In 1969 Tim Longley, a maintenance engineer and qualified aircraft designer from Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) realised a hovercraft was the ideal solution to negotiate the shallow waters of Lake Chad in Africa.
Finding no suitable hovercraft commercially available he set about designing the precursor to the River Rover, a lightweight, simple, bolt together design of hovercraft with a revolutionary control system which allowed precise control of an air cushion vehicle along river systems, up rapids, and across swamps, by banking the vehicle.
The River Rover design was evaluated by the Royal Navy, and adopted for use by the Joint Services expedition to Nepal in 1978/9 which used hovercraft to provide a mobile clinic – or hoverdoctor service to people living next to the raging torrents and multiple rapids of the Kali Gandaki river as it descended through the Himalayas.
Further expeditions in 1982 to Peru, and 1990 to China (for which the River Rover Mk3 craft was developed) further proved the value of hovercraft as a means of delivering medical services, and opening up remote regions by using river systems as hover highways.
In November 1991 HoverAid was created as a charity to support a long-term project in Papua New Guinea where two River Rover Mk4 Hovercraft were deployed to extend the reach of Balimo Hospital in the middle of the extremely remote Western Province.
Through the 1990s a development programme in Nicaragua saw a River Rover operate of the Rio San Juan, and this was followed by another being delivered to operate on the Zambezi of the Barotze Plain in Zambia.
Then in March 2000 reports of cyclones and severe flooding in Mozambique hit the headlines around the world. HoverAid knew we had a perfectly serviceable hovercraft in Zambia and so we sent word to our supporters in churches up and down the country.
In three weeks we raised nearly £100,000 and moved River Rover 403 to the Save River where in collaboration with World Vision, it reached 10,000 people stranded on mud banks who were otherwise cut off without adequate food or shelter.
With further efforts in Malawi in 2001, again during flooding due to cyclones, HoverAid demonstrated that hovercraft could provide crucial access for relief organisations.
With 30 years of cumulative experience under our belts the wheel has turned full circle and once again it is MAF who are operating in an environment that needed the particular capabilities of hovercraft.
In 2006 HoverAid were invited by MAF to come to Madagascar and two River Rover Mk 4 craft which had previously been used in Nicaragua and Zambia were shipped, a permanent base was opened in the capital Antananrivo and HoverAid Madagascar was created whilst in the UK an office was opened in Cambridge to run HoverAid UK full time. In 2007 HoverAid Netherlands was set up, and the organisation has plans to create HoverAid International as an overall coordinating body.
HoverAid could be said to have started in 1967, or 1991, or again in 2006. It has taken a long time to learn the lessons, and the commitment of many hundred of people, but the fact remains that hovercraft can reach isolated communities, and whilst those communities remain marginalised HoverAid has an important role to play.