Visit the rare and historic vehicles of the Hovercraft Museum

This unique museum in Southern England specializes in the rarest of vehicles: the hovercraft. Here’s a look around.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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The Hovercraft Museum

On the southern coast of England is a unique and fascinating place called the Hovercraft Museum, dedicated to the preservation and celebration of this rare form of transport.

We weren't sure what to expect, after all the museum's only open one day a week part of the year. For the full story behind our tour, check out The Hovercraft Museum is a miracle of floating metal machines, and we're big fans.

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The first stop was the workshop, where many hovercraft were in the process of being restored.

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The first production light hovercraft, the Hoverhawk. This is one of three the museum is restoring.

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So long, Princess

One of the only pieces left of the first SR.N4, Princess Margaret. It was scrapped in 2018.

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A MkII Hoverhawk, from 1969. Heavily restored and updated at the museum, it now features the gas turbine APU from a Harrier jump jet, which should give it rather spirited performance. Land and sea testing are due to begin in 2020.

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Canadian hover

A Hover Rover, built in Canada. Rare in in Britain, and even rarer elsewhere, this is a cargo version with space behind the cockpit to carry supplies.

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I'm a big fan

A variable pitch propulsion fan.

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Black guard

An American-made Hovertechnics Hoverguard 800. These were stationed at Heathrow airport in case an aircraft had to ditch in the marsh near the runways. They would rush out and deliver life rafts to the survivors.

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Resto proto

This is HD2, a testbed for new designs and technologies by Hovercraft Development.

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In process

One of the museum's volunteers working on the Osprey 5 search and rescue hovercraft of the Association of Search and Rescue Hovercraft, Gosport Branch.

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The second largest hovercraft at the museum is the British Hovercraft Corporation BH.7.

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Military hover

The BH.7 was intended for military use and was evaluated by the Royal Navy for 13 years in various roles. 

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Versatile layout

Depending on the role and the arrangement, the overall layout would vary. In this case the wardroom is on the port side, with a galley aft.

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The BH.7 could travel for 11 hours or more, depending on the mission, so the crew needs a kitchen.

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An alternate arrangement would have the command crew in the center compartment, with soldiers sitting in each side compartment.

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The BH.7 was well suited for antisubmarine and antinaval mine missions.

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The big cylinder on the right is the container for the Plessey Speedscan sonar. 

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In yet another arrangement, up to 170 troops, plus up to three Land Rovers, could all get crammed inside for fast amphibious transportation. 

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Up a short ladder in the middle of the cargo area (or a long reach with a selfie stick), is the control cabin. Three men, two pilots and a navigator/radar operator had a commanding view from here.

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Though not put in production for the Royal Navy, Iran bought six in the 70s. It's widely assumed these are stored or scrapped due to their age and the inability of Iran to get spare parts due to trade embargoes. 

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Proto hero

The museum's BH.7 is the original and well tested prototype. This craft also made it from here all the way up to the Arctic Circle. 

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Princess Anne

Time for the star of the show, the Mountbatten-class SR.N4 Princess Anne.

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Princess Anne is the largest civilian hovercraft ever built, and only slightly smaller than the largest military hovercraft, the Zubr-class.

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Of the 6 SR.N4s built, this is the sole survivor. 

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Cliffs of Dover

The SR.N4 connected Dover, in the UK, with Boulogne, in France. This trip took about 35 minutes, depending on the weather. There was also a route between Ramsgate and Calais.

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Heavy hauler

In their final form, the SR.N4s could carry over 60 cars and 400 passengers. 

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It was the jet age, and the interior of the SR.N4 had an aircraft vibe to it.

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Duty free

It's said that the real death knell for the cross-channel hovercraft service, and the SR.N4, was the end of duty-free shopping onboard.

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Upper class

Pay a bit extra and you got a table.

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On and off

At the back of the craft are massive doors to facilitate faster loading and unloading.

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One of the huge lift fans.

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View forward

The SR.N4s were in service between 1968 and 2000. The Anne's sister ship, Princess Margret, was featured in Diamonds Are Forever.

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Fast mover

The cruising speed of the SR.N4s was around 69 mph (111 kph). With no cargo or passengers, top speed was around 96 mph.

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While the crossing usually took 35 minutes, on one favorable day in September 1995, this very craft did the crossing in a record 22 minutes -- a record that still stands for a car-carrying vessel.

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Food prep

They're still restoring the galley, which was on the port side, aft.

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The edge of one of the huge ducts to channel air underneath the craft.

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Some of the many electronics and wires needed to keep the SR.N4 hovering.

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The control cabin for Princess Anne is off limits, but adjacent is the nearly identical control cabin for the Swift, the second SR.N4 built. Upfront would be a pilot and a first officer, who doubled as a flight engineer. 

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Keeping an eye out

Not being the most graceful handling machines, radar was used to look out for anything that needed to be avoided.

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In the back

The radarman had his own seat in the back of the control cabin.

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Each SR.N4s would have four of these Bristol Proteus turboprop gas turbines.

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Later Bond

A few decades after James Bond rode on Princess Anne, hovercraft were used far more extensively in Die Another Day. This is one of the Osprey 5 MKIIs used in the filming.

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Despite the numbering, the SR.N5 actually flew before development started on the much larger SR.N4.

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Apprentice to a pilot

This SR.N5, believed to be the last survivor, was a training craft. 

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Low numbers

Only 14 SR.N5s were ever built, including seven by Bell in the US. An updated and stretched version became the far more successful SR.N6.

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Winchester 6

The Winchester-class SR.N6 was the first commercial hovercraft and was widely used and widely successful. This is the prototype.

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A coach-load

In stretched form the SR.N6 could carry 58 passengers, similar numbers as a bus.

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Navy fixed-wing and helicopter pilots were early recruits to fly hovercraft, which is logical.

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Double 6

This is also an SR.N6, but an evolution of the original design with two smaller props instead of one big one. The smaller props, in this case, producing less noise than the single larger one. This is the oldest operational hovercraft in the world.

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Hovering griffon

This is a Griffon 2000TD, which comes in both civilian and, as you see here, military variants.

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I wasn't sure what to expect with the Hovercraft Museum, but it turned out to be a fantastic place to visit. These are unique machines, and I'm glad to see them being preserved. 

During the summer and fall, the museum is open on Saturdays. For more about the hovercraft you've seen, the museum and our visit, check out The Hovercraft Museum is a miracle of floating metal machines.

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