Why didn’t somebody tell me that he had one of those… things? Part 2

One of the River Rover prototype shortly before it went to Nepal. Anon., “Technology – River Rover hovers in a tight corner.” New Scientist, 16 November 1978, 80.

Good day to you, my reading friend. Do you remember what the topic of this week’s issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee? One or more hovercraft? Very good. Let us begin.

Once upon a time, around 1968-69 to be more precise, the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF), a Christian organisation whose main operational centres were / are in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, was active in the Lake Chad area of Africa. The fluctuating water levels of this once huge body of water meant that the pilots of the floatplanes it was using to reach the local populations faced ever increasing difficulties. A British maintenance engineer and (commercial?) pilot who had gone to Lake Chad around 1966 to help MAF, Timothy J.R. “Tim” Longley, thought long and hard about this. A simple and reliable hovercraft with a precise control system seemed to be the best way to negotiate the difficult terrain in the immediate vicinity of Lake Chad. Work began around 1970.

A prototype of the highly innovative MAF hovercraft, known as the Missionnaire, was completed in 1973 by students of a secondary / high school in England. It first flew in August. At some point, Pindair Limited received an order for 2 slightly modified examples of this 5-seat hovercraft. It looks as if it did not complete its order, however. You do remember Pindair, don’t you?

Late 1970s discussions with a British company, Ingles Hovercraft Associates Limited, for the manufacturing rights of the Missionnaire proved successful. This being said (typed), the hovercraft were apparently made under licence by Dodnor Marine Limited before this British company went out of business around 1983-84. These hovercraft may have been marketed as, you guessed it, the Skima 6 by a company called Skima Hovercraft Limited, which succeeded Pindair when the latter went out of business, around September 1983. By then, hovercraft made by this company could be found in more than 65 countries, including Canada.

Yours truly thought you, my reading friend, would be so sad at the idea of losing the rest of the story that I chose to keep it. You can thank me later.

I therefore have the pleasure to announce you that the MAF called its 6-seat cabin hovercraft River Rovers. And yes, this name was inspired by one of the most successful all terrain wheeled vehicles of the 20th century, and a British one at that, at least then, the Land Rover. And no, there shall be no pontification on this amazing machine. Sadly, it looks as no River Rover went to Lake Chad.

The joint British Army / Royal Air Force medical expedition mentioned in the first part of this article tested one or more River Rovers in Nepal in 1978-79, using the country’s river network to reach isolated communities. One or more hovercraft went to Peru and China in 1982 and 1990.

In November 1991, HoverAid Trust, a charity centered upon the use of hovercraft to help people in need, was created in the United Kingdom, seemingly to support a long term aid project in Papua New Guinea. Two River Rovers went there. Another one went to Nicaragua where HoverAid was involved in a development programme during the 1990s. Yet another River Rover went to Zambia. Faced with funding difficulties and the lack of infrastructure in the developing countries it wanted to help, HoverAid reluctantly called it a day in 1999.

In March 2000, Mozambique was hit by devastating cyclones. There was widespread flooding. Very much aware that its River Rover, perfectly serviceable, was still in Zambia, the management of HoverAid launched an appeal to its supporters. The hovercraft and a small team were soon transported to Mozambique where, in cooperation with World Vision International, an Evangelical Christian advocacy, humanitarian aid and development organisation, they provided assistance to more than 10 000 people. The River Rover and its team went to nearby Malawi in 2001 when that country was faced with flooding caused by cyclones.

HoverAid still existed as of 2019. It consisted of 3 branches located in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Madagascar and France. More than one River Rover were still operational. But back to our Skimas.

The Pindair Skima 12 was, you guessed it, a 13-seat hovercraft. Yes 13, 1 pilot and 12 passengers. This semi-inflatable utility machine was proposed for a variety of uses but may not have been made in large numbers. Still, Skima 12s could (still??) be found at the airport of Auckland, New Zealand, as a crash rescue vehicle, and in South America and the Maldives, an independent archipelago off the coast of India, with ferry operators, and in Africa, with the Nigeria Police Force. Incidentally, the Skima 12 was a licensed made version of the Griffon, a machine developed by another British company, Griffon Hovercraft Limited.

The Skima 5 was a 5-seat hovercraft tested in the early 1980s. It may not have been put in production.

By the late 1970s, Pindair was working on a few designs for several customers looking for folding / inflatable or rigid hovertrailers. One has to wonder if these project went beyond the design stage.

Are you a Doctor Who fan, my reading friend? Yours truly has to admit I have never developed a taste for this science fiction television series broadcasted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) between 1963 and 1989, and since 2005. Doctor Who is arguably one of the most successful and popular science fiction television series of all times. It depicted / depicts the adventures of a very old extraterrestrial being, known only as the Doctor, whose spacecraft allowed / allows him / her to travel through space and time. And yes, there is a reason behind this brief pontification.

You see, and you will indeed see if you watch the episode, back in May 1974, the BBC broadcasted an episode of Doctor Who entitled Planet of the Spiders, Part 2 which contained a 12-minute chase scene involving a villain at the wheel of the Whomobile, I kid you not, being pursued by a police automobile, an autogyro, a boat and a Pindair hovercraft. Said hovercraft was driven by the aforementioned Pinder. This being said (typed?), the British actor / entertainer who played the Doctor between 1970 and 1974, Jon Pertwee, born John Devon Roland Pertwee, a gentleman who thoroughly enjoyed travelling at high speed in vehicles of many types, was so enthralled by the hovercraft that he bought one for use at his holiday home on the island of Eivissa / Ibiza, in the Balearic Islands, a Spanish archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea.

Would you believe that a Skima 4 went all the way to Antarctica, by air, to the Ross Dependency, a territory claimed by New Zealand, to be more precise, in early 1977? The organisation which borrowed / leased this hovercraft, quite possibly the Antarctic division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, had been interested in using hovercraft in the frozen continent at the bottom of the world since 1965. Trials with a New Zealand hovercraft, planned for 1970-71, had to be abandoned when the manufacturer pulled out of the project.

In any event, while the Skima 4 performed reasonably well (Hello EP and EG!), it was not well suited to the gruelling conditions encountered during the trials, at McMurdo Station, an American research centre located within the Ross Dependency. Given this, the hovercraft soon returned to warmer climes, presumably by air. You do remember that the American government did / does not recognise the claims made by various countries on pieces of Antarctica, don’t you? Sigh. May I point out that this geographical / geopolitical factoid was mentioned in a May 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee?

You may be pleased to hear (read?), my reading friend, that the Centre for Overseas Pest Research, in England, converted another Skima 4 into a crop spraying hovercraft able to apply pesticide on fields too soggy for wheeled vehicles. Tests conducted in 1978 proved reasonably successful but this new approach was apparently not put to use overseas, or in the United Kingdom for that matter.

Around 2015, Asrai Marine Limited and Norfolk Hovercraft Company in the United Kingdom and Rebel Hovercraft Limited Liability Company in the United States were busy redesigning and relaunching the Skima family of hovercraft. Plans were afoot to merge all 3 in a British organisation, the Asrai Group. From the looks of it, these plans went nowhere.

Before signing off, yours truly must apologise for spending so much time away from Peter Mayer, the gentleman whose activities attracted us to this story, as was said (typed) in the first part of this article, and his hovercraft. Sadly enough, he was involved in a very serious automobile accident in the very late 1970s or very early 1980s. He more or less retired at that point. It should be noted that Mayer and his son Guy Mayer were still with us in late 2019.

One more thing, if I may permitted to quote police lieutenant Columbo, played on television by the irreplaceable Peter Michael Falk. Did you know that a Skima 4 was still happily hovering in Canada, in Ontario to be more precise, as late as 2016? Yours truly wonders if such a machine could make an interesting addition to the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario – a sister / brother institution of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa.

Just sayin’

Fare thee well, my reading friend.

The author of these lines wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier