"I would never have gotten anywhere without training."
Beaches. Surf Zones. River mouths. Tidal Flats.
This convergence between two worlds - the amphibious spaces where land and water dance, comingle, collide - has always captivated Dr. Steve Elgar, an oceanographer with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
This also happens to be, as Dr. Elgar would discover, where hovercraft soar. Tasked with surveying a 25 kilometer area in the tidal flats north of Seattle, Elgar's team installed instruments across the terrain to measure currents, winds, and waves, and would need to visit them daily to take readings and clear seaweed and other debris that accumulate on the instrumentation due to the changing tides.
A Google Earth view of the Skagit River, the largest river flowing into Puget Sound and the focus of Dr. Elgar's research, portrays an elegant latticework of delicate fingers branching smaller and smaller, ranging across the low, flat landscape like Chantilly lace. The view from the ground, however, lacks such refinement.
Cutting a broad five meter swath, the tidal range transforms from a sandy, muddy muck at low tide to channels as deep as two meters at high tide - beset on all sides by jagged lines of trees and other obstacles. The problem Dr. Elgar faced, then, was how to gain reliable daily access to an area that is not only inherently difficult to access, but in constant flux.
In the past, Dr. Elgar's team employed an armada of access vehicles: ATVs, boats, cumbersome SCUBA gear. That is, until Dr. Elgar discovered hovercraft.
"I joked that the best way to do this would be to use a hovercraft," Dr. Elgar says. "We could go right over the channels, over the mud and sand. Everybody teased me, but after talking with Chris Fitzgerald (Hovercraft Training Centers trainer and President) I was convinced that a hovercraft was the way to go."
During the two-month project, Dr. Elgar logged more than 100 hours in flight, quickly and conveniently making his daily rounds regardless of tides or weather conditions.
"I just love flying it!" Dr. Elgar says. "Not only is it completely useful, but it was the most fun vehicle we've ever had. It worked great, did exactly as advertised, carried the weight that was advertised, and went where it said it would go. And once I got good at flying, it was a true pleasure."
Dr. Elgar is quick to note that hovercraft flight is no easy breezy cruise, and when it comes to flight success, he hits the nail on the head: "It can be one of the most fun, efficient and effective tools you've ever used - once you've "gotten good at it." Elgar credits his professional training at Hovercraft Training Centers with helping him get the most enjoyment and use out of his hovercraft. Often new pilots, even those with experience in other unique vehicles, don't fully appreciate what goes into hovercraft operation, which Dr. Elgar likens to "a helicopter upside down." Flying requires constant vigilance to avoid obstacles and negotiate the wide range of terrain hovercraft are able to conquer.
"A couple of the technicians teased me at first, like 'God, how can you be so tired? You're just driving all day.' So I let a few of them try," Dr. Elgar says with a grin. "They all quit after about five minutes. They thought it would be like a jet ski - just cruising around. It was way too intense for them."
Since hovercraft operate not by the rules of the road or water, but by the law of the sky, a hovercraft pilot must draw on a sophisticated understanding of the aeronautical principles at play in order to make split-second decisions that can mean the difference between smooth sailing and dead in the water (or mud, muck, sand, snow, ice - take your pick).
"I would never have gotten anywhere without training," Dr. Elgar says. And after three years and hundreds of flight hours logged he still finds himself building from that fundamental core.
"You've got to understand it's not like a car that you just get in and go. You don't turn on a dime. It can take the whole width of a river to turn around. You really have to plan. I've gotten stuck, but then remembered my training and realized I was in the exact amount of water that prevents you from going or that I was under speed," Dr. Elgar says, referring to critical depth and hump drag, two of the principles governing hovercraft flight.
"It was harder to drive than I expected," he says. "And much harder to fly well. You should just consider training part of the purchase price. You'll understand how the craft works and end up much happier."
How happy? "I get paid to go to the beach and fly hovercraft," Dr. Elgar smiles. Never mind a good value. That kind of job satisfaction is priceless.