December 01, 2019

An Ode to the Hovercraft


An Ode to the Hovercraft
This police hovercraft really adds to a classic St. Petersburg cityscape. Griffin Edwards

Winston Churchill once called Russia "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." While there are some Russophobe overtones to this quote, we've got to agree that Russia is a mysterious place. And one of the mysteries that's been bugging us the longest is why Russians love their hovercraft so dang much.

They use them for hunting, exploring, and transport. Russian police forces and rescue operators use them. Want massive military hovercraft with machine guns for storming beaches? Got you covered

Hovercraft are also Putin's preferred method of transport for getting to thirteenth-century churches for Christmas services.

Shotgun gets to pick the music: Putin in the passenger seat of a police hovercraft in Novgorod Oblast. We assume the lights on top of the vehicle are to tell speeding hovercrafters to pull over. | Press Office of the President of Russia

For most of us, it's easy to forget that hovercraft exist. It's not an everyday form of transport, like cars or metros or planes. But Russians appreciate them so much, they even put cute little ones in the country's largest train set.

Vroom, Vroom: A model hovercraft at "Grand Maket Rossiya," a massive museum of miniatures. | Griffin Edwards

To answer the question of why Russia — but not elsewhere — has hovercraft fever, it's useful to start with how hovercraft work.

Rather than moving on wheels or with wings, hovercraft use fans to create a high-pressure cushion of air under a flexible "skirt," which lifts the vehicle up off the ground by a few feet, thereby preventing friction with the ground. Propellers can then push the hovercraft in any direction, typically at fairly high speeds (up to 70 mph!). They'd win a race against almost any boat; after all, boats have to cut through the water, whereas hovercraft glide on top of it.

Imagine putting a little fan on an air hockey puck and driving it around the table. That's basically what's going on, at hundreds of times the scale.

Russian military hovercraft
Two Russian Zubr-class hovercraft, the largest hovercraft in existence, armed with rockets, cannons, and wow-factor. | Russian Ministry of Defense, Wikimedia Commons

Hovercraft are not without limitations, however. They're noisy and difficult to maneuver: lack of friction means stopping and turning are difficult.

What's more, you can't drive a hovercraft just anywhere. Hovercraft do great on flat surfaces such as smooth pavement, calm seas, swamps, frozen lakes and rivers, tundra, and grassy steppe.

Hills, forests, and similar spaces are no-go zones: anywhere requiring lots of maneuvering or uneven areas makes the hovercraft inefficient and possibly dangerous. Broken ground, too, can damage the undercarriage, and if you think towing a car is difficult, imagine doing it without wheels.

So our working theory is that it's a geographical thing.

Where's a place with lots of low-lying areas, wide-open lakes and rivers that usually freeze, and acres upon acres of steppe? If you guessed Russia, especially the swamps of its northwest, rivers and steppes of it southwest, and frozen tundra of its North and Arctic, you'd be right. It seems to fit: what better to use to cross a frozen lake or impassible swamp than a low-flying vehicle?

Of course, we'll never truly know the true reason for Russia's hovercraft fever. Until we come up with a better explanation, we'll just enjoy this quirk of Russia, like we do all the others.

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