Fire department’s new hovercraft used for water rescues


The latest floodwater rescue tool a fire department in central Jackson County has added to its arsenal of response vehicles has drawn plenty of curiosity from the public.

“You almost have to wait until late at night to go to the gas station,” Brownstown Volunteer Fire Department Chief Travis McElfresh joked. “Everywhere you go, people like to ask questions about it and see it up close.”

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That mysterious, bizarre-looking craft is the department’s new Neoteric Hovercraft it purchased June 15.

During a recent discussion about the hovercraft outside the department, the vehicle drew a few passersby who wanted photos or more information about it.

A demonstration of the hovercraft on County Road 25E in Brownstown near floodwaters from the East Fork White River also drew a small audience who were eager to see it operate.

The oval-shaped craft is worth seeing, as the bottom is made up of 66 black fabric bags connected by heavy-duty zip ties and makes plenty of noise as it gears up.

It is maneuvered by handlebars like a motorcycle and can reach a top speed of 70 miles per hour, but it is not recommended to go that fast. McElfresh said the craft can top out at 45 miles per hour on the water and 65 miles per hour on the ice.

The Neoteric Hovercraft is manufactured in Terre Haute and differs from boats and other hovercrafts in that it can go in reverse.

Hovercraft utilize one or more fans or propellers to create lift and thrust. Lift air is captured in a flexible fabric skirt, causing the craft to hover above the surface. Thrust air is directed backward to move the craft forward.

On June 15, McElfresh and Assistant Fire Chief Mitch Noelker received training on the Wabash River and returned late that night.

Three hours later, the hovercraft was dispatched to its first rescue.

Since then, the department has used the four-seated craft to conduct 11 rescues involving 14 people, McElfresh said.

Those numbers earned them recognition from Neoteric in a post on the company’s blog.

“In Neoteric’s more than half a century in business, never has a fire department gone immediately from hovercraft flight training to performing a series of successful high-risk floodwater rescues,” the company wrote in its post.

The department had been considering purchasing a water rescue craft in the last year because of the number of water rescues in the area, McElfresh said. Between Jan. 1 and June 18, Jackson County had 55 calls for water rescues with nearly a third of them since June 1. There also was a high number reported during a recent span when the county received 8.24 inches of rain in seven days.

When a group from the department attended the fire convention show in April, they found the Neoteric, which was demonstrated for them on floodwaters afterward.

After discussions with the fire board, which controls the department’s budget, the department moved forward with the $40,000 purchase. McElfresh said the department kept in mind what other resources were available throughout the county, which is why they settled on a hovercraft.

“The sheriff’s department has a johnboat, conservation has an airboat, so we decided to get a hovercraft,” he said. “All three of them can do different things. The johnboat can go places the airboat can’t. This can go where it can’t, vice versa. We didn’t want to double up on resources in the county.”

Its versatility is what made the hovercraft a game-changer for water rescues, McElfresh said.

“It can run over mud, dry land, the road, on water and swift water,” he said.

When flying over land, there’s a 9-inch clearance.

“If you come over a 9-inch log laying in a field, you just cruise over it like it wasn’t even there,” McElfresh said.

The craft also has the capability to go in reverse, which is not an option with an airboat. It also can turn 180 and 360 degrees.

“When you’re pulling up to a vehicle, it makes it pretty easy,” McElfresh said.

During a recent rescue, a man was walking through floodwaters. McElfresh said the man was about 4 feet away from walking through swift-moving water. First responders told the man to stay put, and McElfresh was able to work the craft to the side until they could safely rescue him.

“We were able to get right up against him and pull him up,” he said.

The greatest benefit might be its role in assisting with rescues on ice. The craft will allow crews to make a rescue without putting weight on the ice.

“You’re hovering on air and move on the ice without busting it up,” McElfresh said.

So far, McElfresh and Noelker have received training to operate the hovercraft. McElfresh said once they get more hours behind the bars and get more comfortable, four others at the department will receive training.

The group also joined Project H.E.R.O., which stands for Hovercraft Emergency Response Operations, a nonprofit that serves during natural disasters. The department will receive additional training through that organization.

“We’ll do joint training on the Wabash River,” McElfresh said.