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It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a… hovercraft?
Hovercrafts are still a figment of human imagination to many, a vehicle that only exists in movies or in high-tech laboratories. In reality, hovercrafts have been around for more than 50 years, and few know that Auburn University has been building and racing them for a full decade. What is a hovercraft? They are nothing like Hollywood models, and according to Thomas Wills, sophomore in Auburn University's Department of Polymer and Fiber Engineering, "It's not like anything you've ridden before."
Auburn's team, the Hovering Tigers, hasn't raced in a few years, but that will change on Saturday, April 27, when a new era of an old rivalry begins. The Hovering Tigers will participate in a race on Lake Lurleen in Tuscaloosa, Ala., against the University of Alabama's newly formed hovercraft team. Teams from across the country are invited to compete in the race, which is sponsored by Hoverclub of America, but the Auburn-Alabama rivalry provides a particular interest to locals. The race is being called the Hovercraft Iron Bowl.
"We've got a competition," said Kent Gano, racing director of Hoverclub of America. "And, you know, that's really what I want to see." Gano has been involved in the national hovercraft organization and races since the mid-'80s after his retirement from the U.S. Navy. Gano said this race, the University Hoverbowl Challenge, could be the start of a collegiate division of hovercraft racing.
"The goal of this race is to get other schools involved, for it to grow," said Garrett Blackburn, four-year team member and polymer and fiber engineering major. He believes the Auburn-Alabama rivalry is an appropriate place to start this trend. "I could see other schools in the SEC joining in."
Blackburn became interested in the team while visiting Auburn in high school on E-Day, an annual open house for high school students to explore programs offered by Auburn's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.
"I just like making things and this is kind of the next step up," said Blackburn. "There's lots of trial and error that goes into it, a lot of tweaking and adjustments." He adds that there are various skills available to build their vehicle thanks to a variety of backgrounds found in team members majoring in polymer and fiber, mechanical, chemical, electrical, industrial and systems engineering and other programs outside of engineering.
"It's cool to see the stuff we've been learning in class and having a chance to put it into application," said Blackburn. Until recently, only a few members of the team had driven the orange hovercraft, but newly trained driver Mary Palmer Cook picked up the moves with ease. A driver hasn't been chosen to race on Lake Lurleen, but Cook has a good chance of receiving that opportunity.
"I think Mary Palmer will do pretty well when we're figuring out who should drive for the race," said Blackburn. Cook, a chemical engineering major, is petite and her size makes her a likely candidate for the team's driver compared to male students. "Anytime you want to make something fly, the less weight you have to lift it up is better," Blackburn said.
No matter who ends up driving the craft, the Hovering Tigers are excited for the chance to race Alabama's new team. Members have been working hard to get all of the kinks ironed out and fit in some practice time for drivers to become accustomed to handling the vehicle.
"I'm helping them both out, here and at Alabama," said Gano, as he advised Auburn team members on repositioning fan blades. "I'm on neither side, but as it looks right now, I'd say Auburn has the upper hand."
Their orange hovercraft, one of two vehicles the Auburn team races, is primarily fiberglass, a heavy, but inexpensive material compared to the carbon fiber used for the black hovercraft the team also experiments with. The Hovering Tiger's orange craft can travel on land and water. It is supported by a fabric cushion of pressurized air — a fan controls the lift and moves air behind the hovercraft, giving it forward motion. Bicycle handlebars orient a rudder that controls turns. The team chose to race the orange craft because the vehicle has been the recent "guinea pig" in the team's shop. It looks intimidating and complex, but according to Blackburn it's actually quite simple.
Team membership has no prerequisites except the willingness to work and contribute. The Hovering Tigers team was formed in 2003 with help from former polymer and fiber engineering faculty member Fissal Abd Elhady, the team's current faculty adviser, Schwartz, who is head of the department, and technical adviser Jeff Thompson. Thompson is the polymer and fiber engineering composites lab technician at Auburn, and he supervises and assists students with work performed inside the lab and at testing sites.
"It's essential for a hovercraft to be strong, but as light as possible," Thompson said, adding that the initial idea for the team was to show how Auburn students could make a lightweight, strong composite part, and he suggested they build a hovercraft.
"We have a number of 'gearheads' and some beginners in mechanics, but all of the students are doing great," Thompson said. "Building the hovercraft is the easy part. It gives the students that grew up with grease under their fingernails a chance to put together their own creation and test it out in an exciting competition."
The 2013 team's members include Blackburn, Cook, Fitzpatrick and Wills, as well as Holland Bankston, Nick Johnson, Alex Avery, Tam Thornton, Sanyam Shirgaonkar, Velislav Stamenov and faculty adviser Thompson.
The Hovering Tigers team was formed to enhance practical hands-on design experience, raise public awareness of the quality of an Auburn engineering degree and provide students with cross-disciplinary knowledge in a team setting. It is clear that is still the case today.
"You don't really have to know anything about this stuff," said Cook, as she watched team member Tom Fitzpatrick drive the craft across the open fields at Auburn's Research Park on South College Street. "You just have to want to know about it. And you need to be OK with getting your hands dirty."
For more information about Auburn's Hovering Tigers hovercraft team, visit: www.eng.auburn.edu/organizations/hovercraft. Information about the Hovercraft Iron Bowl can be found here: http://www.hoverclubofamerica.org/content.aspx?page_id=87&club_id=831743&item_id=257520
Last Updated: Apr. 17, 2013