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  The History of Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.

Introduction: The Early Years

The genesis of Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. occurred in July 1959 when the company's founder, Chris Fitzgerald, viewed a television program about the British Saunders Roe Nautical Model One (SRN1) Hovercraft crossing the English Channel. He was inspired by the prospect of being able to fly safely, albeit close to the ground, without having to be immensely rich like an aviator. Even though Chris was only 15 years old at the time, he began pondering the idea of inventing a smaller version of hovercraft, and marketing it to the world for a vast number of applications ranging from recreation to rescue.

At the time of the SRN1's crossing, Chris' father, Gerald, and his two uncles Bill and Jack were the Fitzgeralds' third generation to own and run the family sheet metal business, which started when the family arrived in Australia from Ireland during the 1850s Ballarat Gold Rush in Victoria. They supplied billys, buckets, pans, funnels, and many other sheet metal items needed on the gold field. When the gold source was eventually depleted, the Fitzgeralds moved to Melbourne where they started W. Fitzgerald and Sons in a half basement on Elizabeth Street, causing them to be known as the "Underground Tinsmiths". By the time of World War I, the family had become so prosperous that they had to expand to two locations, one at the Haymarket in a building that still stands in the alley-way behind the Melbourne Motor Inn, and one on Swanston Street that later became Melbourne University's Child Minding Center. In 1972, W. Fitzgerald and Sons was sold to a private individual.

The Fitzgerald independent spirit so influenced Chris that in 1956, when he was 12 years old, he was already in the business of creating and selling model aircraft. At age 14 he joined the Royal Australian Air Force Air Training Corps and, at the same time, became the youngest member of the Australian Experimental Aircraft Association (then known as the Ultralight Aircraft Association of Australia), seeing both affiliations as an introduction to the world of flight. When, at age 15, he started working on his own hovercraft designs, Chris attracted the interest of the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne and they soon employed him as a technical assistant. Work was done on various hovercraft projects such as crevasse jumping and ejector driven recirculation annular jets. During this time, Chris served as a Technical Assistant to Dr. David Warren, who was then developing the world's first "Black Box" flight recorder. (Early boxes were not black, but bright orange.) He was also an assistant to Bill Howard, Dennis Frith, Murdock Culley, Alan Cox, and others.

Early Experiments   Crevasse Jumping
Early Experiments  
Measuring over water drag on a statically hovering man-carrying hovercraft. This plenum chamber hovercraft used a 2-cycle 3 HP lawn mower engine for lift.   Hovercraft experiments conducted at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Melbourne included crevasse jumping tests, as Australia had an active interest in Arctic transportation. This experiment consisted of a 60-foot long platform 8 feet wide and 4 feet off the hangar floor. Scale model hovercraft were catapulted along the center and various speeds and crevasse widths were tested. At speed, the model could jump a crevasse of width almost 3/4 the length of the craft. Notice these tests were conducted on models that utilized the annular jet principle, before the days of hovercraft skirts.

In the early 1960s, while in the Royal Australian Air Force Air Training Corps, Chris found a ready supply of material with which to develop his hovercraft designs, and formed a club/business relationship with several fellow Cadets to help expedite his goal of creating a functional, personal-sized hovercraft. Together, Chris, Robert Wilson, Peter Kolf, and Alan Schwartz, as well as other members from outside the Air Training Corps — Eddy Thomas, Arthur Boyd, Bernard Sutcher, Laurie Fair and Sam Ciliauro - established the Hovercraft Research Organization. Their home base was located in a suburb of Melbourne at the Brunswick Boys’ Club, and the partners operated a Jazz Club to raise funds for their hovercraft research.

As an interesting side note, during this time they hired a new band, known as The Seekers, to perform at the Jazz Club. The very next week, The Seekers were called to England to perform the title song of the 1966 British film Georgy Girl, starring Lynn Redgrave. The title song became a hit single and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The Seekers were the first Australian popular music group to achieve significant chart and sales success in the United Kingdom and the United States.

In the mid-1960s, the Hovercraft Research Organization changed its name to Australian Air Cushion Vehicles Development. More than 50 Melbourne businesses agreed to donate materials to aid the group in the building of an experimental man-carrying model. Considered an extracurricular activity at the Air training Corps, the Cadet members worked after hours at the facility, and then at various backyard sheds and garages, crafting many different models and test rigs. Most valuable to the project at this time was Robert Wilson, who is still involved today with design and product development at Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. David Atkins, who was introduced to the team by Arthur Boyd, is still the company’s aesthetic and ergonomic design engineer. Other members have gone on to such professions as Qantas Performance Engineer, Royal Australian Navy Engineer, Professor of Naval Architecture, General Motors Australia Design Engineer and Pfizer Australia Marketing Manager.

Construction of the hovercraft that introduced practical engineering design concepts took place at Melbourne University’s Mechanical Engineering School from 1962 to 1964; this craft was entered in the World’s First Hovercraft Race on March 14, 1964 in Canberra, Australia. Much to the chagrin of the University’s Chancellor, it made its first run on his back lawn during the early part of 1964. After participating in the first race, the group moved into W. Fitzgerald & Sons factory on Swanston Street in Melbourne, where development continued.

By 1968 Chris had left Aeronautical Research Laboratories and joined the family business along with Robert Wilson. Involvement at W. Fitzgerald & Sons lasted until 1969 when Robert Wilson resumed his engineering education and Chris Fitzgerald won a Rotary Club scholarship to study aeronautical engineering in the UK at the Farnborough Technical School and to work as an intern at British Hovercraft Corporation (formerly Saunders Roe), and then to travel the world to survey the latest in hovercraft technology.

In 1973, Australian Air Cushion Vehicles Development was renamed and incorporated as Neoteric Engineering Affiliates Pty Ltd. In 1975, Chris moved to the United States and incorporated Neoteric, Inc. in Indiana. It also traded as Neoteric USA Inc. and much later became Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.

A Photo History of Neoteric Hovercraft, 1960-1969

1960 - present From 1960 on, Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc. has collected hovercraft related publications, technical publications, photographs, 8mm and 16 mm early movies, videos and an extensive library of supplier’s catalogs.  These libraries are constantly being cataloged.  The 35 mm slide library has been cataloged and contains several thousand items.  The goal is to eventually publish and/or to display them on the Neoteric website.
 

Early Hovercraft Publicity

Early Hovercraft Publicity
The Sun, Melbourne, Australia                             

Early Hovercraft Development
Early Hovercraft Development
Australian Air Cushion Vehicles Development Craft #5 (AACVD5)
1961 - present In 1961 Neoteric Australia began to provide technical services, prototype components and occasional manufactured parts and to undertake experimental testing and model building.  The company continues at present to operate its testing facility at Hastings, Victoria, Australia.
1961 - 1973 Research, development and experimentation were conducted: reverse thrust was developed and tested; trials were undertaken and models constructed along with test rigs and full size hovercraft such as AACVD 5 (cannibalized in 1973). Some of the persons who assisted during this time were Dr. Laurence Doctors, James McCreedy and Bill Burke.
 

Early Honors, 1962
Early Honors, 1962
The Age newspaper, 23 June 1962

World's First Hovercraft Race Entry
Early Hovercraft Development
The Age Newspaper, 13 March 1964
  Air Cushion Vehicle, 1966
Air Cushion Vehicle, 1966
Gascor News, June-July 1966
First Hovercraft Trials, 1966
First Hovercraft Trials, 1966
The Colac Herald, Monday 11 July 1966
14 March, 1964 Chris Fitzgerald, Rob Wilson, Eddy Thomas and Ron Davies participated in the world's first hovercraft race in Canberra, Australia, as Australian Air Cushion Vehicles Development.
1968 - 1971 A hangar/shed was constructed on land purchased along the Hastings seashore, Victoria, Australia.
1969 - 1970 Chris surveyed world hovercraft developments under the sponsorship of Rotary International.

The History of the AACVD5 - 1963-1972
by Rob Wilson, President, Neoteric Engineering Affiliates, Pty. Ltd; Australia; Technical Director, Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.

Introduction

AACVD5 was the first full sized man carrying hovercraft constructed by Neoteric, then known as Australian Air Cushion Vehicles Development. Many models and test rigs had been made and run in the years dating back to 1960, so a significant knowledge of the air cushion principle was available before AACVD5 was built. However, little was known about the construction of a full sized craft with its complex and inherent engine, transmission and operational environment problems - and nothing was known about flexible skirts. The learning curve was very steep with many mistakes being made. It has been estimated that for every hour of the machine’s recorded total of 91 hours and 16 minutes of lift engine running time, 218 hours of construction, repair, modification and maintenance was required. That’s nearly 20,000 hours of labour or about 2,000 hours per year over the life of the craft - not a minor effort for a small group of part timers. Here is how it progressed over the years:

July, 1963 The first run of the AACVD5 was completed, in its original configuration of 12 foot diameter circular plan-form with annular air jets. Four segmental sections in the air jets actuated by a cockpit control stick enabled selective restriction of jet discharge area and hence tilted the craft to give forward, reverse or side force for low speed manoeuvring. A 3 foot diameter, centrally mounted, cast aluminum axial fan was driven by a 350cc BSA single cylinder motorcycle engine with gearbox and single chain via a 90 degree bevel gearbox. No additional propulsion system was fitted. Fig 1 through 5 show the original construction.
  Fig 1: General layout, base, and upper
duct frame.

Fig 1: General layout of base and upper duct frame. Gearbox mount, cockpit moulding, hydraulics and jet pieces are in position ready for application of foam.
Gearbox mount, cockpit moulding, hydraulics and jet
pieces in position and ready for application of foam
Fig. 2: Upper duct frame

Fig. 2: Upper duct frame
 
Fig. 3: A lower upper duct frame support
Fig. 3: A lower upper duct frame support

Fig. 4: Top of base
Fig. 4: Top of base
Top of base showing air holes
and uneven density of foam
Fig. 5: Bottom of base
Fig. 5: Bottom of base
Bottom of base showing shrinkage
of foam between ribs
March, 1964 The AACVD5 was transported by road to Canberra for the World’s First Hovercraft Race. A 40hp outboard motor was fitted at the stern and a steerable/retractable water fin fitted to the bow. Fig 6 shows the cockpit layout and Fig 7 the outboard installation at that time. Numerous mechanical problems with the chain drive design limited running time to minutes between breakdowns. Fundamental trim problems negated the powerful thrust available from the outboard engine and the hovercraft was withdrawn from competition at an early stage.
  Fig 6: Original cockpit layout
Fig 6: Original cockpit layout
Outboard storage unit and flap control hydraulics
are fitted.
Fig. 7: First outboard installation
Fig. 7: First outboard installation
September, 1964 A more powerful 500cc Triumph 5T motorcycle engine was fitted to drive the lift fan (Fig 8). No motorcycle gearbox or clutch was used and the chain drive was directly coupled to the fan right angle gearbox via a countershaft to give the necessary speed reduction and to reduce the center distance of the chain drive. A one-way overrunning clutch installed on the countershaft and chain-coupled to an aircraft starter motor provided electric starting. Due to the high fan inertia and direct drive, shock loads were high and numerous shaft failures occurred. The overrunning clutch on the starter drive was totally inadequate for the duty involved and soon burned out. After several transmission rebuilds and modifications, extending over many months, a reliable arrangement using a centrifugal clutch to decouple the fan and a saw-tooth clutch with a centrifugal weight release mechanism to disengage the starter was developed. Fig 9 shows this arrangement.
  Fig. 8: Second lift engine installation
Fig. 8: Second lift engine installation
Outboard storage unit and flap control
hydraulics are fitted.
 
Fig. 9a: Transmission installation
Fig. 9a: Transmission installation
Transmission installation showing mounts, right angle drive gearbox and vacuum pump.
Fig. 9b: Fifth gearbox shaft
Fig. 9b: Fifth gearbox shaft
From left: Centrifugal clutch, gearbox drive sprocket,
starter motor dog clutch, starter sprocket & bearing
November, 1964 The first flexible skirt was fitted. Given that the AACVD5 was a circular plan-form hovercraft, the skirt shape was conical, six inches deep and fitted to the outer air jet wall only. To avoid the anticipated snagging on obstacles due to the 45 degree skirt angle, elastic panels were built into the fabric. The air jet flaps, shown to be effective in tilting the craft in its original configuration, were retained but proved to be completely ineffective with a skirt fitted to the outer jet wall. Worst of all, the stretchable panels resulted in skirt flutter and severe craft vibrations.
December, 1964 In an effort to make the air jet controls effective, a second skirt was fitted to the inner jet wall. The stretchable panels on the outer skirt were mostly replaced. Unfortunately, the air jet controls were still ineffective and the inner skirt unstable, often sticking to the outer skirt, blocking airflow and causing loss of lift on that side of the craft.
January, 1965 Since the elastic panel method of providing stretchability had been unsuccessful, a partially stretchable material for the outer skirt was tried. Since the elastic panel method of providing stretchability had been unsuccessful, a partially stretchable material for the outer skirt was tried.
February, 1965 In an attempt to develop water screw propulsion, it was decided to replace the heavy 180 pound, 40 horsepower outboard motor with a much lighter 18 horsepower outboard weighing 80 pounds. A new single 45 degree conical skirt with minimal stretchability and good abrasion resistance was installed, along with a reinforced higher cable travel lifting system. Simple flap type stability skirts were also fitted laterally and longitudinally. This layout is shown in Fig 10 and Fig 11. Water testing at Lake Eppalock showed that the relatively high thrust moments generated by the outboard propulsor could mot be matched by the much lower stabilizing moments generated by the circular air cushion. A trim balance between bow-in plough and stern scooping was impossible to maintain.
 
Fig. 10: Second outboard installation
Fig. 10: Second outboard installation
Fig. 11a: Fourth flexible skirt
Fig. 11a: Fourth flexible skirt
Fig. 11b: Close-up
Fig. 11b: Close-up
Stability members on fourth flexible skirt
September, 1965 The original BSA lift engine was set up on a steel tubing frame to turn a 6 foot diameter wooden light aircraft propeller via a chain reduction drive. This propulsion unit was fitted to the craft and some thrust measurements recorded. The installation was unreliable but the basic concept of airscrew propulsion was shown to be viable.
January, 1966

A 1200cc Volkswagen industrial engine was obtained and set up on a tubing frame as a pusher propulsion unit using the same propeller as that used in the BSA engine test. Direct chain drive was employed and weight minimized by discarding the VW flywheel, cooling system, generator and starter. Starting was by hand swinging the propeller and a magneto ignition system eliminated the need for a battery. Fig 12 shows detail of this installation. The assembly was strapped to the craft, enabling easy removal for road transportation.

A large fin, operated by a foot-actuated hydraulic system, was fitted behind the propeller. To minimize the effects of plough-in and water spray, a triangular bow was made from steel tubing and covered with plywood, extending the craft length by 3 feet. A cabin with adequate headroom and a windscreen wiper/washer system was added.

Because of the bow extension a new skirt was fitted. Initially this skirt was the same conical design as previously, except for straight sections along the bow. The skirt lifting cables were replaced by chains enclosed in tubes; skirt lift was subsequently proved to be largely ineffective and this system was abandoned. The straight skirt bow sections blew out and were replaced by convoluted fingers. It was found that the extra cushion lift generated by the bow section produced excessive bow-up trim; this was alleviated by restricting the air flow to this section via calibrated holes in the conical front section of the main skirt. Fig 13 shows the bow section of this installation.

  Fig. 12a and 12b: Detail of propulsion unit airscrew drive
  Fig. 12a: Detail of propulsion unit airscrew drive Fig. 12b: Detail of propulsion unit airscrew drive
  Fig. 13: Convoluted bow section of fifth flexible skirt
Fig. 13: Convoluted bow section of fifth flexible skirt
February, 1966 Trials in a salt water swamp at Point Cook proved the viability of the propulsion, skirt and control systems. These trials also introduced the crew to accelerated corrosion conditions inherent in salt water operations.
March, 1966 A public demonstration at Devonport, Tasmania (Fig. 14) provided experience in salt water with ocean swell conditions. A demonstration of how dangerous chain drives can be when they come apart and become entangled in a propeller was a none-too-subtle reminder of the potential for unfortunate accidents.
  Fig. 14
Fig. 14
April, 1966 A further public demonstration at Moorabbin Airport showed the effectiveness of the craft operating on the unprepared verges of runways.
July, 1966 Trials over a farmer's unprepared grass field and adjoining Lake Colac showed the advantages of a relatively large lift air supply and ample thrust in rough conditions. Also demonstrated was the need to allow for adequate stopping distances when no reverse thrust is available and skidding on wet grass is the only means of braking.
February, 1967 Trials at Bacchus Marsh on a standby airstrip presented the opportunity to determine the top speed potential of the AACVD5 on dry flat ground. Instrumentation installed included a calibrated anemometer and aircraft type data recorder. On long flat gravel runways and verges, speeds up to 55 feet per second (38 mph) were measured. Fig 15 is a photograph taken at this time. At the end of this trials period the first deep skirt was fitted (Fig 16). Because of the trim implications of the extended bow section, a balancing cushion area at the stern was provided by squaring off the stern with tubing covered with fabric. The design was a basic 'C-skirt' configuration with supporting fabric diaphragms fastened back to the base structure. Although the 2 foot ground clearance obtained was impressive, stability was very poor and the craft unusable in that state.
  Fig. 15
Fig. 15
  Fig. 16a: Fitting the fifth flexible skirt
Fig. 16a: Fitting the fifth flexible skirt
Fig. 16b: Two foot high air cushion
Fig. 16b: Two foot high air cushion
Equipped with a two foot high air cushion, the craft was
controlled via a large rudder and a bow-mounted
McCulloch drone motor thruster. The rear thruster is a
1200cc VW engine.
September, 1968 To obtain a more stable cushion, the bow was rounded off via a tubular structure bent in a semi-circle and braced back to the existing bow structure. The side and rear sections of the 'C-skirt' were pressurized by adding an inner wall, this being attached to the diaphragms. The top edge of this wall was left open to allow passage of air into the cushion.
October, 1968 Trials were held at Lake Modewarre to check the performance of the 2 foot deep skirts. Over obstacle performance of the craft was found to be improved with the increased cushion depth, but drag was higher and manoeuvrability much impaired.
November, 1968 A bag-type longitudinal stability skirt was fitted with inflation from the plenum near the fan. A bow thruster unit using a 2-cycle, 2 cylinder McCulloch drone engine, driving a small propeller and mounted on a rotatable pylon, was fitted to aid manoeuvrability. The craft was transported by road to the first Australian Hovercraft Conference at Adelaide and demonstrated over beach and shallow water. A massive skirt tuck-under and plough-in ended the demonstration. Fig 17 was photographed at that event. The bow thruster was found to be effective when operational but extreme engine unreliability limited its use to a few very brief tests.
  Fig. 17a: Australian Hovercraft Conference
Fig. 17a: Australian Hovercraft Conference
The AACVD5 makes its second public appearance in
1968 at the 1st Australian Hovercraft Conference,
sponsored by the South Australian Branch of the Royal
Aeronautical Society.
Fig. 17b: The accident
Fig. 17b: The accident
Peter Crew, Head Mathematician from the British Hovercraft
Corporation in the UK, witnessed the accident that befell the
AACVD5 and explained it as a classic skirt tuck-under and
plough in. The craft suffered damage andwas helped ashore
by an enthusiastic public.
February, 1971 A complete skirt rebuild was undertaken. The temporary tubular bow and stern sections were removed and replaced. A conventional circular bow section with 45 degree planing sides and thick square stern sections with buoyant foam fill were fitted. The ‘C-skirt’ was trimmed and enclosed along the bottom with a small bag skirt, cushion flow being via a gap between the inner wall of the skirt at the top and the base structure. The bow section of the skirt was also enclosed with bag at the bottom as for the side and stern sections. Several adjustments were made to the venting arrangement until the bag-to-cushion pressure ratio was in the range 1.1 to 1.2. Lateral conical type stability skirts were also added to complement the constrained bag type longitudinal stability skirt. Fig 18 shows the appearance of this final skirt configuration.
  Fig. 18: AACVD5 hovercraft testing
Fig. 18: AACVD5 hovercraft testing
Toward the end of its life, the AACVD5 hovercraft could
carry 3 persons and had a 2-foot hover height.
Mar. 1971 - Apr., 1972 The AACVD5 was operated intermittently on coastal salt mud flats. The deep skirts were found to be very effective in negotiating the relatively deep mud ditches in the area at low tide, although care had to be taken to enter such depressions with sufficient momentum to climb up the exiting ditch wall. Drag was much higher than that experienced with the early conical and segment skirts and hump almost impossible to negotiate from a standing start. The craft was employed to transport personnel and equipment to an offshore island test site used for early Neova 1 testing. The ability to carry 3 people, or the equivalent weight in equipment, was very useful during this period. Some months later the AACVD5 was cannibalized and the remaining structure disposed of by burning.
 
   
Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.
1649 Tippecanoe Street Terre Haute, Indiana USA 47807-2394
Telephone: 1-812-234-1120 / 1-800-285-3761 Fax: 877-640-8507

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