Can one be seasick in a caravan?

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The one and only Caravans International Hover-Sprite air cushion caravan, London, England. Anon., “International News.” Air-Cushion Vehicles, January 1969, 9.

Hello there, my reading friend, and welcome to the first 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee on the wonderful world of aviation and space, and… What’s this? You do not think that an air cushion caravan fits the mandate of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum of Ottawa, Ontario? I respectfully beg to differ. This unlikely hybrid did lift off the ground, did it not? Besides, you can’t tell me that you are not the least bit intrigued by the image yours truly dredged up from the January 1969 issue of the British monthly magazine Air-Cushion Vehicles? And yes, we talked about hovercraft in March and May 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. What can I say, I like hovercraft. So there.

I am pleased to confirm that the vehicle in our photo was indeed an air cushion caravan, and… No, no, I am not kidding. This vehicle, say I, was made by Caravans International Limited. This British company, also known as CI Group, was a major player in the British caravan industry, and…

You still think I’m trying to mock you, don’t you? All right, I have therefore no other choice than to include in this article the caption of the Air-Cushion Vehicles photo:

Built for use in the “Avengers” TV series, this “Hoversprite” is the brainchild of Dan Reece and Henry Overman who demonstrated it in London last month. The Sprite Musketeer Caravan has an all-round skirt, a lift engine mounted inboard and a propulsion unit on top.

Now, you may ask yourself why a respected firm like Caravans International would become involved in the fabrication of a vehicle as impractical as an air cushion caravan. The information in that regard was / is a wee bit unclear, if I may say so. While some claim that this vehicle was built as a publicity stunt, others claimed that the Hover-Sprite was a research vehicle used to determine the potential of vehicles of this type. This being said (typed?), as we both know, it has also been suggested that our hovering caravan was built for use in at least one episode of The Avengers. In any event, the Hover-Sprite did not prove commercially successful.

And no, the characters of the aforementioned The Avengers have nothing to do with the comic book universe created by the talented artists of Marvel Comics Incorporated / Marvel Worldwide Incorporated. The Avengers was a British espionage television series broadcasted between 1961 and 1969. It could be quite humorous, and… What is it with you today, my reading friend? You already have a second question? Was one of the iconic characters of The Avengers, the formidable Emma Peel, played by the same actress who portrayed Olenna Tyrell in the television saga Game of Thrones? Why, yes, she was, of course. So, where were we? Oh yes. The time has now come to pontificate on the origins of the Hover-Sprite.

In which episode of The Avengers did the Hover-Sprite appear, you ask, my slightly annoying reading friend? Well, I have to answer that I do not think it actually appeared in the series, which is too bad. Now seriously, the time has really come to pontificate on the origins of the Hover-Sprite.

To make a long story short, Caravans International engineers turned a perfectly normal 4-berth Sprite Musketeer caravan into the one and only Hover-Sprite. They did so with the help of 2 hovercraft enthusiasts, Dan Reece and Henry Overman. Indeed, it looks as if Reece was at the controls of the Hover-Sprite when it was demonstrated in London in December 1968. Back then, this gentleman may have been professionally interested in small hovercraft for longer than anyone else on this Earth.

Did you know that a Sprite Musketeer towed by a British sport car set a (non-recognised?) world speed record of 164 kilometres / hour (102 miles / hour) in 1964? Yee ahh!

Although born in the United Kingdom, Reece caught the hover bug in Australia in the early 1960s. This former airline pilot actually took part in the first hovercraft race held anywhere in the world. Reece was one of the 10 pilots at the starting line, in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, in March 1964. Contrary to what some sources say, it looks as if he did not win. Reece was, however, one of the 5 pilots who completed the circuit, as 10 to 20 000 people cheered them on.

Reece later moved to the United Kingdom where he took part in the first amateur hovercraft rally held in Europe, if not the world, in June 1966. Said rally was organized by a hovercraft enthusiast, Lord Brassey, also known as Baron Brassey of Apethorpe, born Bernard Thomas Brassey. Reece joined the staff of Hover-Air Limited, a hovercraft making company founded by Brassey in March or August 1966, to design and produce hovercraft for private and agricultural use. He was one of the company’s 3 directors as well as its chief designer.

In order to design and make hovercraft, Hover-Air had to sign a licensing agreement with British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC) and Hovercraft Development Limited (HDL), a subsidiary of National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) created to handle all licensing agreements employing ideas developed by the father of the hovercraft, a British engineer named Christopher Sydney Cockerell. Even so, Hover-Air could only make 1- or 2-seat hovercraft of limited power. And yes, BHC was mentioned in March and May 2018 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Incidentally, NRDC was formed in 1948, by the British government, to encourage the financing of British inventions. Would you believe that The Inventors’ Club, a very popular television series put on the air to encourage the production of British inventions mentioned in an October 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, was first broadcasted in 1948?

Hover-Air formed a subsidiary, Hover Hire Limited, in late 1966, to provide its small hovercraft to groups and individuals who wanted them for trials, training and demonstrations.

Reece soon designed a light / small hovercraft for Hover-Air. He may well have tested the single-seat (HA-1?) Hoverbat himself, in October 1966. The company intended to produce kit and complete examples of this hovercraft in the United Kingdom and Canada. Founded in the late winter of 1966-67, Canadian Hover-Air Limited of Fredericton, New Brunswick, was owned by Hover-Air and investors hailing from Canada and the United States. Reece was in Canada to complete the deal.

According to some, Canadian Hover-Air was effectively a subsidiary of Chestnut Canoe Company of Fredericton – one of the largest makers of wood and fabric canoes in Canada for some / many years. From the looks of it, it did not remain in operation for very long. And yes, my nature loving reading friend, the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, of Ottawa, a sister / brother (Evil brother? Sorry.) institution of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, has in its collection 1 canoe made by Chestnut Canoe.

You may be pleased to hear (read?), or perhaps not, that the Hoverbat was the first light / small hovercraft available as a kit in the United Kingdom, if not the world. Would you believe that a small team put together a kit in January 1967 during the International Boat Show held in London? That Hoverbat left the site under its own power. Mind you, enthusiasts with a bit more money could buy a complete Hoverbat with a pretty paint scheme. In late 1966 or early 1967, trainee hovercraft pilots assigned to the hovercraft trials squadron of the British Army’s Royal Corps of Transport, a unit founded in 1966 mentioned in a May 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, spent some time at the controls of a Hoverbat loaned to their unit for a period of 2 weeks.

Another claim to fame of the Hoverbat lie in the fact that the prototype was acquired in 1966 by a major London right of centre newspaper. It was soon thoroughly modified by a team of London schoolboys acting under the direction of John Vass, the associate news editor of that very newspaper. Given the fact that the hovercraft was a British invention, the management of The Daily Express set out to promote the development of a popular amateur sport it called hoverplaning, to be performed by enthusiastic hovernauts. Would you believe that, in early 1967, the newspaper actually gave away complete Hoverbats to the 6 winners of a competition it had organised?

The Express Air Rider 2-seat hovercraft, as the modified Hoverbat was called, was intended as a test bed for ideas sent in by hundreds, if not thousands of amateur hovercraft enthusiasts and / or builders. It was on display at the aforementioned International Boat show, for example. The Air Rider even won a national competition in July 1967.

A complete set of plans for the Air Rider was soon ready. The first hovercraft put together using them was tested in April 1968. By the early 1970s, the Air Rider was one of the most popular and successful light / small hovercraft in the world. A hundred or so were under construction in British schools. Better yet, more than 5 000 educational institutions and amateur builders from around the globe contacted The Daily Express to obtain sets of plans. No one will ever know how many Air Riders were actually completed and used.

Did you know that the first hovercraft club in Canada was seemingly located in Fredericton? Seemingly affiliated with the Hover Club of Great Britain, the Hover Club of Canada came into existence in January 1967. Its honorary secretary was an individual who was deeply interested in helping Canadian amateur hovercraft makers gain access to kits of one or more good vehicles. Peter Rubie was a British Second World War veteran who had served in the British Army. Incidentally, he was also the managing director of Canadian Hover-Air. It looks as Rubie had quite the entrepreneurial spirit. Sadly enough, he was never all that successful.

Reece designed a 2-seat version of the Hoverbat known as the HA-2 Hovertwin, not to mention a crop spraying derivative known as the HA-3. In late 1966, he also designed a 5-seat hovercraft fitted with an original skirt system that was not covered by the licensing agreement with BHC and HDL. The new hovercraft, tested in early 1967, was created to fulfil a requirement submitted by a famous French oceanographer / inventor / filmmaker / environmentalist / author. Jacques-Yves Cousteau thought that a hovercraft could come in handy during the filming of his famous American television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, broadcasted between September 1966 and May 1976. Yours truly remembers watching this remarkable series, in French, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

I have yet to find information concerning the use of the 5-seat hovercraft by Cousteau’s team. To make a long story short, I’m not ever sure this machine was delivered, or even completed. And no, yours truly cannot say if the Cousteau hovercraft was known as the HA-4.

Reece’s main claim to fame, however, was arguably the design of the first commercially produced light / small hovercraft, a derivative of the Hoverbat and Hovertwin as one might expect, the 2-seat HA-5 Hoverhawk. One of the most successful light / small hovercraft in the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Hoverhawk could be found in at least 15 countries in Africa (Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Zambia), America (Canada, Mexico and United States), Asia (Malaysia and Singapore), Europe (East Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and United Kingdom) and Oceania (Australia). These hovercraft were evaluated for roles as varied as herbicide spraying in tropical swamps and mail carrying over ice and snow.

Eager to maximize exports, the British Ministry of Technology, or Mintech, as it was commonly called, sponsored a variety of events and tours. A Hoverhawk travelled down the Nile River, in Egypt, in 1969, for example. In June of that year, another Hoverhawk performed demonstration runs at the Royal Saint Lawrence Yacht Club, at Dorval, Québec, with 4 other hovercrafts, 2 of them British and 2 of them Canadian. The heat was appalling but the only problem was a broken fuel pump on the Hoverhawk, which was promptly replaced. The demonstration runs were the main outdoor activity for the Third Canadian Symposium on Air-Cushion Technology, organised by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute and an international organisation based in the United States, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. Apparently held at Montreal-Dorval International Airport, this 3-day symposium was part of a series mentioned in a March 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. If truth be told, Mintech, the symposium and the demonstration runs were all mentioned in a May 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

The Hoverhawk mentioned in the previous paragraph was taking part in a tour of the United States and Canada organised by Mintech. Said tour led to the largest project Hover-Air was ever involved in: a 5-year contract signed in late 1969 with H.C. Paul Limited of Winnipeg, Manitoba, a division of Winnipeg-based Acklands Limited. This company, which sold motorcycles, snowmobiles and motorboats throughout Canada, was convinced that light / small hovercraft had a bright future in a huge country like Canada. Its hope and faith were great indeed. You see, my reading friend, the aforementioned contract involved the delivery of no less than 4 500 Hoverhawks, Hoverhornets and Hoverlarks, the latter being single seat hovercraft unveiled in January 1970 and in 1971.

H.C. Paul would endeavour to sell this hovering multitude in Canada and Alaska, if not the United States as a whole. The Hoverhawk could be of interest to hunters and fishermen. The Hoverhornet and Hoverlark, on the other hand, might appeal to people interested in having fun. Would you believe that the Hoverhornet was so small and light that it could be carried on the roof of an average family automobile? Yours truly cannot say if the Hovernaut, a super compact inflatable single seat hovercraft introduced in 1971, was to be distributed in Canada. I must also confess that I do not know how many Hover-Air hovercraft actually made it to Canada. That number was probably quite small. How can I say that, you may ask? Well, my reading friend, that’s because Hover-Air went under in 1971. A liquidation sale took place in October of that year.

By then, Reece was long gone. Indeed, he left the company in March 1967, soon after returning from Canada. By early 1968, he was sales manager of another newly founded British hovercraft making company, Barwren Hover Limited, a subsidiary of a construction company by the name of Barton Construction Company. He did not stay long. If truth be told, Reece founded Hoverquipment Limited in the spring of 1968. His partner in this venture was the aforementioned Overman. If I may digress for 1 moment or 4, during the spring and summer of 1968, Hoverquipment offered joy rides at a small airport, using a pair of 2-seat Barwren Crested Wren hovercraft leased from Bristol-Myers Corporation, and… I know, I know. What in the blazes would a cosmetic company do with 2 light hovercraft? Hoverquipment remained in business until 1969-70, if not a bit later. At some point, Reece moved to South Africa, possibly after a somewhat violent incident involving a former employee.

Founded in November 1967, Barwren Hover may have gone under around 1970-71. Yours truly has a feeling that Hoverquipment did not remain active for very long either. If truth be told, quite a few hovercraft enthusiasts founded small companies in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United Kingdom and other countries around the globe. Most of them did not last long. The 1973 oil crisis may well have played a role in the demise of many of these pioneering firms.

That’s pretty much it for today, I’m afraid, my reading friend. As you prepare to leave the wonderful world of aviation and space to return to the real and boring world out there, may I offer you a little something, a video actually, from a Website I dearly love? Said video is located at

Ciao.

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Rénald Fortier