The Isle of Wight Society

June 2019

The Columbine Shed saw the first hovercraft flight 60 years ago. 

In May 1959 the first hovercraft, SR.N1, was completed in the Columbine Shed, East Cowes.  She was wheeled out of the shed, and had her first tethered run on 29th May.  It worked!  She hovered about a foot above the ground.

She had thirteen free hovers, on the concrete apron in front of the Columbine Shed.  These threw up various problems which caused several rapid mechanical changes.

On 11th June 1959 the iconic Columbine Shed in East Cowes hosted the press day for the launch of the first manned hovercraft.  Dozens of pressmen and their cameramen were amazed at the craft, and immediately nicknamed it the “Flying Saucer!”  

It was planned only to show it on the concrete slipway, but the press clamoured for the craft to show its paces on the water.  So it was towed out past the breakwater and set off over the Solent in a cloud of spray, affording wonderful photographs with the Queen Mary liner in the background.

A new form of transport had been born.  

SR.N1 went on to cross the Solent on 22nd June, practised beaching at Osborne Bay on the 8th July, had trials on Ryde Sands on 15th July and then on 25th July crossed the English Channel, on the anniversary of the first flight by Bleriot 50 years earlier from France to England.

The Columbine Shed had been completed in 1936 specifically for building flying boats.  The need for the new shed was apparent as the Saunders Roe Company made ready for the armament build up for World War II.  Constructed by Boulton and Paul Ltd., the doors opened to a width of 150 feet, and were 40 feet high.  This was fine for the aircraft being built there, such as the Saro A27 London flying boat, and Saunders Roe soon started producing Sunderland flying boats for the Air Ministry.  461 Walrus flying boats were constructed during wartime followed by the Sea Otter aircraft.

The SR.A1 jet fighter flying boat was launched in 1947 from the Columbine Shed.  The SR.45 Princess Flying Boat was soon under construction there.  This plane, the largest metal flying boat in the world, was too large to be completed in the shed, so the tail and wingtips had to be added when she was outside on the slipway.  

In 1977 the Union Flag was painted on the doors of the Columbine Shed to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.  It has been there ever since, a landmark in the harbour.

The Columbine Shed saw the building of several more versions of hovercraft which followed the SR.N1.  The largest was the stretched SR.N4 Mark 3 Princess class of hovercraft in 1978, two of which operated successfully on the cross channel route for the following 21 years.  

The Columbine building still stands and is still in use.  Let’s hope we never lose this reminder of part of the industrial history of our Island.

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Isle of Wight Society
East Cowes Heritage Centre, 8 Clarence Road
East Cowes, PO32 6EP

Tel: +44 (0) 1983 280310

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