ALL ISLANDERS have a love-hate relationship with Hovercraft. It is one of 'ours': it started here, is manufactured here and it takes us very quickly to the mainland. But it makes such a terrible din. Those who live on the waterfront at Cowes or Ryde may therefore one day be very grateful to Air Vehicles Ltd of Cowes whose latest project, if present tests prove successful, will considerably reduce this noise. In the past, efforts to make a quieter hovercraft have proved too expensive, so a new approach was made to see whether the existing craft could be adapted economically. Air Vehicles were approached and have come up with an idea, which as so often happens, is very simple in conception. It is to make the propellor smaller and to fix an enclosure around it.
This is one of a number of such research projects, sponsored sometimes by Government departments or agencies, sometimes by private enterprise, such as Hoverwork Ltd and Hovertravel, with which this small, highly technical firm is associated. It is primarily a designing unit and small manufacturer engaged on specialised work for hovercraft, converting them for overseas requirements, and carrying out research work planned by government departments.
Air Vehicles Ltd was formed in 1969 by Mr Peter Winter, M Sc — an aeroplane designer who already had considerably experience at Saunders Roe and later as chief designer on the 'Islander' for Britten-Norman — and Mr Christopher Bland who has since become managing director of Hoverwork Ltd.
Having been responsible for the Britten-Norman hovercraft activities, Mr Winter felt there was an opening for a small craft whose chief virtue should be adaptability: the kind of all-purpose vehicle reputation that the Land Rover has in the motor vehicle field. Their work resulted in the A V 2, three of which have already been produced. Two of these have been sold to a Dutch company and are in operation in Holland, the other was on hire to a Dutch government agency, the Rijkswaterstaat, the largest single agency in Holland and was operated for five weeks by Mr Charles Eden, the other member of the board of directors.
Perhaps Air Vehicles' most interesting success so far has been to design and build a huge hovering barge to work across the Yukon river in Alaska where the new oil pipe line is being laid. The penetration of the frozen wastes of Alaska by the oil men is an exciting story of its own and of special interest to us because of the involvement of our part-Government owned BP in the pipe-line. It is the first real incursion into the arctic; there have of course been sporadic raids by hunters and nomads, but no permanent settlement. During the legendary Yukon gold-rush, Fairbanks became a boom town — we've all read or seen pictures of its glorious technicolour heyday — and it died when the gold ran out. It's a boom town again — this time for the liquid gold rush — oil. It has filled up again and become the supply town for the camps, one hundred and fifty miles north. Peter Winter has just returned from one of these camps to which he went to oversee the launching of his 350 ton hover-barge. He expected to stay one week and was kept for five because the river froze early and work became more and more difficult. Men are working up there in intense cold often on 12 hour shifts but this time the 'gold-rush' is different. The camps are centrally heated, equipped with every modern comfort such as fitted carpets, and the food is 'absolutely fantastic'. The most effete bon-vivant in the world could die happy there. Yet outside, the world is left to wind and ice and snow. And the wolves. Peter tells me that three people were bitten by wolves in the various camps while he was there. They are unused to men and therefore not yet afraid or vicious (they have only to wait — it won't be long). Indeed, men feed them and this attracts more of them which in turn increases the risk of rabies. He tells of an amusing incident in which the day shift men were relieving the night shift. They saw a wolf standing a few paces away from a workman and watching him as people always watch a man engrossed in his work. When they sounded their horn, both wolf and workman jumped out of their skins and bolted in different directions!
Now Mr Winter is back in the designing office in Sun Hill, Cowes, not far from their water-side premises at Dinnis Yard, planning the next stages that are going to make hovercraft more adaptable, efficient and, we hope, quieter. And though theirs is not a labour intensive firm — they have only a small permanent force of technically qualified people — their contribution to the Island both in prestige and in 'spin-off' is valuable indeed.