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By Eric Shackle

March 14, 1964, may become a famous date in ACV [Air-Cushion Vehicle] history, for on that day, at Canberra, the world's first competitive hovercraft trials took place. An analogy may be drawn between the Canberra trials of 1964 and the Rheims air meeting of 1909: both mark the beginning of competitive development in their respective fields, with relatively primitive machines conceived by enthusiastic experimenters. - Flight International (London), April 1964.

Ten mostly backyard-built mechanical hares and tortoises competed in the world’s first hovercraft race in Australia’s capital, Canberra, on March 14, 1964. One of the amphibious hares sank, three had to be towed ashore, and a tortoise was first of only five to cross the finish line. The 10th failed to start.

The race took place on a cold, windy Sunday morning, on the city’s new man-made scenic Lake Burley Griffin, then only part-filled. The event, one of several celebrations marking the 51st anniversary of the naming of Canberra was organised by the Canberra branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Race organisers had received 13 entries, from the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, but there were three scratchings.

I was there as the Sydney-based public relations officer for the sponsor, BP, which supplied fuel and lubricants for a wide variety of motors, ranging from tiny Victa lawnmower engines to one salvaged from a Catalina flying-boat.

I clearly recall the ear-splitting noise of the motors as they were warming up onshore, and the clouds of sand and dust raised by the downward blasts of air from the machines.

The fastest craft was built by two friends, Arthur Powell and Roy Raymond, both living in the Canberra suburb of Ainslie. Powell, who worked as a bricklayer, was also a skilful woodworker. He built the frame from 1/16-inch aircraft plywood covered with several coats of varnish. Raymond looked after the engineering.

“When we heard the race was to be held, we decided to take part,” says Raymond, who now lives in Nabiac, a small country town 288 km (166 miles) north of Sydney. “We built an annular peripheral craft, with a triangular frame for cheapness and speed.

“Two motors were needed, one to give it lift and the other for forward drive. The vector motor came from an old World War Catalina flying-boat. It was a V-twin generator motor which had been used to keep batteries charged when the Cat was moored in water. We used it through drive shaft and gearbox to the propeller, thereby giving lift to the propeller pressure tube. The other engine was a two-cylinder Sunbeam motor which had been used in motorbikes.”

{The official entry form rated the lift engine at 10hp, and the propulsion engine at 26bhp, contrasting with the winner's total rating of only 9hp. Prizes were awarded on a handicap basis.]

The pair finished building their craft just in time to tow it to the shores of the lake, where they arrived shortly before the race was due to begin. When they started the motors, the craft rose two and a half inches above the ground, to pass the lift test.

“Arthur Powell took it out for a test run, and reached a speed of about 40 miles (64km) an hour,” says Raymond. “He covered the five-sided course of just over a mile in less than three minutes.

“While returning towards our shore base, he made a sharp turn, and the craft overturned. Fortunately, the lake was only partially filled in 1964, and the water was only about a metre deep. We quickly righted the craft, dragged it out of the water, dried the motors, and restarted them. We were ready for the race start. Arthur and I tossed a coin to decide which of us would be the driver, and I won.”

Because those primitive hovercraft were difficult to steer, race officials sent competitors off one at a time instead of all together, to the disappointment of spectators.

Entrants were required to make two-way demonstration runs in front of the crowd lining the lake’s bank, cover the five-sided course, and then return to the finish line at the edge of the lake.

“On the demonstration run, I steered the craft into the wind and opened both throttles,” says Raymond. “The faster the hovercraft moved, the higher it rose from the water. I was just tipping the tops of the little waves. I slowed down for the five-sided course, and completed it in two and a half to three minutes.

“But disaster struck on the way back to the shore. When I stopped in front of the crowd, the vector drive shaft broke, so I failed to cross the finish line, and we were disqualified, after achieving the fastest time over the main course.”

Thirty-seven years later, Raymond blames himself for the mishap which cost him the race. “It was my fault, because I’d used the wrong steel for the shaft,” he says. “But considering we built the machine for only that one-off race, it performed very well.”

Only five hovercraft completed the circuit. First prize of 50 pounds ($100), was won by a beetle-like plenum chamber type vehicle entered by a syndicate of five from New South Wales. It was a Dobson AirDart from the US assembled in Australia from an imported kit and driven by Allen Hawkins, an engineer from the Sydney suburb of Sans Souci. Raymond says Hawkins steered it in the direction he wanted to go by leaning to that side. The machine, entered by G.L. Cottee, was owned by a Sydney syndicate representing Pacific Film Laboratories and Air Karts.

Another plenum chamber craft, built by William Selge and Kevin McCloud, of South Australia, gained second place, and Canberra's Alan L. Ellis, driving an annular peripheral jet craft, came third. Raymond recalls that Ellis, an electrical engineer at Radio station 2CN, Canberra. was a fellow member of Canberra Aero Club, where he was nicknamed LAME, because he was a Licenced Aircraft Maintenance Engineer. Raymond and Powell won an award for fastest craft, having recorded a speed of 45 mph.

Other entrants were Cpl J. Kenneth Murray (driver) and LAC L. Gillies, in an annular peripheral jet craft built by members of RAAF Amberley Hovercraft Group, Queensland; Dan Reece; Frank Greenham, Moulamein, NSW; Bryan Kensington, Wangaratta, Victoria; Ray Murray; Chris Fitzgerald, Rob Wilson, Eddy Thomas and Ron Davies, all from Australian Air Cushion Vehicles Development, Mechanical Engineering Department, Melbourne University; Norman Hyett.

What became of Powell and Raymond’s speedy machine? They towed it back to Ainslie, where they dismantled it, took out the motors, and destroyed the frame. They had built their last hovercraft. Raymond resumed his favorite pastime: building and flying light aircraft.

Today, at 82, he is probably Australia’s oldest licenced pilot. His old friend John Coggan says: “Roy has built boats, gliders, and powered aircraft. He flies his own plane, a J1 Taylor Cub which he totally rebuilt himself. With his son Barry, he flew around Australia in it a couple of years ago.”

Several other Canberra residents remember watching the 1964 race.

Judy Papps, of Isaacs: “What is most vivid in my mind is how funny it was watching the hovercraft going off in all directions - not necessarily the one the driver intended."

Neal Gowen, of Kaleen: “I was 15 and must have gone to see the race with my dad. As far as I can recall, it took place in the bay (West lake) near the Australian National University, and I am sure we were watching from Black Mountain peninsula. The lake was not full at that time, and there was still a land bridge from the main shore to what is now Springbank Island.

“A lot of dust was blown up (and noise) at the start as the hovercraft left the shore. The event got a little confused after that and I recall one craft sinking. There seemed to be a total lack of control of direction in the other craft. It took forever for the 'race' to finish. Unfortunately I did not take my camera with me that day to add to my 'historical' collection of Canberra photos.”

Gavin Byrne, of Mawson: “I had arrived in Canberra a few weeks before to join CSIRO as a research scientist. The lake was half full at the time, so the shoreline of Lake Burley Griffin was very different from what it is now (I remember driving past the wet end of the then hospital, now museum, jetty).

“Most of the entries seemed to be powered by Victa lawn mower engines but there were one or two larger, more finished, craft built by university engineering departments. I think Melbourne University Engineering Department was one of the entrants.”

John Coggan, of Hackett: “They were good days when all this happened. We were flying Tiger Moths and building our own sailing boats and life was good. I am glad I was there and very happy to be able to look back on it still.”

Hovercraft have come a long way since those days. They are used around the world to perform a variety of tasks. Travelling on a cushion of air, they can traverse any kind of surface - dry land, swamps, water, snow or ice.

Large hovercraft have carried millions of passengers in many countries. Armed military hovercraft provided speedy river patrols in Vietnam. Tank and troop carrying hovercraft carried out beach landing missions in the Gulf War. Smaller craft are widely used for recreation, racing and rescue.

More than three decades of hovercraft ferries crossing the English Channel ended on October 1, 2000, when Hoverspeed completed its conversion to an all-catamaran service.

The company retired the world’s two largest hovercraft, the Princess Margaret and the Princess Anne. For 32 years, the twin Princesses had carried tens of millions of passengers between England and France, providing the fastest way to cross the Channel on the Dover-Calais route. The Princess Anne holds the record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel, travelling the 23 miles (37km) between Calais and Dover on September 14, 1995, in only 22 minutes. The Princess Margaret was featured in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever.

The Southsea - Ryde, Isle of Wight journey is now Europe’s sole remaining hovercraft route.

The two retired hovercraft are now being kept in operational condition at the U.K. Hovercraft Museum, HMS Daedalus, on the Solent at Gosport, near Southampton.

The largest hovercraft in the world was built by the Russian company Almaz in St Petersburg. Named Zubr (NATO called it Pomornik or Skua), it was until recently a top secret technological achievement. It’s 57 metres (187ft) long, 22.3 metres (76ft) wide, and moves at 96kph (60 mph). It can carry three tanks and100 marines, and can move over water, sandbanks and marshes, surmounting obstacles up to two metres (6ft 7in) high.

Somehow, it doesn’t sound nearly as much fun as those tiny lawnmower-powered craft that staggered across Lake Burley Griffin back in 1964.

POSTSCRIPT: Hoverclub of America says "Hovercraft racing is now an established sport. As there is very little sponsorship most of the hovercraft racing is still within the reach of the shade tree mechanic. The hovercraft industry shares many engineering breakthroughs with the ultralight aviation community." The 2002 World Hovercraft Championships will be be held in Terre Haute, Indiana (U.S.) in September. Organisers claim the world's fastest machines and drivers will compete in "this ultimate hovercraft competition".


One of the 1964 entrants, the (Melbourne) Air Cushion Vehicle Development Group, vigorously pursued its interest in hovercraft, transferred to the US, and is now one of the world's leading manufacturers of the craft: Neoteric Hovercraft Inc., with headquarters in Terre Haute, Indiana. It calls its latest product "the only hovercraft in the world with brakes."

"Neoteric is no ordinary hovercraft company," it says on its Internet website. "Founded in 1960 and incorporated in 1969, they have stood the test of time through their experience and professionalism while countless others have come and gone.

"Formed by a group of Australian engineers, their objective has been to innovate and produce technically unchallengeable, light hovercraft. Research began as early as 1960 with various machines being tested, evolving and then being put aside.

"In 1964, the company, then known as Australian Air Cushion Vehicle Development (AACVD), competed in the first world hovercraft race. As experience mounted, the Rotary International Foundation awarded AACVD's president, Chris Fitzgerald a scholarship for a world hovercraft study tour which resulted in contact with virtually every hovercraft project in existence. This enabled the company to capitalize and improve on the latest overseas ideas.

"Innovations continued and, by 1973, a prototype hovercraft, the Neova, was completed and put through a trials series to ensure that it would meet the company's exacting specifications. In order to facilitate world patents and promotions for this craft, AACVD decided to form a new company, Neoteric Engineering Affiliates Pty. Ltd. Defined as novel and contemporary, this name was chosen to exemplify both their clients and their product.

"Once patents were obtained, Neoteric created staggering world interest when it introduced the Neova at a press demonstration in July of 1974 on the Yarra river in the heart of Melbourne, Australia. All were anticipating a promising future for this curious new flying machine.

"With the hope of selling their technology to the burgeoning recreational vehicle market in the United States, the engineering team made what was intended to be a temporary move to the USA in 1975. After a short time, however, they discovered that there was a virgin market for the manufacturing of hovercraft and began reorienting their company's focus in that direction. This spurred the spin-off company, Neoteric, Inc.

"Today, Neoteric boasts a clientele that spans 50 countries and includes Disney World, local and national rescue departments, dive teams, gold mines, environmental and fishery research departments at universities, oil-spill clean-up, the US Army Corps of Engineers and, of course, numerous people who enjoy exploring remote areas that cannot be reached by any other means."

They've come a long way since taking part in that historic 1964 race on Lake Burley Grifffin!

Copyright © 2001.   Eric Shackle   Story first posted September 2001.

Now read about the HOVERCRAFT WORLD SPEED RECORD bid by clicking on hovercraft2004.htm.

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