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History of the Hovercraft: The Origin of the Hoverclub of America, Inc.


Introduction

The Hoverclub of America, Inc. is dedicated to bringing together people with a common interest, to providing a forum for the dissemination of hovercraft information and to organizing hovercraft events. It is one of many such clubs around the world and has its own unique history.

The Hoverclub of America was originally the National Association for Air Cushion Vehicle Enthusiasts (NAACVE), incorporated by Jan Eglen and Woodrow Nasser of Terre Haute, Indiana USA in 1967. The list of charter members included several pioneers of ground effect machines, air cushion vehicles and hovercraft, such as Dr. William Bertelsen, Frank Dobson, Col. Melville Beardsley, Allan Ford, W. Nixon, Dr. Alfred Skolnick and Thomas Sweeney. Eglen himself pioneered the forming of hovercraft bodies from thermoplastic "Marbon," or ABS. His two-seater, twin-engine hovercraft was called the Hoverbug.

Due to his involvement in his hovercraft manufacturing business, Eglen turned the hovercraft club over to Rodney McKeighan of Rochester, Michigan in 1974. McKeighan renamed the club the American Hovercraft Association (AHA). The new hovercraft association published a monthly newsletter, which advertised future hovercraft events such as the Wabash Valley Rally and Seminar in Terre Haute, Indiana (June 7, 1975) and the Dayton, Ohio Air Fair (July 26-27, 1975.)

The tremendous, unpaid workload necessary for the hovercraft club and newsletter to succeed proved difficult for McKeighan to sustain. The association faltered, and the last issue of the American Hovercraft Association's newsletter, Vol. 2 No. 3, was published in March 1975.

Formation of the Hoverclub of America

Chris Fitzgerald moved to Terre Haute from Australia in 1975 to establish Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. At that time, Jan Eglen agreed to let Fitzgerald use the Hoverbug factory as a home base for his fledgling hovercraft manufacturing business.

Fitzgerald had traveled the world on a Rotary Foundation Scholarship in pursuit "all things hovercraft." During his travels, he discovered that hovercraft were called by as many as fifteen different names: Ground Effect Machines (GEMs), Air Cushion Vehicles (ACV), Hovercraft, Surface Effect Ships (SES), Ram Wings, Surface Skimmers, Captured Air Bubble Craft, Hovertrains, Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), Air Car, Captured Air Bubble Vehicle, Wing in Ground Effect (WiG), Ram Wing, Hoverpad and Levapad.

He believed the profusion of different names for the hovercraft created much confusion and difficulty when trying to introduce the hovercraft concept. Fitzgerald introduced several ideas for reviving the hovercraft organization. He felt that in order to revitalize the hovercraft association and to successfully promote this obscure new sport, one name only should be utilized: hovercraft.

Fitzgerald also believed that it would be beneficial to all hovercraft enthusiasts to be self-regulated so that government organizations would not feel the need to get involved. The hovercraft club would need to establish its own standards for safety, monitored by its own inspectors. He felt that speaking with one voice as a self-regulated club would be an advantage in handling future issues such as noise levels, hovercraft insurance, and restricting areas of operation.

In May 1976 Chris Fitzgerald called upon former club members and Terre Haute attorney Woodrow Nasser to help him incorporate the Hoverclub of America. The new Hoverclub of America updated and modified the articles of incorporation of the NAACVE to meet the needs of the new club's members. On May 15, Fitzgerald traveled to Indianapolis on a Greyhound Bus and walked to the State Building to file the corporation papers and the Hoverclub of America, Inc. became official. The Hoverclub was registered as a 501(c)7 not-for-profit corporation.

On May 29, he conducted a meeting of American Hovercraft Association membership at their hover rally in Fairbanks Park, Terre Haute, for the purpose of officially reorganizing the AHA and renaming it the Hoverclub of America, Inc. Six national directors were nominated and elected to serve for one year: Dennis Benson and Paul Esterle of Venture Aero Marine; Mike Clare of Windcraft, Inc.; Mike Kiester, a hovercraft enthusiast; Chris Fitzgerald of Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.; and Woodrow Nasser and Jan Eglen of Eglen Hovercraft, Inc. The officers elected that day were Paul Esterle, President; Chris Fitzgerald, Vice President; Mike Kiester, Secretary/Editor; and Dennis Benson, Treasurer.

Hoverclub Progress

The Hoverclub of America published its first newsletter, Volume 1, No 1, on June 4, 1976. It consisted of three pages and was written by Paul Esterle and Dennis Benson, who also drove from Akron, Ohio to Rodney McKeighan's home in Michigan to obtain the American Hovercraft Association mailing list of approximately 100 - 150 members.

Although many individuals were instrumental in the Hoverclub of America's survival, Esterle and Benson carried nearly the entire load from 1976 to 1980. Paul used his computer skills to maintain and expand the mailing list to more than double its initial size, while Dennis and his wife wrote, produced and mailed all the newsletters and handled all the secretarial responsibilities. Their work was done voluntarily and with little recognition. In 1980, Paul suffered health problems and the Bensons found the workload more than they could bear on their own. Consequently, the newsletter changed hands.

In February 1980, Chris Fitzgerald and his friend Laura Elmore took on the task of publishing the Hoverclub of America newsletter. Chris gathered and wrote most of the articles and Laura served as editor and photographer. This was in the days before the advent of desktop publishing, so long hours were spent at the drawing board doing paste-ups.

In order to increase readership, the pair decided to redesign the format of the Hoverclub Newsletter and rename it Hovernews. After the first year, club member Rossanne Adams volunteered to take over the editing, paste-ups and secretarial duties. She persevered from 1982 through 1984, when family matters drew her away.

During the time Chris, Laura and Rossanne produced the Hovernews, the Hoverclub of America grew to more than 600 members, and actually accumulated several thousand dollars in capital.

In 1984, yet another volunteer, Juanita Morris, kept the Hovernews going until Sarajane Mahler assumed the responsibility. It should be mentioned that each of the members writing, producing and distributing the Hovernews were at the same time actually managing the Hoverclub, doing the mailings, banking, keeping records updated, and organizing and managing all the hover rallies, including the National rallies in Terre Haute. Fitzgerald alone logged up to 50 hours per month for a number of years to help keep the club prospering. Volunteers Steve and Mary Auten donated their time and computer expertise to produce the mailing labels during this period.

In November 1985, Sarajane's husband, Al, agreed to serve as Hovernews editor for a fee; this led to Sarajane also receiving compensation. This was the first time in the history of the Hoverclub that secretarial and editorial services were remunerated, thus paving the way for its continual stability.

Today, with the advent of technology, the Hoverclub of America has grown increasingly more complex. In spite of this complexity, David and Sherri Galka of Foley, Alabama successfully maintain it. Numerous other club members and volunteers assist the Galkas. Together they have made the Hoverclub of America, Inc. an organization that successfully facilitates the needs of its members.

National and World Rallies

By 1984 the US National Rally, held annually in Terre Haute as an adjunct to the Banks of the Wabash Festival, was attracting as many as 3,000 spectators and numerous community leaders. In spite of this success, it was difficult to gain the support of city officials, so Chris Fitzgerald, the event's Chief of Operations, decided to seek a new site for the event. Since the rallies were - and continue to be - a huge undertaking, the full cooperation of the hosting city is crucial.

Indianapolis, Indiana seemed like a logical venue, since it was a city of more than a million people and the home of the Indianapolis 500, one of the most famous auto races in the world. Indianapolis also had an accessible river running right through the city.

This in mind, Fitzgerald called upon and gained the backing of Lieutenant Governor John Mutz, who put him in touch with the head of the White River Park Commission. The 1985 National Rally, planned with much bureaucratic resistance, was held in conjunction with a massive Labor Day fireworks display sponsored by an Indianapolis radio station. More than 100,000 spectators attended, in addition to approximately 50 Hoverclub members and 30 hovercraft.

In 1986 the city's health department closed the river to all boating activities, which put the Hoverclub back to square one.

As the 1986 rally approached, Steve Lenz of Oshkosh Wisconsin's Sawdust Daze Festival offered to support the national event. Since he had persuaded city officials to extensively modify their Menomonee Park to make it an exciting racecourse, the club's decision was an easy one. The National Rally took place on the shores of Lake Winnebago on July 4, 1986. Even though the customary effort was put forth, the club member attendance was paltry. Those who did come surmised that the Fourth of July holiday was a big family weekend, and not a good choice for future rallies.

After so many attempts in so many venues, Fitzgerald began to realize that for a hover rally to be viable, the venue must be a place where a club member lives - one who is willing and able to "champion" the cause. This Champion must have a positive attitude, organizational skills, and the ability to make connections with the city and county officials. In addition, the rally site should be located in the central part of the United Stated in order to facilitate the Hoverclub's scattered membership.

All these characteristics seemed to express themselves in Scott Brownlee of Tipp City, Ohio who proposed using the Miami River Park in Troy, Ohio. Fitzgerald drove to Troy with a hovercraft, so that he and Brownlee could survey the site and plot a racecourse. The site was deemed suitable and the Hoverclub's 1987 National Rally was held in conjunction with the town's Strawberry Festival. The event was well attended.

With Brownlee's willingness to handle the massive workload, the event ran smoothly and planning began for Troy, Ohio to host the 1989 World Hovercraft Championship. Franz Berndt Sr., President of the World Hovercraft Federation, traveled from Germany and deemed both the former Indianapolis, Indiana site, as well as the Troy, Ohio site acceptable. Since Scott Brownlee agreed to not only spearhead the event, but also to help finance a great deal of it, the Troy site was chosen. Brownlee financed insurance, containers for the overseas hovercraft, and numerous other items crucial to the event such as the awards, the official programs, and billeting for the foreign participants. Had it not been for Scott's support, the World Hovercraft Championship Race would not have been possible.

Chris Fitzgerald and Bob Windt traveled to Europe to promote the event, visiting four countries in two weeks. Fitzgerald created the brochure that was mailed throughout the world by Sara Mahler. Creating the brochure necessitated the actual structuring of the event. The comprehensive brochure listed the events, the venues, the awards, and accommodation information; it included the registration form, the history of the event, and promoted future events. Al Maher served as one of the event's safety marshals and Sara organized the registration process.

The 1989 World Hovercraft Championship was a tremendous success, with 70 hovercraft from 13 countries represented. It established Troy, Ohio as a permanent site for the US National Hover Rally.

Al Maher became seriously ill in 1989 and Terry Chapman, a member of the Board of Directors, suggested that Dave and Sherri Galka replace the Mahlers as editor and secretary, respectively. As such, they also managed all the Hoverclub publications and sales, maintained membership, organized the teleconferencing for Board of Directors meetings and managed the club's website. At the rallies, the Galkas are in charge of registration and safety inspections; they also compile race results, promote new memberships, and arrange the Hoverclub's annual meeting where new officers are appointed and elected for the Board of Directors.

Due to family demands, Scott Brownlee's involvement began to wane after a few years and Terry Chapman assumed the site management responsibilities. Upon Chapman's move from nearby Dayton to Toledo, Ohio, Graham Spencer took charge.

In 2001, Hoverclub of America members were instrumental in bringing the World Hovercraft Championship back to the United States for the first time since 1989. Hoverclub member Kent Gano, who is also the World Hovercraft Federation's Vice-President representing the Americas, pushed hard for the Hoverclub to host World Hovercraft Championship 2002.

Gano had originally settled on DuQuoin, Illinois as a suitable site for the event, and members of the Southern Illinois University school hovercraft program agreed to help with the event's organization. However, with only one year left to plan and stage the event, the volunteer organizers had not succeeded in raising any sponsorship funds and problems with the race site and the city began to surface.

Nick Jokay, President of the Hoosier Hovercraft Championship, met with David Patterson, Executive Director of the Terre Haute, Indiana Convention and Visitors Bureau to request that his organization contribute $20,000 in seed money for WHC2002.

On the basis of the availability of these funds, Chris Fitzgerald agreed to serve as WHC2002 Chairman and to organize the event. A suitable site was found and the Hoverclub was persuaded to move its attention from DuQuoin to Terre Haute.

The Championship was expanded into World Hovercraft Week 2002, which encompassed the Canadian Air Cushion Technology Society's (CACTS) 27th International Conference on Air Cushion Technology, the 1st World Symposium on Hovercraft Rescue, the world's largest hovercraft cruise, and the Hovercraft World Speed Record Challenge. Participants from 17 nations attended WHC2002, and the rest is history.

Membership & Finances

The Hoverclub of America is comprised of 650 members with diverse backgrounds and occupations, ranging from airline pilots to backyard hovercraft builders to students. The majority are males who are intrigued by any type of unique mechanical transport, although their families are usually involved either directly or indirectly. Hoverclub events provide them with a forum for the exchange of new hovercraft developments, organized, safe racing and cruising experiences and the camaraderie of membership in the unique family atmosphere enjoyed by hovercrafters.

The Hoverclub offers Individual membership for $30 per year and Family/Group membership for $40 per year, as well as other levels of membership. Residents of Canada and Mexico are strongly represented in the membership, as are many other nations.

Tracking the actual membership is a complex process due to the irregular manner in which some members pay. The Treasurer's calculations are based on the total number of memberships purchased during the club's financial year, which ends in December. Since some members may pay more and some may pay less than the required annual dues, some may be counted as a member-and-a-half, while some may only be half a member. Although this system may seem odd, it was established at the club's beginning and for the sake of tracking trends must be maintained.

Parallel to this system is Dave and Sherri Galka's method, which involves counting the copies of Hovernews that are mailed bi-monthly. Their numbers are usually higher due to the fact that some copies are complimentary, and some go to members whose membership has not been paid in full.

The Future of the Hoverclub of America

The following graph illustrates that the Hoverclub's strongest group of renewing members are its long-term members. In other words, the newer the member, the less likely the renewal of membership.

Hovercraft Club of America
membership
Basis: Graph is calculated from annual membership deposits. These include Individual, Family, School, and Three-Year memberships as well as partial and overpayments.

Therefore, some issues need to be addressed by the Board of Directors. How can the Hoverclub both attract and retain members? Also, considering the fact that the club has gone from having a cash reserve during the '80's growth period, to simply breaking even, how can it best support itself and achieve future growth?

Fitzgerald notes that although the British Hovercraft Club has fewer members than the Hoverclub of America, it appears to be more successful. Its membership is stable, it has a much greater number of participants in a greater number of races, and it successfully acquires commercial sponsors. Is the British Hovercraft Club more successful because it has been in existence longer? Does the smaller geographic area of the country make events more feasible because members are in close proximity to each other? Or does the BP Challenge to Youth Hovercraft Program, originally sponsored by British Petroleum in conjunction with the schools, serve to increase general awareness of hovercraft, thus stimulating club membership?

In 1993 several Hoverclub of America members discussed the factors contributing to the British Hovercraft Club's success. The general consensus was that Youth Hovercraft Program was probably the key factor. During the banquet at the 1993 annual rally in Terre Haute, Indiana, member Jeff Titus proposed that the Hoverclub introduce a new classification of hovercraft, entry level, to their race line-ups. He recommended that plans be drawn up for an inexpensive, simple hovercraft that could be promoted for school hovercraft projects, so that young people could be exposed to the world of hovercraft. Bob Windt agreed to create a set of plans, with the proceeds from their sales to be donated to the Hoverclub.

For the next five years, member Nick Jokay along with Chris Fitzgerald worked with a public relations firm to generate a flier to be mailed to high schools in Indiana and Ohio. The purpose of this project was to test the market for a school hovercraft program and to secure a sponsor. The results were positive, and the entry level class did stimulate new interest in hovercraft. During recent years, 14 high schools and even some colleges have participated in hovercraft races.

Fitzgerald surmises that what the club needs now is to use the Indiana/Ohio model to stimulate interest throughout the United States, and to gain sponsorship for school hovercraft programs. Once again, a capable champion is needed to take the project to the next level, in order that the Hoverclub of America may grow and thrive.

As the Hoverclub of America, Inc. continues to evolve, a name change is taking place. Due to a groundswell within the club membership, and hearkening back to Chris Fitzgerald's early belief in the importance of using the word 'hovercraft,' the Hoverclub of America is gradually evolving into the Hovercraft Club of America, Inc.

Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.
1649 Tippecanoe Street Terre Haute, Indiana USA 47807-2394
Telephone: 1-812-234-1120 / 1-800-285-3761 Fax: 877-640-8507

Homepage:
www.neoterichovercraft.com / www.rescuehovercraft.com
E-mail: hovermail@neoterichovercraft.com
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