Revolutionary watercraft skim, bounce, leap and even fly across the surface, as man’s quest for the perfect vessel lives on.
So here we are, skimming over the bright blue Mississippi on a flawless summer afternoon – the river broad, the sun taking on a tinge of gold as it settles toward the green canopy of the Iowa shore. We’re doing about 80 km/h, smooth as melted butter, when I realise that we’re headed straight for a low island covered in chest-high clumps of purple flowers.
The guy at the controls, a 29-year-old race driver named Bill Zang, has no intention of turning away. In fact, he opens the throttle. As the engine deepens its roar, he pulls back on the control stick, and we rise up off the water, barely clearing the island undergrowth that rushes beneath our seats.
The craft that Bill Zang is piloting, a R580 000 UH-18SPW Hoverwing, is obviously no ordinary watercraft. It’s not even a boat, exactly. At low speeds it’s a hovercraft, skimming along like an airhockey puck. But above a critical velocity of about 90 km/h, its stubby wings generate enough lift to hoist it into the air.
When I saw videos of the Hoverwing in action, I was impressed. They showed the craft zipping over the water and leaping over logs. Even standing still, the Hoverwing had panache, with a stealthy grey paint job and Batmobile-sleek lines. I wanted to get in the cockpit and put it through its paces. So I flew to Chicago and drove an hour northwest to the sleepy farm town of Harvard, Illinois, home of the Universal Hovercraft factory. The company was founded in 1971 by Zang’s uncle, Bob Windt, a former aeronautical engineer with McDonnell Douglas. For years, Windt sold hovercraft plans and parts directly to homebuild customers – placing ads in POPULAR MECHANICS and other magazines.
Read more in the March 2008 issue of Popular Mechanics, on sale now.