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Photo : Peter McIntosh

Building Hovercraft an Uplifting Experience

By Katrina Meggett

What is yellow, blows air and does not touch the ground?
Answer: A hovercraft. Larry Shieffelbien’s home-made one, to be exact.
The 34-year-old Dunedin mechanic spent 15 months building the craft. Mr Shieffelbien worked on it “every night and every weekend”, finishing just before Christmas.
“I felt like doing something new and was watching the Discovery Channel one day [with a JunkYard Wars challenge to build and race a hovercraft]. I thought ‘I can do that. It looks easy enough’,” he said yesterday before taking the craft out on to Otago Harbour.
Made from marine plywood, joined together with fibreglass seams, the hovercraft lifts 22.86cm off the ground as a third of the air from the fan is pushed through the air chambers around the craft’s base.
Mr Shieffelbien followed only half the plans; the other half coming “off the top of my head”.
As a result, the hovercraft, made from more than $9,000 worth of parts, was longer and wider than in the original plans, and sported a Subaru car engine, purchased off the TradeMe website, instead of a motorcycle motor.

“Several times, there’s been 30 hours worth of thinking that might take 10 minutes [building]. It can’t be that bad. It’s the first one I’ve ever built and it works.”

The original plans said the vehicle could exceed 100kmh over water on a good day, but Mr Shieffelbien estimated his machine, called AIR4CE1 (Air Force 1), could do about 120kmh.
“I’ve done 60 kmh over Waihola. But it should do twice that.”
Mr Shieffelbien had not pushed the hovercraft to its maximum speed as he was a “little nervous” to exceed 60 kmh at this learner stage.
Driving the hovercraft was “certainly a different experience”, as it did not have brakes or reverse capability and body movement was used to help drive the craft, Mr Shieffelbien said.
But a hovercraft? Why?
“It’s a mixture of working on cars all day. I don’t want to work on cars after 5pm. I like working with my hands and a hovercraft is unique. I’m doing something that other people don’t do.
“Anybody can paint up cars and put mags on. Not everybody makes a hovercraft and makes it work.”
Mr Shieffelbien’s wife, Stacey, said her husband had been obsessed.
“It’s his baby. The amount of time spent on it is astronomical.”
Mr Shieffelbien agreed he did not have much of a life during the construction process.
But, despite the time put in, Mrs Shieffelbien thought the hovercraft was “great”.
“I learned a lot. Larry did most of it himself, I helped where I could. I learned how to use a rivet.”
And now, with one hovercraft down, Mr Shieffelbien said it was time to start a new project.
Maybe a microlight.
Or, “I might end up doing something else different, like a trike like Billy Connolly’s.”

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