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24 May 2013

HTC-trained Hovercraft Pilots on the Scene at Bridge Collapse in Washington State

When a bridge on Interstate 5 just north of Seattle, Wash. collapsed in the spring of 2013, the scene was like something out of a Michael Bay film: crumbled concrete and snapped reinforcement beams pouring into the river below, snapped steel trusses jutting out in all directions; mangled cars suspended in a tangle of metal and concrete; terrified motorists clinging to the debris, shivering as rescuers carefully extract them from the wreckage.

Not something you often see outside of a movie set.

Two Neoteric Hovertreks survey the scene of the bridge collapse on the Skagit River near Seattle, Wash. [Photo credit: AP photo/Seattle Times/Rick Lund)
The millions of viewers who caught the story, which was covered around the globe and touched off a national conversation about the state of the U.S. infrastructure, also got a glimpse of something else you don’t see every day: two fire-engine-red Neoteric rescue hovercraft — including one operated by HTC graduate Trent Nunemaker — cruising through the melee, going where no other vehicle could travel to scour the wreckage for signs of life.

Nunemaker navigates through debris-filled waters to search for victims. [Photo credit: AP photo/Seattle Times/Rick Lund)

He might not command Bruce Willis’s salary, but for Trent Nunemaker — President of Snohomish County Fire District 19, Team Coordinator for the Stillaguamish Swiftwater Rescue Team and certified pilot of District 19’s Hovercraft 94— the dramatic scene on May 23 was just another day on the job. And hovercraft, something many people still imagine to be the stuff of futuristic fiction, are the best tool he’s found to save time, save lives, and keep rescue workers safely above the danger rather than in it.

“There was a lot of debris in the water — concrete and steel. Boats weren’t able to get into the wreckage, but we were able to hover back and forth through the debris and look for victims,” Nunemaker says. “We don’t have to worry about what’s underneath us.” Luckily, there were no fatalities in the May 23 bridge collapse and only three people were hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries.

Snohomish County Fire District 21's Hovercraft 49 and crew. [Photo credit: Snohomish County Fire District 21]

This might be the first time many residents of the area have seen the flashy crimson craft flying around — but not the first time these unique vehicles have come to their aid. The Stillaguamish Swiftwater Rescue Team, comprised of rescue technicians and fire departments in the far-flung river communities of Granite Falls, Darrington, Oso, Arlington Heights and Silvana, was formed around the unique capability of hovercraft to provide rapid access over a variable landscape. From the low, flat plains of Puget Sound to the rough waters at the foothills of the Cascade Range, hovercraft allow the team to serve residents in hard-to-reach rural areas.
Before adopting hovercraft, Nunemaker’s team used boats or inflatable rafts to traverse what they could within the wide range of terrain. Hovercraft afford the ability to cover more area — in less time and with less hassle.

“It’s a great platform — especially for our area in the valley,” he continues. “It allows us to access any part of the river in our district within minutes. And it doesn’t matter what the conditions are. We operate it in the spring floods and in the summer when the water is barely three feet deep. When the river is low, it can be hard to get a boat or anything with a big hull down there. Hovercraft allow us to access parts of the river that would take us a much longer time. But we also live in a floodplain, so we use it to access our town — which is completely isolated — when it floods.”

With hovercraft, rescuers can cruise straight off a trailer, right up to houses that are completely surrounded by flood water, and get the residents to dry land. Floods also bring strainers — river obstructions such as log jams, bushes, storm grates or debris — that form a powerful vortex and can pull victims under the water, often to their deaths.

“We had a really bad summer last year and had quite a few people hung up in strainers, so we used the hovercraft to access hard-to-reach areas,” Nunemaker says. “We take it into some pretty rough waters. I’m amazed, the more time I spend on it, how reactive and stable it is in rough waters.”

Nunemaker credits his Hovercraft Training Centers operator and maintenance training for allowing his team to get the most out of their craft in challenging conditions and to keep their hovercraft running at optimal capacity in-house, without outside mechanical help.  Stillaguamish Swiftwater Rescue Team trains on hovercraft once a month to keep the craft and operators primed for fast response and successful rescues — with a protocol based on the training at Hovercraft Training Centers.

“The training (at HTC) was very skills-based and structured — one skill into another and then the next. You learn how to maneuver it and you understand what its capable of.” he says. “Rather than just putting our pilots out there for a certain number of hours, we have them perform certain skills on the craft. You can fly around on the thing for 100 hours and not really learn much about it, but actually performing the different maneuvers and learning the dynamics behind it as you do in the training is really helpful. “

Like many firefighters and budget-conscious rescue organizations considering hovercraft, Nunemaker was skeptical at first. When his chief floated the idea of buying a hovercraft to enhance rescue capability, Nunemaker resisted, fearing it might be too much trouble — and too expensive — to be feasible for his department.

“A few of us were really against it — and I was one of the biggest opponents,” Nunemaker recalls. “With the maintenance and the training and everything, I just thought it was going to be too much. But we’re capable of doing so much more now — like checking the wreckage of the bridge. It’s something we needed in order for our team to be effective in our area.”

The availability of formal training — and the confidence it provides — finally sealed the deal.

“We were pretty leery, but we pushed our chief and said, ‘If we’re going to get the hovercraft, we need to send our people for formal training so we’re doing this the right way’. I’ve gone a little bit to the school of hard knocks and all I learned about it was that there was a lot more to learn.”

It’s hard to imagine those days now, watching Nunemaker glide effortlessly through the wreckage on Interstate 5.

Most of those who travel the state’s major north-south artery — more than 77,000 vehicles daily — along with the 700,000 denizens of his county, will never know that Trent Nunemaker is standing guard, hovercraft at the ready, to keep Snohomish safe. But if they should happen to cross paths, these lucky residents will be glad to know that most Stillaguamish Swiftwater Rescue Team scenarios turn out roughly the same as the incident on the bridge or your average action blockbuster: with a happy ending.

As Washington Governor Hay Inslee said, surveying the scene the night of the collapse, “Thanks to the rescuers and a little bit of luck, we had three Skagitonians who made it out of the Skagit River alive.”

Pretty standard cinematic fare, but kind of a big deal in real life.

For Nunemaker and Hovercraft 94? Just another day.

23 May 2013

HTC Founder Chris Fitzgerald Visits U.S. Navy Assault Craft Unit 4 and Steps into the Craftmaster’s Seat of LCAC-50

The untrained eye might not recognize much similarity between light hovercraft, such as the 6-passenger Neoteric Hovertrek — exclusive training craft of HTC, and the giant U.S. Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) — a 100-ton, $22-million behemoth designed to transport 180 fully-equipped Marines along with weapons systems and heavy cargo directly from ship to shore.

But these two vehicles share a fairly significant — and perhaps surprising — trait: they operate by the same basic principles.
U.S. Navy LCAC-50 transports a tank through shallow waters. [Photo credit:]
A Neoteric Hovertrek, exclusive craft of HTC, navigates shallow rapids. [Photo credit: Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.]

Just as a 2-seat Cessna flies by the same rules as the Boeing 747, all hovercraft are governed by the four forces of flight: lift, weight, drag, and thrust. Learning to get off the ground and make the split second decisions a pilot faces are simply a matter of mastering these aerodynamic principles. As Einstein might have said, the rest is details.

Chris Fitzgerald, founder and lead engineer at Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. and founder and President of Hovercraft Training Centers has known this for a long time. Until recently, the largest craft he’d ever commanded was a 20-passenger hovercraft, but he has always suspected that — given a chance to familiarize himself with the controls — he could immediately pilot a hovercraft of any size or class based solely on his mastery of the core principles of hovercraft flight.
A loaded U.S. Navy LCAC approaches the well deck of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) as the ship operates in East China Sea on Feb. 3, 2013. [Photo credit: Department of Defense
Last month Fitzgerald visited the U.S. Navy Assault Craft Unit 4 in Virginia Beach and was invited to step into the pilot’s seat to test his theory. Turns out the proof was in the pudding. Fitzgerald fell in seamlessly as craftmaster, the lead or pilot role in a five-person crew that also includes a navigator, an engineer, a deck engineer, and a loadmaster.

Fitzgerald piloting LCAC-50 — a 100-ton, $22 million U.S. Navy hovercraft.   [Photo credit: Hovercraft Training Centers]

"I found it relatively easy, and that was with no advance instruction,” Fitzgerald says. “I had no trouble getting over the hump, operating in a straight line, turning, modulating speed, stopping. I attribute that to my experience piloting smaller light hovercraft; it was pretty much second nature.”
Navigator Amy Klemarczyk and flight engineer Nate orter worked seamlessly with Fitzgerald during his first experience piloting a U.S. Navy LCAC. Fitzgerald believes Hovercraft Training Centers can train LCAC navigators and engineers as well as craftmasters. [Photo credit: Hovercraft Training Centers]
Just as aircraft pilots follow a progressive training protocol — mastering the fundamentals on light aircraft and moving on to larger, more sophisticated models as skill level increases — Fitzgerald believes this same training sequence could benefit the Navy. Training prospective LCAC crew members on light hovercraft would dramatically reduce the cost of training and annual recommissioning by minimizing training hours on the LCAC and simulators — both very costly to operate. Hovercraft could serve as a cost-effective means of vetting prospective pilots, thus reducing attrition rates, and act as a recruitment tool — allowing interested candidates to test their potential aptitude for the technology with little risk or expense.

Craftmaster Dave Convery (left) and Fitzgerald discuss the LCAC's performance in various sea conditions, loading scenarios, operational challenges and techniques for towing or pushing disabled craft in recovery missions. [Photo credit: Hovercraft Training Centers]

The current LCAC training program is an extensive, expensive process with high attrition rates. After pre-qualification through physical and aptitude testing, applicants undergo a six-month training cycle: 12 weeks of classroom instruction, flight simulator and computer-based training followed by 12 weeks of real hovercraft operation. According to a source inside ACU-4, hourly operating cost for LCACs is around $7,800. Even the simulators, which the crew operates for approximately 100 hours during training, costs about $800 per hour. All told, the source estimates the cost per trainee at around $200,000.
Fitzgerald inspects the flight simulator used by LCAC pilot trainees. [Photo credit: Hovercraft Training Centers]
Plans are underway for U.S. Navy craftmaster trainer Andy Sutter to visit Hovercraft Training Centers’ headquarters to evaluate our one-day Standard Training course and discuss how light hovercraft training could benefit the Navy’s current training programs for LCACs and the new Ship-to-Shore Connector (SSC) hovercraft currently being developed to replace the aging LCAC fleet.

Fitzgerald with his hosts at U.S. Navy's Assault Craft Unit 4. From left, Kevin Gerber, a retired craftmaster and LCAC engineering technician; Chris Fitzgerald; craftmaster Dave Convery; and LCAC craftmaster trainer Andy Sutter. [Photo credit: Hovercraft Training Centers]

01 May 2013

World's First Hovercraft Flight Academy Launches

Hovercraft Training Centers LLC, the world’s first hovercraft flight academy, has launched its flagship location in Terre Haute, Ind. USA, offering comprehensive light hovercraft operation and maintenance training and certification for rescue, military, commercial and recreational hovercraft pilots. Hovercraft Training Centers (HTC) was founded by Chris Fitzgerald, who is also founder and President of Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc., the world’s original light hovercraft manufacturer. Fitzgerald has trained and certified hovercraft pilots for more than 30 years. By formalizing his experience into an official training program that prepares both professionals and recreational hovercraft enthusiasts to achieve peak performance in record time, his proven training curriculum lets new pilots bypass the most costly and time-consuming part of learning to fly and maintain a hovercraft: trial by error.

Visit Hovercraft Training Centers at

Five distinct certification programs cater to all hovercraft applications:
  • Standard Training is designed for the general or recreational pilot and covers the basic operation and maintenance required to become a certified solo hovercraft pilot.
  • Advanced Training takes piloting and maintenance skills to the next level. Trainees learn sophisticated techniques for operation in extreme environmental conditions, such as swiftwater, narrow waterways, obstacle courses, steep inclines and more.
  • Master Training is individualized and focuses on specialized training in rescue/military operations and teamwork in an emergency, military or work environment. This course also trains flight instructors: Master students will teach a Standard Training course under the supervision of a certified master hovercraft pilot.
  • Specialized Training is highly customized to meet the needs of rescue, commercial and military hovercraft pilots, both novice and experienced. The course covers basic operations, then proceeds to mastery of actual applications such as ice/swiftwater/flood rescue; task-specific commercial training; military interdiction; night ops and instructor training.
  • Franchise Training prepares franchisees for Hovercenter ownership by qualifying them to provide Hovercraft Test Flights and Standard Hovercraft Pilot Operation and Maintenance Training. It also includes training in extended maintenance as well as Hovercenter setup, operations, management, sales, and marketing.

For those new to hovercraft, or who are wondering if a hovercraft will work for their particular situation, Hovercraft Training Centers also offer a Test Flight where they can spend a couple of hours at HTC, discuss their needs, experience hovercraft operation and determine whether a hovercraft can increase their productivity, improve their safety - or just let them have more fun.

HoverWorld Insider, Official Publication of the World Hovercraft Organization, is Back on the Scene

HoverWorld Insider, the official publication of the World Hovercraft Organization, is back after a 5-year hiatus to cover news and events for the international community of hovercraft professionals and enthusiasts. Available as an e-newsletter and on the website of the World Hovercraft Organization here. The quarterly publication serves as a resource and a unifying voice for the growing world of hovercraft — including the rescue, military, commercial, recreational and educational spheres as well as hovercraft manufacturers worldwide.

“The Insider is our contribution to the industry,” says Insider Publisher, industry veteran, and HTC founder Chris Fitzgerald. “When the industry expands, everyone benefits. And every time a reader lets us know they’ve found some value in an issue - every time a school incorporates a hovercraft project into their curriculum, every time a life is saved by a rescue hovercraft – these are the things that make it worthwhile for me and are good indicators of industry success.

The re-launch comes during a boom for the hovercraft industry, which recently enjoyed unprecedented buzz due to the massive success of Bubba’s Hover, the viral video of 2012 Masters Champion Bubba Watson flying around a golf course in a hovercraft golf cart manufactured by Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. The video, brainchild of NYC viral video kings Thinkmodo, got over 7.5 million views within 48 hours of its release in April.

In addition to the behind-the-scenes scoop on how Bubba’s Hover went from a cocktail napkin sketch to an overnight internet sensation, the latest issue of HoverWorld Insider features news about:

  • Commercial Hovercraft — with the launch of the world's first hovercraft flight academy, Hovercraft Training Centers LLC and the latest developments for hovercraft commercial operations worldwide.
  • Hovercraft in Education — with the first intercollegiate hovercraft race between historic rivals Auburn University and the University of Alabama.
  • Rescue Hovercraft — with news of hovercraft-aided rescues and first-hand accounts from search and rescue professionals who rely on hovercraft to save lives where no other vehicle will travel.
  • Military Hovercraft — with a report on how new hovercraft technology is being adopted for ship-to-shore transport by the U.S., China and South Korea.
  • Hovercraft Manufacturing — with the formation of the Hovercraft Manufacturers Association.
  • Recreational Hovercraft —with event reviews as well as a comprehensive listing of upcoming hovercraft events such as races and other recreational gatherings.

The World Hovercraft Organization is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to represent the world hovercraft community and to advance hovercraft technology by embracing, expanding and providing communication between all aspects of the hovercraft world including rescue, military and commercial professionals; clubs, societies and museums; manufacturers; students and institutions using hovercraft in education; and private enthusiasts.

Subscribe to HoverWorld Insider and be the first to get the inside tip on all things hovercraft.