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Hovercraft

The hovercraft, whose weight is supported by a self-generated cushion of air, can be


divided into two main types: the air cushion vehicle (ACV) and the surface effect ship (SES). The
air cushion vehicle has no contact with the surface (water or land) over which it operates, can
operate over both land and water and is therefore amphibious. The surface effect ship has side
walls which are immersed in water, thereby sealing the air cushion at the sides. Air to the air
cushion below the bottom of the craft is supplied by one or more fans whose discharge is directed
into the air cushion. In the air cushion vehicle, the air cushion pressure supports the total weight
of the craft, while in the surface effect ship the weight is supported by the air cushion pressure, the
buoyancy of the side walls and (at high speeds) vertical hydrodynamic (planing) force components.
Since the air cushion vehicle is completely clear of the surface, and the air cushion pressure is
higher than the atmospheric pressure, air tends to escape from the air cushion to the atmosphere.
The leakage of air from the air cushion is minimised by sealing the air cushion by a peripheral jet
in some air cushions and by reducing the clearance between the craft and the water or land surface
in a plenum chamber type of air cushion. Air loss from the air cushion is further reduced without
the danger of contact between the solid structure of the air cushion vehicle and the rough surface
over which it may be travelling by providing flexible skirts. In a surface effect ship, the air cushion
is sealed at the sides by the side walls immersed in water, and by inflated flexible skirts at the bow
and the stern. The various types of air cushion are illustrated in Fig. 12.

Typical values of air cushion pressure (above atmospheric pressure) range from 0.015 atm
to 0.050 atm, i.e. 150-500 Pa. A lower pressure gives a softer ride and more passenger comfort,
while a higher pressure results in a more compact craft and allows higher speeds. The fans used to
maintain cushion pressures are usually of the centrifugal or mixed flow types, and must generate
sufficient pressure to overcome ducting losses and sufficient discharge to compensate for the
leakage of air from the air cushion. In air cushion vehicles, there may be several fans each
supplying air to different sections of the peripheral sealing arrangement. In surface effect ships,
one set of fans provide the cushion air and another set provide the air to seal the forward and aft
ends of the air cushion.
Fig. 12 Types of air cushion.

Initial hovercraft designs used the peripheral jet air cushion since this type of air cushion
is theoretically more efficient than the plenum chamber air cushion, which is a much simpler
arrangement. The introduction of flexible skirts improved the efficiency of the plenum chamber
by allowing the structural clearance of the craft from the surface to be increased without increasing
the daylight clearance, Fig. 13. Most modern hovercraft therefore have plenum chamber air
cushions. Flexible skirts have improved the efficiency, motion stability and ability to operate
in waves of air cushion vehicles, by allowing operation over rough seas without hard contact
with water and yet keeping air losses low. There are a number of forms of flexible skirt. Some of
the early designs of skirts caused serious problems such as tucking in under the craft when coming
into contact with water in waves, causing the craft to plough into the water and even capsize. Other
types of skirts resulted in a low frequency oscillation called skirt bounce. These problems have
been overcome in modern skirt designs such as the one shown in Fig. 14.
Fig. 13 Simple flexible skirt.

Fig. 14. Bag finger skirt system developed by the British Hovercraft Corporation.

The relative position of an air cushion vehicle with respect to the water over which it is
moving depends upon the speed of the craft, Fig. 15. When the air cushion vehicle is stationary
the water surface is depressed under the cushion. At low forward speeds, the water begins to pile
up ahead of the craft, resulting in a trim by stern, the surface of the water under the cushion
remaining parallel to the base of the craft, and this creates a wake astern and a surface wave pattern.
At intermediate speeds, these effects are accentuated, and the trim increases to a maximum value.
At high speeds, the water surface cannot react sufficiently rapidly to the motion of the air cushion
because of inertia, so that the trim reduces, the water surface depression becomes longer and
shallower, and the wake and wave making reduce significantly.

Fig. 15 Behaviour of ACV over water.

The drag or resistance of a hovercraft can be divided into a number of components :

Aerodynamic (profile) drag : This is made up of frictional resistance and viscous


pressure resistance, and can be expressed in terms of a profile drag coefficient based
on the transverse projected area above the waterline.
Momentum drag : This is caused by the air drawn into the air cushion from the
atmosphere and accelerated from zero to the craft velocity. The rate of increase of the
momentum of the air gives the momentum drag.

Induced drag : This is the horizontal component of the resultant of the cushion pressures
due to trim.

Wave making drag : The hovercraft generates waves in the water and this gives rise to
the wave making drag in a manner similar to displacement craft. Note that this wave
making drag occurs even when the hovercraft is not physically in contact with water.

Wetting drag : This arises from the direct contact between the craft or the skirts and
seals with water, and includes skin friction, cushion pressure effects and spray
resistance.

Side wall drag : This is a major component of the drag of a surface effect ship.

Fig. 16 shows the variation of these drag components with Froude number for an air cushion
vehicle and a surface effect ship.
(a) Performance characteristics of an ACV

(b) Performance characteristics of an SES


Fig. 16 Hovercraft drag components.
The behaviour of a hovercraft operating over waves is quite complex. An air cushion
vehicle which has no direct contact with the surface over which it is travelling can undergo large
yaw and sway. The flexible skirts which adjust to the waves cause a further complication. The
dynamic response of the fans to the fluctuations in cushion pressure as the height of the craft above
the water surface varies has a major influence on the behaviour of the air cushion vehicle.
Generally, maximum heave and pitch occur when the hovercraft heads into waves of length
between 0.5 and 2.0 times the craft length. The craft tends to follow the wave surface when
travelling over long waves (contouring) and to follow a horizontal path (platforming) over short
waves, which sometimes leads to high frequency skirt oscillation. Heave motions can be reduced
by increasing the daylight clearance (resulting in greater air flow rates), decreasing skirt heights,
reducing cushion pressures and using cushion fans in which the pressure does not vary sharply
with discharge.

In a surface effect ship, the hydrodynamic forces on the side walls and underwater
appendages cause ship motions. However, these submerged parts of the ship also provide motion
damping. Pitch and roll motions of a surface effect ship are affected by the damping and added
mass characteristics of the side walls, which also provide hydrostatic restoring forces and moments
for heave, pitch and roll. The pitch natural frequency sometimes coincides with the wave encounter
frequency in the operating speed range, and this can be a serious problem. Transverse stability is
important during high speed manoeuvres.

The roll and pitch stability can be improved by dividing the air cushion into longitudinal
and transverse compartments by flexible skirts or by air jet curtains. This results in an increase in
the cushion pressure in the compartment which goes down so that a restoring moment is created.
Ride control systems have been developed to minimise the motion of a hovercraft in waves. These
systems use feedback control to regulate the speed of the cushion fans in relation to the cushion
height above the wave surface.

The structural design of air cushion vehicles is usually carried out using the concepts of
aircraft design, while surface effect ships generally follow marine design practice. High strength-
weight ratio, high corrosion resistance and high fatigue strength as well as production
considerations are important factors in structural design. Structural materials include high strength
marine aluminium alloys and fibre glass for the smaller craft and high strength steels for the larger
craft. Skirts are usually made of nylon fabric coated with neoprene or natural rubber.

Propulsion arrangements in surface effect ships are similar to those used in other high speed
craft. For speeds upto about 40 knots, conventional subcavitating propellers are generally used,
though at the higher end of this speed range it may be necessary to adopt transcavitating propellers
which can operate efficiently even with significant amounts of cavitation. At speeds above 40
knots, supercavitating propellers or partially submerged superventilated propellers may be used.
At very high speeds (60-80 knots) water jet propulsion is sometimes adopted. Air cushion vehicles
are usually propelled by air propellers with or without shrouds.

The major application of air cushion vehicles is in providing fast ferry services. A typical
example is the SRN4MK3 craft carrying 400 passengers and 60 cars at a maximum speed of 70
knots across the English Channel. Air cushion vehicles for military applications include mine
counter measure vessels and amphibious landing craft. Other applications include coastguard
duties, fisheries protection, and fire fighting and disaster relief. Surface effect ships are used for
passenger ferries and crew boats and also as patrol boats, mine sweepers and coastguard vessels.