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Nation-crossing hovercrafter stops in Terre Haute

August 16, 2004
Tribune Star

By John Chambers

Hover craft picture
COAST-TO-COAST: Robert Hodson pilots his hovercraft along the Wabash River as he approaches Fairbanks Park on Saturday. (Tribune-Star/Bob Poynter)

Robert Hodson traded his house for a hovercraft.

Then he flew from England to Georgia so he and the $200,000 amphibious vehicle could begin a coast-to-coast tour of the America's waterways in April.

Hodson floated from Louisiana to the Wabash River banks Saturday and will spend the next two weeks in Terre Haute while his craft undergoes a little "tender love and care at Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc." After repairs, he will continue to Tennessee before traveling West to finish his trip around October.

Hodson has weathered southern heat, storms, almost fell 90 feet off the edge of a dam and was even searched by the FBI. "I've always been fairly transient in what I do," he said. "I think for the folks that really know me, it's not such a strange thing.

Federal officials searched Hodson's British boat, telling him they were looking for nitrate he could use to blow up a dam. Hodson said he only wanted to see the country the way early explorers saw it.

Part of his trip will lead him through the route taken by Lewis and Clark. One difference is Hodson navigates with a cell phone and electronic computer charts.

"I've got GPS on board which has really saved my bacon," he said.

His 2-ton craft has more than 200 square feet and uses fans to trap downward air in a skirt, lifting it above the surface. Hodson has used it to travel into areas such as swamps to see 14- to 15-foot alligators.

He hitchhiked from Key West across the United States to Alaska 20 years ago. Now age 39, he has noticed the country's hospitality and friendly conversation.

"When you've got a hovercraft, it's easy to break the ice," he said. "The size of the world is in its detail. It's not the parameters."

He doesn't always have to sleep on the craft and sometimes locals will give him diesel fuel for free.

Hodson hopes to travel a total of 20,000 miles, spending the winter in Tennessee or flying back to England for the holidays.

His journey would complete the longest hovercraft trek in history, said Chris Fitzgerald, president of Neoteric Hovercraft Inc. and chairman of the World Hovercraft Organization, both based in Terre Haute.

Hodson brought his craft, "Wings of the Dawn," new and the hovercraft has traveled 4,000 miles without breaking down.

"Duct tape and cable ties do sort of get you out of a number of problems," he said.

Neoteric will work on electrical problems and make other adjustments such as equipping it with a better front windshield while Hodson is in Terre Haute.

"Hovercrafts are noisy, often spray dust and water and can be as hard as an airplane to learn to operate, but the crafts can travel on almost any surface, making them helpful in rescue situations," Fitzgerald said.

"This makes ice rescue almost a recreational activity," he said.

Marquis Songer and Eric Whitesell are both building their own hovercrafts. They developed interest in them after Terre Haute North Vigo High School started teaching about hovercrafts in 1994 as part of its mechanical curriculum. Several Valley institutions now have craft programs.

"Mainly, it's more like a club," Whitesell said of hovercraft racing events and those with the same hobby.

Hodson hopes to record his adventures and update his Web site while in Terre Haute. He hopes to meet Wabash Valley residents or even talk to students at schools.

He is online at www.hover-adventure.com or contact Neoteric at (812) 234-1120 or hovermail@neoterichovercraft.com for more information about Hodson's visit.


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