Watching the newly christened Airfish 8-001 leave its berth for the weekend at the Promenade at VivoCity on Monday, not flying as it should really have been, but moving on the surface due to port limit speed restrictions, it struck me that it looked like a stingray, gracefully moving through the water, not below the surface as a stingray does, but on the surface. It was sight to behold, leaving against the backdrop of surreal world of Resorts World Sentosa, with its airscrews spinning. There were several fast ferries awaiting their berths at the cruise centre, gathered as if in a salute to a significant moment – the first voyage of a WIG craft as a registered ship.
The shipping world and maybe the world at large is sometimes slow to accept technology for what it is and this seems especially so for the Wing-In Ground Effect technology. It is one that has taken many years since when the phenomenon was first discovered. Ground effect is actually seen in all aircraft as they come close to the ground and is used very much in nature, as it is in non aircraft applications. Many large birds such as the Albatross and Geese are able to fly long distances by conserving energy flying close to the ground – something that was realised during the Second World War when Allied bombers low on fuel were able to return to their bases in the British Isles by flying close to the ground. In motor racing, ground effect is used to create a downward force to generate a stabilising force.
Ground effect is said to be the most efficient form of flight and is a technology that has been waiting to be exploited. Ground effect vehicles have actually been with us for a while, the idea being exploited to lift sea borne vehicles off the surface of the sea to minimise drag, while at the same time flying close to the ground such that the efficiency that flying in ground effect provides can be exploited. Examples of these are X-112 built by Dr. Alexander Lippisch for Collins, and the huge Soviet built Ekranoplans during the Cold War for military use. Commercially however, exploitation has taken a long time in coming. Flying close to the sea surface, there was for a long time a reluctance by legislators uncertain about which civil authority to govern the design, construction and operation of such craft, to determine if it should be seen as a boat of a plane. Why not, one may ask, fly a plane then in Ground Effect? The answer lies in the fact that planes, designed to operate in free flight, are unstable when in ground effect and pilots are trained to counter the effects by having to actively control the plane during take-off and landing. A purpose built Ground Effect vehicle on the other hand can be designed such that it is stable in ground effect without the need for active control. A feature of WIG craft is the large horizontal tail that is provided for this purpose.
The wrangle over whether a WIG craft was a boat or a plane was finally settled with the publication of the Interim Guidelines on WIG Craft by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in 2002. While that paved the way for the acceptance of WIG craft as a sea craft, it has taken another 8 years before we now see the first WIG craft in the world to be registered as a ship, Airfish 8-001. This is certainly a significant milestone for the technology, one that as David Hughes in an editorial in the Business Times on 28 April 2010 noted, that has been done with “the right support structure in place to develop and exploit new technologies”, the support structure being the Maritime and Port Authority (as Singapore’s Civil Maritime agency), Lloyd’s Register, and several other government agencies and partners. Mr Hughes also outlines the plans of the company behind Airfish 8-001, Wigetworks, including its future R&D efforts.
All this leads to pretty exciting prospects for the WIG craft, once seen as a poor cousin to the aircraft. Those that were present for the christening ceremony and for its first voyage, as the fast ferries in attendance off VivoCity on Monday, have perhaps witnessed an especially significant moment in maritime transportation history.