Floating on Air
Neoteric owner keeps the world hovering - and coming back for
Terre Haute Journal of Business
By Todd Berry
Mention "hovercraft" to the average
person, and thoughts of James Bond spring to mind.
Fast! Sleek! Graceful! Expensive! Unattainable!
No necessarily so, according to Neoteric Hovercraft President
Chris Fitzgerald. Anyone can own a hovercraft for between $12,000
and $24,000 - and he would be more than happy to take the order.
Fitzgerald first became involved in the unusual field of hovercraft
in the early 1960s, and has found it to be the toughest job he
would ever love.
From co-judging an episode of The Learning Channel's Junkyard
Wars to creating a set of dragon shaped hovercraft for Disney World's
Epcot Center, he has been involved in every stage of the science/sport.
However, it is not an easy business.
"It's a tough business to survive in, and hardly anyone
survives in it," Fitzgerald said. "It takes great cunning
to make it. Competition's fierce in the United States. There have
always been about ten different people competing for a very small
market. The total U.S. market's about three hundred units, and
thirty percent of that is exported."
So, his method of getting hovercraft in the national and international
consciousness has had to be as innovative as the vehicle itself:
sponsor major events and combine them with symposia that would
advance the technology for future development.
"The last World Championship we had in Terre Haute was really
the biggest and best of all time," he said, "but it was
put together very well, because we managed to get total community
"We got everyone involved, from the bank
to ISU to Rose-Hulman. And that made that event possible. It made
possible to give everyone contemplating coming the confidence that
if they get here, there's going to be something great. Most of
these people pay their own way to get to any competition."
More competition is coming to the Wabash Valley.
"We're having the Hoosier Hovercraft Championship
here in mid-September."
Other events are also planned worldwide:
Berlin 2004: The decision as made at the recent
world competition in Terre Haute to hold the next Championship
[in Berlin, Germany.]
HoverWorld Expo, Canberra, Australia 12/28/04 to 01/07/05: In
this race, which [will commemorate] the World's First Hovercraft
Race held in Canberra in 1964, Fitzgerald plans to introduce a
new type of hovercraft racing - endurance racing - to improve the
future development of [hovercraft], and also will offer a $10,000
prize to the racer who can reach the speed of 95 mph. Currently,
most hovercraft can reach only 85 mph.
Malaysia 2006: This year's site will be chosen
by the Prime Minister of Malaysia. This will be a World Hovercraft
The scope of these world events showcases the global interest
in these wonderful machines.
"Right now, we just shipped a hovercraft
to Finland; we have an order for Vladivostok in Russia, one to
Korea, one to Great Britain, one to Australia, one to a Sultan
King in Malaysia, one to Mexico - it's everywhere."
But what kind of people buy these unusual craft, and where can
they be used?
"All of my customers have what I call a
'neoteric spirit.' They're people [who are] the first with something
new. They don't care what their friends think and, in fact, rejoice
in the fact that their friends might think they're a bit weird.
They're hard to find - they're very few. I think that probably
the greatest thing about the United States is that there are a
lot of those people here.
"My gut feeling is that I think that the nature of the United
States, the way it was formed and the type of immigrants that it
attracted - it attracted a disproportionate number of people with
this DNA type. So this is the place to be, where people will write
you a check for … something they've never seen before … and
that's the only way you can get businesses like this to evolve.
You've got to have those kinds of people."
Individuals tend to want the craft to show off something unusual
to their friends, or to go for a leisurely cruise on one of America's
great rivers. Fitzgerald sees our own Wabash River as a terrific
"Terre Haute is a classic U.S. city. What
happens here happens everywhere, but you have a river, which is
virtually totally unused in proportion to other things. That river
is a perfect resource for hovercraft: it's sometimes shallow, it
always has a current, sometimes there's hardly any water in it
and sometimes it's full of water and you can cruise into the fields.
I've gone 10 miles from Terre Haute without every being on the
river by going through all the farm fields."
According to Fitzgerald, the hovercraft is one of the more environmentally
friendly means of travel and recreation.
"The hovercraft opens up all of these fabulous
river systems in the U.S. for cruising, and it won't harm the environment.
The hovercraft's footprint pressure [ecological footprint] is one
thirtieth that of the human foot. So that's another big advantage
to hovercraft: they're a very soft, gentle vehicle. They make noise,
but as far as the wildlife is concerned, it really doesn't disturb
them. I've had animals on the bank, and I've gone right up to them
with the engine running, but they don't run away until I reach
out to them."
In addition to sport and recreation, hovercraft also have a wide
variety of applications for flood, ice, snow [and water rescue]
as well as certain military possibilities. Fitzgerald illustrated
how the Neoteric spirit principle applies to these settings.
"Now, you might think that I'm selling this
[hovercraft] to the [U.S.] Justice Department, for example - but
I'm not. I'm selling it to an officer in the Justice Department
who thinks this is something they should be investigating. He just
convinces his boss that they should subscribe to this. I look for
that 'champion.' If I go into a fire department and I don't find
that champion in the department, this is doomed. It won't work.
You have to have that fellow who will take it under his wing.
"A good example," Fitzgerald continued, "Is
Sgt. Bill Weiss from the Anchorage Airport. He just decided that
the hovercraft would be really good for Cook Inlet, which is a
treacherous body of water around the airport. They purchased the
unit, and it proved itself in a very short time, and then they
purchased another unit. He's the champion there. He's just convincing
the airport that they should buy this. He's a neoteric spirit."
Fitzgerald already has some hovercraft deployed for Homeland
"We have two hovercraft involved in Homeland
Security. We shipped one to the El Centro Border Patrol - the U.S.
Justice Department, or Homeland Defense now, and another one to
Yuma. We have two in Texas on the Rio Grande, with the National
Parks Service; national parks rangers also serve a homeland defense
role, because they patrol the rivers. And there's a whole northern
frontier - a lot of its lakes are frozen in the winter."
Elaborating on the military possibilities, Fitzgerald
U.S. government is the largest operator of military hovercraft,
second to none. They don't call them hovercraft. They call them
landing craft air cushions [LCAC]. They're used in military conflicts
for landing tanks and troops on beaches. There doesn't appear to
be a requirement for small military craft, but there must be. Look
at South America - it's all rivers. They could be spawning/training
grounds for terrorists, and on a hovercraft for high speed travel
[unlike in a boat], you're not worried about the speed or the current
or the depth of the water, or anything else."
Whatever your hovercraft requirements, Neoteric Hovercraft, 1649
Tippecanoe Street, will try to accommodate you.