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Tech-minded roommates build their own hovercraft

Floating on air


Daryl Fortney is borderline giddy about the quirky-looking hovercraft he and his two roommates built in their garage.

He's more than a fan of the things, which use air pressure to hover over the ground or water. His face lights up when he talks about them. He giggles like a kid when he describes screaming over the surface of Lake Cachuma in his bright yellow machine with the throttle wide open -- kind of like Luke Skywalker in his Landspeeder in the movie "Star Wars."

"You've got to try it," Fortney said recently, yelling to be heard over the roar of the two lawn mower engines that power the craft.

He had just given a demonstration of its speed and turning ability on a freshly mowed grass field near UCSB's Harder Stadium.

"It's so cool," he said.

Fortney is a 30-year-old engineer who up until recently worked at the Goleta-based medical robotics company, Computer Motion, and just picked up a master's degree in digital signal processing from UCSB.

Despite his degree and technical work experience, Fortney is so taken with the machines that when he returns from an upcoming trip around the world, he wants to build hovercrafts for other hobbyists.

"I just loved making it," he said.

The roommates built the craft from plans they ordered for $29.95 over the Internet. The three -- Fortney, Ruppert Koch, a 31-year-old doctoral candidate in advanced computer systems, and Blaine Elliot, a 24-year-old computer programmer -- dreamed up the idea while sitting around the apartment one afternoon last August.

"We were wondering if those ads in the back of "Popular Mechanics" for building your own hovercraft would really work," Fortney said.

Christopher Cockerell, the British engineer who invented the hovercraft almost 50 years ago, probably never expected that it would take on a cult fervor among hobbyists like Fortney, Koch and Elliot.

Cockerell -- who hoped the vehicle would revolutionize travel over land and water -- died last year. But the machine he first designed by rigging together a couple of tin cans to a vacuum cleaner has gotten a new life among hobbyists who each year gather in the Midwest for races and demonstrations.

Unlike the craft designed by Cockerell, which first crossed the English Channel in 1959, the plywood and epoxy coated machine that Fortney, Koch and Elliot built is a little less ambitious.

But their machine shares the same principles used in Cockerell's craft that was once dubbed the "British Flying Saucer."

It uses air pressure -- created by a propeller that blows air into a cavity under the craft bordered by a nylon skirt -- to levitate the machine about eight inches above the ground. Another lawn mower engine drives a four-blade prop that pushes the machine forward at a top speed of about 35 mph. It's gasoline-powered, getting about 30 miles per gallon. The hovercraft can carry two people as long as neither one is too heavy.

The pilot uses a simple stick to control two wing-like rudders on the back of the machine to turn. Since it doesn't contact the ground or water, it has a greater turning radius and doesn't stop quickly. It executes sort of sloppy turns, as if it is sliding on ice. That can sometimes make it hard to control. Fortney banged into a tree while learning to operate the craft. But the vehicle glides over small bumps and stumps without much trouble, and once the driver masters the controls the motion can be graceful.

It cost the three friends about $1,600 to build and took them about five months to complete. Its maiden voyage was just a few weeks ago, Koch said.

"Every time we take it out we get a crowd," he said.

When they registered the hovercraft at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the clerks had never seen one before and insisted on taking a look.

"They had a hard time with the concept that it could go on land or water," Elliot said.

It's not allowed go on city streets or highways, but is permitted on lakes. It has trouble on the ocean because the surface tends to be too rough when waves are higher than eight inches. Which public parks it's allowed in is still a little hazy.

As the roommates took their turns on the hovercraft during the demonstration, two campus police officers pulled up.

For a minute the trio worried that they'd be getting a ticket, but then Fortney figured he had two potential converts to the magic of hovercrafts. He tried to wave the cops over for a ride. When they didn't budge he just drove over and asked one of the officers if he wanted to take it for a spin.

"He said his boss would kill him if he found out," Fortney said. "Oh well, his loss." _ _ ______________________________________________________ _ _

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