The first commercial passenger carrying hovercraft to have been built in decades are about to go into service with Hovertravel’s Ryde-Southsea route across the UK’s Solent.
Built by service operator Hovertravel’s sister company Griffon Hoverworks in Southampton, the new craft, Solent Flyer and Island Flyer are highly innovative designs which combine enhanced ergonomics alongside weight and energy efficiencies. The £10 million investment will improve passenger comfort through speedier and easier boarding, a quieter ride and better visibility.
Maritime Journal recently took up the opportunity of a pre-scheduled service test flight aboard Solent Flyer. Having travelled to Ryde on one of Hovertravel’s soon to be phased out older craft we were also able to compare old with new.
Apart from the fact that the outgoing craft are clearly well-used with tired-looking interiors and exteriors, the first thing that struck us about the new Griffon 12000TD craft, in this world of ‘bigger is better’, is that the company has clearly slightly downsized. Hovertravel’s MD Neil Chapman explained: “Our business model is based around having two craft, and we had the option of increasing craft size, but we have replaced two 95 seat craft with two 88 seaters, because our customers told us they would prefer a more regular service to larger craft. During the middle of the day we will be able to run a half hourly service with the new, slightly smaller craft, versus the hourly service we currently run. This is because the new craft are much better optimised for fast turnaround and boarding.”
While Hovertravel has tweaked the model for the new 12000TDs, the 51 year old company is sticking to its tried and tested ethos of running a pair of craft. During the morning and evening rush hour times, both craft run together, with departures every 15 minutes to serve the increased demand. Then in the main part of the day, this reduces to one craft so that the second craft can be serviced or act as reserve if necessary. The service remains the only fast passenger service across the Solent with bookable seats.
Onboard, the 12000TDs are clearly decades ahead of the old designs, much quieter and smoother underway, with more modern, fully accessible boarding systems and passengers cosseted in air conditioned luxury for the duration of the short trip. We completed several 360 degree turns off Fishbourne, which several passengers, deep in conversation, failed to notice.
The craft’s twin engines were supplied by Germany’s MAN. During the day of our test flight we had Neil Pennycook aboard, Hovertravel’s engineering and compliance manager, who was able to confirm that the Tier II diesels were running at 793KW apiece during the day.
Interestingly the power and torque curves of MAN’s marine diesels were not quite right for the job so Solent Flyer and Island Flyer actually run slightly adapted truck or bus engines. Hovertravel and Griffon worked closely with the MCA on coding the craft for UK passenger use, as it is not every day that a company wants to introduce a new passenger carrying hovercraft.
Neil Chapman is keen that the two new craft act as a shop window worldwide for the use of passenger carrying hovercraft: “In certain parts of the world, where port infrastructure is not yet in place, hovercraft are the only option. We want the rest of the world to see that what we are doing here is working well, as since the cross channel craft ceased operating the public visibility of large hovercraft for passenger carrying has diminished.”
In the next month Solent Flyer will be used on an ad hoc basis to service the Hovertravel timetable. This phased strategy of implementation allows the teams at Hovertravel to gradually introduce the new procedures and policies associated with the new craft without disrupting the daily operation. The outgoing craft, which are now 25 and 27 years old are due to be sold off towards the end of the year.
By Jake Frith