STEVENSVILLE – Jim Crews’ lifelong passion for hovercrafts began as a young boy reading the pages of Popular Mechanics magazine.
Later, as a sailor aboard a U.S. Navy submarine, he got bored one night during a routine patrol and built a miniature model hovercraft out of spare parts and an air hose. When he moved to Montana after working at the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona, he finally bought one for himself and learned how to operate and maintain the craft.
“I wanted to learn to fly a hovercraft when I was a kid because I thought it was a really cool thing,” he said. “It’s nothing like you’ve ever done. It’s a combination plane, boat and ATV all wrapped in one, and it’s not hard to fly.”
Now, he’s decided to share what he knows with others. Crews will teach a 20-hour basic hovercraft pilot class as part of the Lone Rock Adult Education winter semester.
“You don’t do this for the money,” he said. “It’s for the community. My goal is to show people that there are other things that you can do besides ride ATVs and bicycles, and to give some of these people a chance to maybe go out and find a new career. Private industry uses hovercrafts all over the place. Rice farmers use them to spray rice paddies. People us them for search and rescue, recreation or navigating real shallow waters. They use them on the ice in Sweden as taxies and ferry buses to get people from place to place. There’s a hovercraft tour company in Coeur d’Alene that nobody knows about. People use hovercrafts all over the world.”
Crews owns a 13-foot-long twin-engine Air Commander AC3, capable of carrying a 600-pound payload and traveling at speeds of up to perhaps 50 mph over ice, depending on wind conditions.
The lift engine up front, which raises the craft several inches above the ground through the power of forced air, is a 30-horsepower single-cylinder aircraft engine. The thrust engine in the back is a 72-horsepower two-cylinder helicopter engine that powers a fan that can generate winds of up to 100 mph, giving the craft forward momentum.
When Crews revs the throttle during a demonstration, the long grass 30 feet behind the craft snaps back as if it’s caught in a hurricane.
“You don’t want to stand behind it in case anything happens to get sucked through,” he says with a grin in his southern drawl.
The engines run on regular gasoline and the craft can travel up to 75 miles on one tank, depending on the speed.
Crews has flown his hovercraft over water and land, but they are especially great at navigating ice.
“They’re perfect for ice rescues,” he said. “It’s way faster than taking a car out on the ice, and if you break the ice accidentally, it’s no problem because it floats. They use hovercrafts up in Alaska to fly up the rivers to deliver supplies and parts. They use them a lot in India to deliver parts on the rivers. People all over the Midwest use them. They’re great because you can go from ground to snow to water to ice and back without having to do anything special. There are people that their entire lives revolve around these hovercrafts.”
The best part about a hovercraft is they don’t tip easily and anybody can operate them.
“Anybody can fly one of these things, even a fella in a wheelchair,” he said. “You don’t have to have any special skills. If you can sit down and manipulate two throttles and keep your head up and see where you are going, you can fly one of these. You have to be careful and follow the safety procedures though.”
Crews, a Stevensville town councilor, said there are maybe five hovercrafts in the state of Montana that he knows about, but there could be more.
He said he is unable to pilot his craft on the Bitterroot River because motorized vehicles aren’t allowed in the summer and there is a 20-horsepower limit from Oct. 1 through Jan. 31.
“You could go all the way from the headwaters of the Bitterroot to Kelly Island in Missoula,” he said. “And no matter how shallow the water is or how big the rapids are, you would never even notice it. A hovercraft doesn’t put a prop in the water, it doesn’t leak oil and it doesn’t make a wake. I understand why they do it, but I think there should be a little latitude. It’s really not any more noisy than a lawn mower or these diesel trucks on the highway.”
Crews said he takes the craft to Lake Como and places in eastern Montana to fly.
The hovercraft doesn’t have brakes, so Crews will be diligent about teaching his students how to cut the lift engine to drop to the ground slowly, or how to perform a 180-degree maneuver and use the back fan like a retro rocket to stop.
He said he decided to teach the class because he was always getting questions from people when they saw it on the trailer behind his truck.
“Every time I took it out to get fuel, all these kids would come and ask about it,” he said. “I think this class will also give adults who may be looking for a new future an option. And also it will give kids an opportunity to think outside the box where they can say ‘I never thought about being a hovercraft pilot’. They use them to fly oil well workers up the river in Alaska. It’s an incredible opportunity to try something a little bit different.”
The class costs $20 and will consist of 10 sessions, all lasting from 7 to 9 p.m., on Mondays starting Jan. 20 and ending on March 24. For more information on classes or to register, call Julie Bachman at (406) 210-5129.
“It’s going to be a very hands-on class,” Crews said.