Vanished Wales: How Rhyl made transport history with world's first passenger hovercraft journey

Hundreds gathered on Rhyl's seafront for a once in a generation event.

In the summer of 1962, the world’s media gathered on the golden sands of Rhyl.

The Denbighshire town found itself at the heart of a pioneering experiment that would change sea travel forever. The future had arrived in North Wales.

It was the world’s first ever passenger hovercraft service. During those summer months, the trailblazing craft made regular crossings between Rhyl and Wallasey.

Warwick Jacobs, a hovercraft expert, believes the technology was years ahead of its time: “In the early sixties, man wasn’t even on the moon. We were still travelling on steam trains. 

“Hovercraft technology was cutting edge and it captured the public’s imagination. It was new, different and British.”

Ken Pemberton saw the hovercraft in Rhyl back in 1962

Ken Pemberton, who was 17 at the time, watched the futuristic craft glide along Rhyl’s sandy beach.

Ken told ITV’s Vanished Wales: “It was so futuristic, it was like a flying saucer really. It was just an amazing thing to see.

“The noise especially, the transition onto the sand, and the dust it created, was fascinating.

“It was a very big deal. Hundreds of people came down to see it and get dusted!”

The aim of the Rhyl to Wallasey service was to test whether a hovercraft could safely carry passengers on the open sea.

The VA-3 would operate out of Rhyl for just one summer.

It was a success; almost 4,000 people made the crossing during that summer of 1962.

The craft itself was the Vickers-Armstrong VA-3. One of the pioneering pilots behind the wheel was Raymond Old.

Raymond’s daughter, Madeline Maisey, said: “I was aware my father had an unusual job.

“But, he was a very humble person. You would have to tease it out of him.

“I’m incredibly proud. They were happy times, he was doing something he loved and it’s marvellous that we can celebrate these early days.”

The hovercraft service put Rhyl at the very heart of this emerging technology. It made headlines around the world.  

Raymond Old (left) was one of the VA-3's pioneering pilots.

But the service would come to a dramatic end.

On the afternoon of 14th September 1962, the craft’s engines failed halfway through the 17 mile journey.

Despite efforts to moor the craft in Rhyl, rough seas caused it to crash into the town's promenade wall. 

Fortunately, no-one was hurt, thanks to the heroic efforts of the local lifeboat crew.  But the VA-3 never made a crossing from Rhyl again.

The craft was eventually repaired and spent the next few years in North America.  After a short period used for military testing, it was deliberately sunk off the south coast of England in the late 1960s.

Today, just one piece of the VA-3 remains

The lift fan, the key component that provided the craft’s lifting force, is now preserved at the Hovercraft Museum in Hampshire.

Back in ‘62, the Rhyl to Wallasey crossing made history. It’s not remembered quite so much these days. But if you were there during that summer, watching the future glide into view, you’ll never forget it.

You can see more on this story, and many other lost landmarks, in Vanished Wales. Tuesday 11th April at 8pm on ITV Cymru Wales. You can also catch up with the series here.