Staff Writer (Updated: 5/16/2016):
The PACV maintained its origins in an original hovercraft design produced by the British firm of Saunders-Roe. Saunders-Roe had a long history of producing both aircraft and marine vehicles since its founding in 1929. A merger with Westland Aircraft (later Agusta-Westland) ended Saunders-Roe officially as a company by 1964 but the merger gave birth to the British Hovercraft Corporation. The American PACV was developed from the original Saunders-Roe/British Hovercraft Corporation product SR.N5 under the Bell Aerosystems brand. Bell Aerosystems designated their new militarized product as the SK-5. As actions in the Vietnam War were ramping up, the US Navy took note of the machine and decided on a small purchase of these new machines for evaluation in the Theater. Her sailors trained on the waters off Coronado, California near San Diego. Refinements to the design were made based on feedback.
Categorized as a hovercraft, the PACV was capable of skimming the water's surface, able to build a fair amount of forward speed in the process and possess agility quite uncommon to any surface patrol vessel. Displacement was near 15,600lbs and the PACV featured a bow-to-stern length of 38 feet, 10 inches. Its beam was a reported 23 feet, 9 inches. Maximum speed was listed at 60 knots while a range of 165 nautical miles was possible. The PACV as accurately described as "one-third helicopter, one-third airplane and one-third boat".
The PACV took on a wide and stout external appearance, primarily characterized by her wide-span upper hull and inflated air cushion skirt. The crew cabin lay in a centralized nacelle just behind the bow and running to about amidships. The GE turboshaft turbine engine was fitted just aft of the crew compartment and powered an elevated three-bladed Hamilton propeller with variable pitch and full reversibility. The propeller system forced air between two vertical tail fins connected via a horizontal plane and allowing for smooth lateral movement as well as forward propulsion. Vertical lift power was supplied to the PACV through a centrifugal 12-bladed blower fan of 7-foot diameter comprising the horizontal lift system. This arrangement served the PACV well and allowed the nimble system the ability to cross over marshland and muddy surfaces with relative ease and at speed.
The crew cabin was windowed along all sides but the rear (this area taken up by the powerplant). A radar array was affixed to the top of the cabin. The dorsal gunner emplacement was situated above the cabin and ahead of the radar array. The pilot sat in the forward area of the crew cabin, offset to the right with a commanding view of the forward action. The radar operator was seated opposite him, maintaining a position in the forward-left portion of the crew cabin. Entry and exit was primarily through a flip-up hinged door system fitted to the front of the cabin, splitting the seating areas of the pilot and radar operator. The upper hull worked well as a surface for transporting passengers and gear.
It was not uncommon to see the PACV painted with "shark teeth" along the forward portion of the skirt - this obviously a psychological play against the Viet Cong they would be fighting.
Armament was centralized around a single (or double) Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun set up affixed to a rotating mount above the crew cabin. This armament was complimented by .30 caliber M60 general purpose machine guns fitted to the sides of the craft. Additionally, 40mm grenade launchers and additional M60 machine guns could be fitted in remote-controlled emplacements at the stern. Beyond that, the PACV crew had access to whatever personal weapons they would take along on a given mission including rifles, automatic weapons and grenades. In addition to the base crew's weapons, the PACV could also make use of any armament brought onboard by its passengers. Many-a-passenger preferred to ride on the outside of the craft with guns at the ready. This made for easier disembarking and allowed the passengers to bring their weapons to bear in support of the crew. In all, this collection of armament options made for one lethal waterborne system on par with other patrol craft operating in Vietnam at the time.
The PACV In-Action
The first PACV were sent and deployed to Vietnam waters sometime in 1966 and were utilized to good effect across the Mekong Delta. PACVs operated as experimental evaluation units tied to Task Force 116 and making up PACV Division 107. Combat engagements soon led to additional armoring being added to help support the crew and the delicate subsystems of the PACV. The PACV fought on, out of Moc Hoa, until being recalled for their overhaul in early 1967. These USN PACVs were eventually relegated to state-side duties with the US Coast Guard after their tours in Vietnam had concluded.
Initial actions revealed the PACV to be an effective weapon against the Viet Cong, particularly across soft and wet terrain where no other USN and US Army vehicles could go. If there was a negative in the legacy of the PACV, it was in the amount of noise being generated from her turbine engine. Thusly, the reach of the PACV was limited to some extent. Additionally, the internal components of the PACVs showed themselves to be too complicated for the daily rigors of riverine warfare in Vietnam where both environment and combat actions could render its subsystems inoperable with relative ease. However, the speed, traversing capabilities and firepower of the PACV were second to none and these benefits - at least for the time being - outweighed the inherent deficiencies in the system. The PACV proved effective in engaging the enemy through sheer force and served well in blocking known supply lines, policing enemy waterways, serving in the fire support role and useful in the extraction of allies in need or special forces operatives.