In Dover, Alice Roberts re-lives the glamour days of the hovercraft crossing to France. What brought the cross-channel service to an untimely end?
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There's a ceaseless movement
of people and goods at the heart of Dover.
14 million people each year catch the ferry to France.
As sea journeys go,
the 20 miles or so to Calais is hardly an ocean cruise,
more functional than fashionable,
but Alice Roberts is finding out when a Channel crossing
was THE glamour ticket.
In 1974, local girl Angie Westacott applied for a new job.
It was to be the start of a 20-year-long love affair
with the hovercraft.
I never ever got tired of seeing that, and to this day
if it came up I'd still be looking at it and thinking,
"Oh, wow, that's fantastic, absolutely amazing."
-So you got the job?
-Got the job, yes,
and after a couple of days got used to the movement and the motion
and absolutely loved it, and a lot of us did.
It was the futuristic way to cross the Channel.
This was the age of Concorde,
the moon landings and giant passenger hovercraft.
"With its payload of 90 tonnes, it can carry 416 passengers
"and 60 vehicles in airline-style comfort,
"at a cruising speed of 65 knots."
They flew for 30 years before being wound up
and the hover port at Dover abandoned.
So what happened?
Didn't the passenger experience live up to the glamorous image?
There's only one way to find out for sure,
and that's to cross the Channel in a hovercraft ourselves,
with Angie and some of her former crew-mates as our guides.
But in order to get to grips with the highs and lows
of hovercraft history,
I'm going to have to go right back to the beginning
to where it all took off.
The passenger hovercraft was British through and through,
the brainchild of Christopher Cockerill, engineer and boat builder.
He started experimenting in the early 1950s,
and actually worked out the physics in his kitchen.
Hovercraft historian Warwick Jacobs is going to show me how.
Warwick, these are the things Cockerill was playing around with.
Yes, just household objects,
pair of kitchen scales, coffee tins and an ordinary air blower.
A hairdryer in fact.
Let's see what that can lift with just a jet of air onto the scales.
-Try it with one ounce first.
-So on this flat side.
Yep, try it on the flat side, cos less air is going to escape.
And that will easily lift one ounce.
-Let's see if it will lift the two.
No, so what we're going to do now is to create, as Cockerill did,
what we've got here is two tins, one tin inside the other tin,
and the jet of air comes down between the two tins
forming a curtain or jet of air, which stops this inner air escaping.
That's much more effective than just having a single jet of air
-turning it into a ring.
-Exactly, the same amount of air
doing twice as much work. Go back to one,
and we'll see it should do that easily.
No problem at all.
Try it with the two.
-Let's see if it'll do the three.
Yes, and I'm still not touching the plate, moving around on it.
Will it do the four?
And if lifts four ounces.
If you scale that up,
the bigger it gets, the more efficient, and it works better.
So it's a curtain of compressed air pushing down
that gives the hovercraft its lift.
The first successful cross-channel flight was in 1959,
Christopher Cockerill hanging on for dear life on
the front of his prototype to keep it weighed down.
So how do you control what is effectively
a big floating hairdryer?
Time for a flying lesson.
Wow, I'm just...
I'm travelling on a frictionless cushion of air,
but my instructor Russ tells me I'm not properly hovering yet.
What you're doing is just blowing a big hole in the water
and because you keep losing confidence, slowing down
and turning too tight, you're falling into that hole in the water.
-You've got to keep moving,
you've got to keep your turns gentle and keep your speed up.
Wow, there's some quite big waves out here.
I'm hanging on for dear life here.
Those early pilots learning to drive these things
really had their job cut out for them.
-Can I have another go, Russ?
-I don't see why not.
Once mastered, I can see it was a lot of fun for the early pilots,
and when the commercial service started in 1968,
the public loved it too.
What went wrong then? Was there something about the ride
that made the thrill fade?
To find out, we need some passengers. I've brought Warwick and my dad.
He's an engineer, and he also rode on the hover service in the '70s.
We're going to fly the old route to Calais in this 12-seater hovercraft,
with former crew members Angie, Vanessa and Brian.
Really strange, I've never been in a hovercraft before.
It's really quite bizarre. It is like flying.
What was the quickest you did a crossing to Calais in, Brian?
-Angie, you were handling drinks out to people.
-We were, yes,
and in fact it was so quick that we didn't have time
to serve all the passengers,
so we'd phone the flight-deck and say, "Can you slow down?"
-Dad, I thought I'd find you up here with the pilot.
-Yes, of course.
From what I can see you're skidding all the time, isn't that right, Rob?
Like on ice, we're chasing a bar of soap around the bathtub,
a bit like that, trying to grab this bar of soap
and you can't quite grab hold of it.
In its heyday, no other crossing could match the hovercraft for speed.
The big craft could take on three-metre high waves,
but it wasn't always a comfortable ride.
Stylish maybe, smooth, that was another matter.
30 bone-rattling minutes in,
we're experiencing the ups and downs first-hand.
Our pilot Rob has just decided to turn around and go back to Dover.
We made it halfway across the Channel, but the swell got too big,
just over a metre, so we're now heading back.
White cliffs of Dover.
But it wasn't the occasional rocky ride that brought about
the end of the Dover service. Even when the Channel Tunnel opened,
passengers were still queuing to catch the hovercraft.
Warwick, it seems like such a fantastic form of transport,
so why on earth did it wind down?
It was the ending of duty-free which finished the hovercraft.
They could beat the tunnel, no problem, they were still faster
right to the very end, but duty-free supplemented the hovercraft service.
In fact, duty-free sales didn't just supplement the service,
they became its main source of income.
With spiralling fuel costs and no chance
of replacing the ageing hovercraft, they were grounded in October 2000.
After all those years of working on the hovercraft,
-it must have been sad to see them finally stop.
-End of an era.
It's still sad, actually. Coming on this today is just fantastic
because it just brings it back even more.
The hovercraft's inventor, Christopher Cockerill, predicted that
we would travel across the Atlantic in huge nuclear-powered hovercraft.
In the end, it was a dream that stalled in the Channel.
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