide," Mr. Sorbie says. He plans to sell as many as 300 this year in Britain and then market the machines internationally.

Such confidence is comparatively new in the Hovercraft industry.

Speaking at a "hover-show" May 28 in Lee-on-Solent, close to the workshop where Cockerell developed the first air-cushion vehicle, Warwick Jacobs, secretary of the British Hovercraft Society, said Hovercraft have had a "sometimes difficult history."

'High-flying ships'

Surrounded by dozens of the machines drawn up on dry land, Mr. Jacobs explained that initially the British government classified Hovercraft as "low-flying aircraft," so they had to conform to complex civil aviation regulations. "Now, however, they have been reclassified as high-flying ships, and under marine legislation it's much easier and cheaper to get them licensed.

"Forty years ago, when these craft first appeared, the expectation was that the big machines would dominate the market," Jacobs says.

"Now the trend is toward smaller, sleeker, highly versatile models. And if single-person hover-jets prove a success, we can expect to see thousands of them on beaches, rivers and lakes very soon."

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