Hunstanton Flyer is one of four inshore rescue hovercraft in the RNLI fleet. The others are at Hoylake, Morecambe and Southend-on-Sea. Introduced in 2002, it is a fast - top speed of 30 knots - and manoeuvrable rescue craft. It is ideal for shoreline searches and rescues, able to tackle a variety of terrains. This includes dry land and shallow water as well as dangerous mudflats and quicksand.
Before we introduced the rescue hovercraft the only method help could get rapid access to areas with mudflats and quicksand was by helicopter. Access on the ground was limited to walking, using mud mats and crawling boards.
The versatility and speed of the RNLI rescue hovercraft has made a huge difference to the efficiency and effectiveness of our search and rescue service, enabling us to save even more lives around the coast.
‘You operate a hovercraft a bit like a tank with the driver tucked away in the front,’ explains Tim Richardson, former Hovercraft Commander at Hunstanton Lifeboat Station, now retired. ‘Visibility isn’t great from there so the person in charge - the Commander – generally stays at the back.’ The hovercraft is connected to the ground so technically you drive it rather than ‘fly’ it, although the driver is sometimes also referred to as the pilot.
‘The hovercraft has no brakes and no reverse gear so it’s a skill to bring the craft into position. It’s a very rewarding craft to drive though it’ll frighten the pants off you to start with. It’s a machine you have to drive all the time – you can’t set the controls and let the thing run. It’s very reactive to the wind and the surface you’re on, and undulations on the beach – so you’re constantly making adjustments and the crew are very much involved in helping to balance the craft. Because you’re skimming the surface you’re not affected by the tide.’
Lift is provided by two fans that build up air pressure under the craft. This allows it to fly over mud, sand and shallow water. Thrust is provided by two large fans mounted on the back that act in the same way as aeroplane propellers. Aerofoil-shaped rudders at the rear provide the steering. The height of the hovercraft’s skirt improves her seakeeping and increases the ride height.
The hovercraft’s two inflatable sponsons provide stability and additional buoyancy which offer a soft edge for casualty recovery. The hovercraft commander can settle the hovercraft alongside the casualty so that the craft provides a large, stable platform.
The rescue hovercraft carries specialised mud rescue equipment so that volunteers can release a trapped casualty. It also carries medical equipment onboard, including oxygen and full resuscitation kit, Entonox for pain relief, large responder bag and two stretchers.