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.
|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
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 Steve Stafford pilots
his hovercraft underneath the White River bridge.|
But more than a head turner, the hovercraft is a
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
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
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.
|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
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
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.
|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