Hovercraft training brings Utah rescue unit to Fairbanks Park
Local company trains agencies worldwide
Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Indiana USA
25 June 2011
by Brian Boyce
TERRE HAUTE - Neither boat nor helicopter, it was something in between that danced about the Wabash River this past week.
“We always have questions,” Chris Fitzgerald chuckled near the Fairbanks Park boat ramp as a driver pulled up to inspect his hovercraft.
Fitzgerald and U.S. Air Force personnel from the Utah Test and Training Range at Hill Air Force Base spent the week training on a new 4-seat unit the military will use there.
As base firefighters and emergency responders, the group uses hovercraft such as Fitzgerald’s in water rescues. Among those training this week was Capt. Cory Lingelbach who, in May of 2006, used one to rescue a downed F-16 pilot who had crashed off the Great Salt Lake.
Turn here: Chris Fitzgerald and Cory Lingelbach head upriver for a training exercise Friday evening. Tribune-Star/Jim Avelis
|Fitzgerald’s company, Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc., designs and manufactures light hovercraft for clientele in 50 nations. The products range from emergency rescue models to recreational.
Lingelbach said Fitzgerald has been working with their department since before 2005.
“I came to Terre Haute in ’76,” Fitzgerald said Friday afternoon as the military firefighters hooked the vehicles to the back of trucks. “That’s when I started the business here.”
Today the company sells about 60 units a year to groups ranging from American to Russian, African and Swedish.
“The most obscure places,” Fitzgerald remarked.
In addition to manufacturing the hovercraft, Fitzgerald also trains personnel on maintenance and operations. The model being used this week was a four-seat hovercraft designed to carry about 800 pounds in weight, he said. If the hovercraft is used on ice, the load can be increased to about 1,200 pounds.
Learning curve: Hovercraft instructor Chris Fitzgerald (center) talks with Cory Lingelbach, Derek Martinez and Jonathan Jiminez at the boat launch at Fairbanks Park. The three rescue worker are in town from Utah training with Fitzgerald. Tribune-Star/Jim Avelis
|The vehicle rides on “a bubble of air” and tops out between 55 and 60 miles per hour, he added.
“They almost turn ice rescues into a recreational activity,” he said, adding the vehicles are extremely safe on ice as well as fast water. Boats, on the other hand, have trouble on both.
But energy efficiency was one of the earliest reasons for their usage, he said, explaining the four-seat hovercraft trained on this week is about 30 percent more efficient than an airboat. The German-made Hirth engine inside it runs on gasoline, and is comparable to the engine in an ultralight aircraft.
“Diesel engines tend to be too heavy,” he explained.
The new model being taken back to Utah contains a 100-horsepower engine compared to its predecessor, which had 65 horsepower, but the craft itself is slightly smaller. Lingelbach said the difference in size and horsepower will allow the department to do at half-speed what it used to do at full throttle.
Thursday, the group stayed out until 11:30 p.m. simulating night water rescues and victim retrieval. They also cruised up the river to Clinton to let personnel get used to the feel.