There is more to life than airplanes, Part 1

The prototype of the Cushioncraft CC7 light utility hovercraft, St. Helens, Isle of Wight, England, April 1968. John Bentley, “Latest Light Utility: Cushioncraft CC7.” Flight International (Air-Cushion Vehicles supplement), 23 May 1968, 61.

If truth be told, there is indeed more to life than airplanes. A list of items covered in this non aeronautical category would be very long. Any list worthy of the name should, however, include Belgian style beer, dinosaurs and pterosaurs (Private joke. Hi there, Number One.), as well as air cushion vehicles. In other words, hovercrafts. What is a hovercraft, you ask? The question in itself is painful, my reading friend. It shows how little people remember a go-anywhere machine that promised to revolutionise transportation in fairly flat areas where conventional vehicles could not, and still cannot, go – from Arctic tundra to equatorial swamps.

A hovercraft uses blowers of some sort to pack a huge volume of air underneath its hull. This air is typically contained within a flexible skirt. One or more engine-driven propellers usually provide the thrust needed to move the hovercraft. Channelling some of the air sucked in by the blowers will work just as well, as least for relatively small vehicles.

What yours truly found in an April 1968 issue of the world famous British weekly magazine Flight International was one of the many promising hovercrafts launched half a century ago. And yes, a hovercraft was mentioned in a March 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Our story began in fact in 1960 when a small British aircraft maker, Britten-Norman Limited, founded a subsidiary to develop and build, you guessed it, hovercrafts. Between 1960 and 1968, Cushioncraft Limited developed no less than 7 designs. Six of these were actually tested but only one, the CC7, went beyond the prototype stage – and not by much. Cushioncraft became a separate company in 1967 so that British Hovercraft Corporation (BHC), an undisputed world leader in the field mentioned in the aforementioned March 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, could buy a minority share. Faced with serious financial problems, Britten-Norman sold its remaining interests in Cushioncraft to BHC around October 1971. This sale, which took place a few days before the small company went into receivership, pretty much ended all development work given the lack of interest of the new owner in what Cushioncraft had designed.

Having set up the scene and pretty well given away the punch line, yours truly nonetheless suggests that we proceed with the story of the CC7, an improved and slightly larger derivative of the CC5, a hovercraft first run around March 1966 and damaged beyond repair during trials, in October of that same year. The CC7 actually owed its origins to a British Army requirement for a quiet hovercraft it could use for reconnaissance. Cushioncraft and the Ministry of Technology, or Mintech as it was commonly called, signed a research contract at an undetermined date. Tested for the first time in April 1968, the CC7 was the first Cushioncraft machine which was not designed as a proof of concept / research prototype. The company very much wanted to produce this light 8 / 10-seat utility vehicle.

The prototype of the CC7, a relatively inexpensive yet versatile design able to fulfil roles as varied as training, reconnaissance, patrol, firefighting and airport crash rescue, was powered by an ST6 gas turbine, a derivative of the superb PT6 turboprop designed by United Aircraft of Canada Limited (UACL), a subsidiary of the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Division of American aerospace giant United Aircraft Corporation. This somewhat expensive engine provided both lift and propulsion for the vehicle. The absence of propellers greatly reduced the amount of noise produced by the CC7. Arguably the quietest hovercraft of its generation, it was sometimes known as the “Whispering Hovercraft.” And yes, UACL is now known as Pratt & Whitney Canada Incorporated.

Is that it for Canadian content today, you ask, my reading friend? I’m afraid so, say I. So, ta ta for now.

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Rénald Fortier