Hovercraft Running, Despite Challenges
Friday, January 11 2013
In the wheelhouse of the hovercraft, navigator and pilot Jim Howard is fiddling with a massive array of control buttons in preparation for our journey over to the airport.
Although the entire trip will be over water, it would be a mistake to equate this hovering vessel to a boat. The control panel looks like that of an aircraft, but the feeling -- it turns out -- is nothing like flying. It’s more like being the puck on an air hockey table. And Howard says piloting it is distinctive as well.
“What it’s like, is you take a Chinese wok, the cooking wok, you turn it upside down, so the round part is up, you put a marble on top of that wok and that is basically what you’re trying to do -- hold that wok so the marble doesn’t fall off.”
The hovercraft works by pumping pressurized air through a big rubber skirt that surrounds the metal hull. The flow of air through the skirt creates a frictionless cushion that the hovercraft glides on. Two giant fans act as rudders. Another set of rotating air blowers up front help fine-tune the steering, as does shifting fuel between the hovercraft’s four tanks. Howard says keeping track of all the moving parts can get complicated pretty quickly.
“I’ll be transferring the fuel with one hand, running the nozzles, which is like the steering for the bow with the other hand, and then I have both of my feet in stirrups working the rudders.”
Howard used to be a mate aboard one of the Trident Seafoods pollock trawlers based out of Akutan. He only learned to pilot a hovercraft last spring, on the relatively calm waters of Cold Bay, where the craft was homeported before being moved to Akutan. He says training was very different from running the hovercraft through Akun Strait, where the winds and currents of the Bering Sea and the Pacific collide.
“Being that this is basically a lighter-than-air craft, 10, 15, 20 knots of wind -- which is nothing, flat out nothing to the big boats I used to drive -- 20 knots of wind on this thing is like you being in a tornado on your bicycle.”
It’s practically dead calm on the day I ride the hovercraft, but in the middle of the strait we run into a stretch of water that the pilots affectionately call the potato patch. It’s a tidal rip caused by the confluence of currents, and it’s there no matter what the weather is doing. The choppy waves are only a few feet high, but up in the wheelhouse, we pitch and roll as the hovercraft chugs through the turbulent stretch. That degree of sensitivity to even moderate wave action is what makes it difficult to run the hovercraft in the Aleutians.
In the months since Hoverlink, the company that operates the hovercraft, started keeping track, only about fifty percent of days have been considered ‘good weather’ as as far as hovercraft operations are concerned. The craft has run on pretty much all of those days, although trips also depend on whether Grant Aviation is able to fly.
“I’ve gotta work with the weather,” Howard says. “[Grant Aviation has] gotta work with the daylight and the dark. It’s all a big juggling act. Piloting the craft is the easy part.”
The federal Department of Transportation wasn’t immediately able to provide the numbers, but anecdotally, the team effort has managed to achieve a much better track record than PenAir’s WWII-era Grumman Goose. And Howard says the hovercraft requires much less infrastructure than a traditional ferry.
“All they did was put like a big cement driveway on the beach, halfway down to the water, so I come out of the water, go through a little stretch of mud, and I set down on a cement driveway. We call it the landing pad, but all it is is this big fat driveway. How quick and easy is that?”
Quick and easy it may be, but it’s not cheap. The Aleutians East Borough owns the hovercraft, and is paying to operate it. The latest estimates project around $500,000 a year in revenue from passengers and cargo -- significantly less than the projected $3 million in operating costs. When the Borough stopped running the hovercraft between King Cove and Cold Bay in 2010, it was partly due to the expense.
But Marty Robbins, the general manager for Hoverlink, says for now, it’s the best option -- and that the benefits are not insignificant. He points out that medevacs are more reliable than they were, and that the mail can get delivered a few times a week, as opposed to every few weeks. The hovercraft is also transporting fuel to power the hangar buildings at the airport, and in the future could move cargo for Trident Seafoods. Robbins says all of those factors add up.
“You can cite other public projects over time that have had doubters and naysayers and whistleblowers and people saying ‘fraud, waste and abuse,’ but the verdict’s not in until it’s been up and running for a while and you see what public benefit there is.”
Nevertheless, the Aleutians East Borough is looking for ways to make the service more sustainable -- starting with hiring more local operators. For now, there are two hovercraft crews that rotate on a three week schedule. The borough pays to fly them back and forth to Seattle on their breaks, which not surprisingly, isn’t cheap. But that could change. At least one crew member - Howard, the pilot - says he’d be willing to do longer shifts, which would save on expenses. And Robbins says he’s also looking for new revenue streams to make the economics slightly less skewed.
As of January 1, the hovercraft had transported 500 passengers and nearly 42,000 pounds of cargo. For full stats on the hovercraft's operations, click here.