Hanover has a hovercraft, and it’s on the auction block

  • Firefighter Jay Whitehair, left, pulls a hovercraft out of its parking spot with the help of Lt. Jeremiah Linehan pushing the vehicle from behind at the Hanover Fire Department in Hanover on Tuesday. The hovercraft, which was donated to the department in 2017, is up for auction. “Some of us are really sad it’s going,” said Whitehair, who has the most experience operating the vehicle and has taught other members of the department how to use it. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Hanover Fire Chief Martin McMillan (front) and Deputy Fire Chief Michael Hinsley test a hovercraft on the Connecticut River in January 2018 in Hanover. The craft, which was donated to the department by Hanover residents Cam and Heidi Eldred, has been put up for auction online. Jennifer Hauck / Valley News file

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/19/2021 5:31:45 PM

The town’s hovercraft won’t be hovering around much longer.

Then again, it never did a lot of hovering to begin with. That’s one reason Hanover is jettisoning it.

The town of Hanover is auctioning off its hovercraft — that’s right, Hanover has a hovercraft in its fleet of rescue equipment — which a local family donated to the town four years ago but which has never been deployed in service and the fire department has deemed is too time-consuming to train staff to operate.

Part boat, part plane, part helicopter, part snowmobile and steered with motorcycle-like handle bars, the hovercraft initially seemed like a good piece of equipment to use in water rescues on the Connecticut River.

As it turned out, however, the cost in time and effort maintaining the machine outweighed its potential benefits, according to Hanover Fire Department Chief Martin McMillan.

The white fiberglass 2004 Neoteric Hovertrek Model 1874 was donated to the town by Cam and Heidi Eldred in 2017. It occasionally has been taken out on exercises on the Connecticut River, but it has largely remained resting on a trailer at the police and fire department’s facility on Lyme Road.

“We toyed with it and trained on it but we felt it was not something we would utilize on a regular basis,” Chief McMillan said Wednesday as he had the hovercraft rolled out to the lot behind the fire and rescue station for a visitor to inspect. “The specific skills to operate it are acquired skills that take a lot of time to learn.”

The hippodrome-shaped vehicle, which resembles a flying saucer and blows air downward to create an air cushion underneath, is currently listed for sale on the website Municibid, which auctions municipal equipment to the public. As of Wednesday at noon with 48 hours left before close of bidding, the listing had 32 bids with the highest at $4,950.

The chief steward, so to speak, of the hovercraft at the fire department has been Jay Whitehair, a veteran firefighter and advanced emergency medical technician, who was dispatched to Neoteric’s headquarters in Terre Haute, Ind., several years ago to learn how to pilot the vessel and train other department members how to operate it.

“It can be a bit tricky,” Whitehair said about piloting the hovercraft, who added it took “about six hours in the saddle” to learn the basics of operating it.

For starters, there are no brakes — bringing it to a stop, or rest, requires rotating “reverse thrust buckets” on the tail and turning the vehicle at an angle in order to counter its forward motion. The hovercraft, which sounds like a snowmobile, reaches a top speed of 50 mph when skimming across smooth surfaces; it can hit 70 mph “with a tailwind,” Whitehair said.

“Our group was trying to keep it at around 30 mph,” he noted, adding “even at 30 mph it can be a little unnerving.”

Initially, the fire department, which responds to water incidents covering a 10-mile stretch on the Connecticut River, envisioned the hovercraft as being helpful in rescue calls during winter when the river is iced over or during transition seasons when the river’s surface is broken with ice chunks.

But Chief McMillan said the department’s other equipment, such as a Marsars ice sled, Marine 1 rescue craft and rope gun have proved sufficient assets for emergencies the department would encounter on the river.

Only about “five or six” of the department’s 20 members were trained on the hovercraft, and scheduling training sessions was challenging, McMillan said.

“There’s only so much time to train staff on something that you may use once every 20 years,” he said.

The Municibid listing describes the hovercraft’s running condition as “fair/good” with a trailer included, but also notes it “has cosmetic damage” and “needs fiberglass repair on bottom and thorough mechanical checkout along with tuning.”

The listing also warns cautions “hovercraft operation is a learned skill. Inexperienced (untrained) pilots may put themselves or others at great risk of injury or death.”

To be sure, a hovercraft does not come cheap.

Neoteric’s website says that a “recreational hovercraft” costs from $19,500 to $36,000, a “rescue hovercraft” ranges from $28,000 to $79,000 and a “commercial hovercraft” will run between $36,000 to $90,000.

McMillan said the engine was rebuilt in 2019 and a new “skirt” — a piece of fabric material that wraps around the base of the vehicle to capture the air thrust by a fan under the body to provide lift — added this year.

Also, he warned, there is an “associated cost” in owning a hovercraft.

“It’s like an aircraft,” Chief McMillan said. “Every hour it’s in operation it requires an hour of maintenance.”

Cam Eldred, whose family used to own Miller Auto in Lebanon and who is now a movie producer in Los Angeles, said he bought the hovercraft — which had been a demo model — around 2008 in order to get from a cottage his family owns on Lac Papineau in Quebec and the shoreline during winter when the lake is frozen over.

He said piloting the craft requires both skill in understanding aerodynamics and knowing how to sit or stand because the wrong position can upset the balance. And a slip can result in an uncomfortable experience.

“If you deploy one of the reverse-thrusters inadvertently it will send you into a spin,” Eldred warned, who nonetheless called piloting the craft “fun.”

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