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Rescue rig: Hovercraft helps save lives on the river

Times-Mail, Bedford, Indiana
5 May 2009
by Mike Ricketts

It’s a helicopter. It’s a boat.

It’s a hovercraft, a means of transportation that has similarities with a boat and helicopter. And when you see the craft hovering along a body of water or land, it’s a head turner.

Photo Neoteric hovercraft White River
Steve Stafford gives Times-Mail writer Mike Ricketts a ride on the river.

Just ask Lawrence County Police Department Officer Steve Stafford, who is a certified hovercraft operator.

Once when Stafford was cruising around Lake Monroe on his personal hovercraft, he went by Hall of Fame rocker John Mellencamp’s house.

“There were several people outside, looking at the lake,” Stafford said. “And I noticed they were taking pictures of me in the hovercraft. I thought this is different, John Mellencamp taking pictures of me.”

Lawrence County police officer hovercraft pilot
Lawrence County Police Officer Steve Stafford pilots his hovercraft underneath the White River bridge.

But more than a head turner, the hovercraft is a life saver.

Stafford, who has been piloting the crafts for 16 years, said during the flood in June, he made 23 rescues in Brown and Bartholomew counties.

“During a flood is kind of where a hovercraft shines through,” Stafford said.

The water is often debris-filled and has a swift current during flooding. The hovercraft, with a two-stroke engine like a snowmobile uses, floats on an air cushion nine inches above water or land, enabling it to glide over much of the debris that might be in floodwaters, Stafford said.

Also, Stafford added, because the craft — starting at about $14,000 unassembled — doesn’t have a propeller, it is more effective in swiftly moving flood waters.

Rescue hovercraft can maneuver over debris
Steve Stafford explains how the turbine blows air into the skirts underneath. Because of this, the craft can be launched on land, and is easy to maneuver over debris.

In addition to gliding above water and land, hovercrafts have no problem with ice. It’s on ice, the craft reaches its top speed of 65 mph. On water, the craft will travel about 40 mph.

Because of these things, operating a hovercraft has many similarities to a “chopper.” “You have almost all the elements of helicopter,” Stafford said. “You have to think like a pilot. Think like you are flying.”

In addition to Stafford’s personal craft, the Lawrence County Police Department has a hovercraft and the Marion Township Volunteer Fire Department has one.

While the county police’s craft sat idle for about four years, Sheriff Sam Craig gave the OK to get it back out and help search for the body of Opal Cobb, Stafford’s uncle, who drowned in Salt Creek. Cobb’s body was found before Stafford and the craft made it to Salt Creek.

But the timing proved fortuitous.

The next day a 911 call came in that two guys were swimming in a lake off Church Camp Road, when one got into trouble and was left clinging to a tree to avoid drowning. Because the craft was trailered and ready to go from the previous day, Stafford was able to make a successful rescue — fast. “It was 21 minutes from the time the call came in, until I had the guy on shore,” Stafford said.

Picture Neoteric hovercraft on land
Stafford’s Neoteric Hovertrek™ hovercraft on land.

Although it’s not required to be certified to operate a hovercraft, Stafford recommends it and advises that it’s important to get in a lot of operating time to keep sharp. Most of Stafford’s time spent piloting a hovercraft is on his personal time.

It also helps in Stafford’s case that he and his wife, Heather, work part-time for hovercraft manufacturer Neoteric Hovercraft Inc. of Terre Haute. The Staffords make hovercraft skirts in their Lawrence County home.

So when Neoteric is testing a craft, Stafford’s always quick to volunteer to put it through the course.

And while the number of police and fire departments in the state with a craft is extremely limited, Stafford said, after the flooding in June, he was in contact with Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, a Lawrence County native, about extending the fleet.

Initially, she was extremely receptive to probing the use of Homeland Security money to buy some crafts for the state. However, Stafford hasn’t heard back from Skillman on the matter.

 
 
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