fueled by the swamp

We have a stubborn ingenuity, an almost allergic reaction to obstacles. So we tap our brains and formulate plans to make it possible for us to go — go far, go fast, go there and just go for it. Wherever there might be. Whatever it is. We fill our tanks and get going.

But as recent as the 1920s, there were still wild and dense ecosystems, ones with shallow muddy waters, that had still managed to stymie modern man’s ability to navigate through them. We had mastered our ability to move freely down roads and train tracks, through open water and the open skies. But down south — in the Florida Everglades and Gulf Coast Bayou — the land was historically inhospitable. So a new vehicle was needed. Or, maybe, just a new take on an old idea?

Enter the airboat.

The first airboat was dubbed the Ugly Duckling when it was built in 1905 by a team led by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. The original idea was to test various configurations of airplane engines and propellers. In 1920, an associate of Bell named Glenn Curtiss registered the first airboat in Florida after realizing it could power a boat without putting the prop in the water. By the 1930s, folks there were going D.I.Y. and building handcrafted airboats from all kinds of scrap parts as a means of regular transportation. Soon after, a new business was born — swampland ecotourism.

To this day, airboats remain the most effective way of traveling through swamps and marshlands because all kinds of stuff — reeds, grasses, gators — normally get tangled in boat propellers. Famously, there are many places throughout the Everglades and Louisiana bayou that you can only get to by way of a flat-bottomed, air-propelled boat. Of course you need gasoline to make these things go, but exactly how do airboats work?

Va Airboat 3

Like a normal boat, the engine and propeller are at the stern of the boat. Instead of being submerged in water, they’re enclosed in a protective metal cage above the deck of the boat. The cage helps prevent objects, such as branches, clothing, debris or wildlife, from hitting the propeller. The propeller produces a wake of air that propels the airboat forward. Steering also meshes aviation and nautical science as forced air passes across rudders controlled by the pilot. If there’s no air being jetted past the rudders, the vessel cannot be steered. That brings us to stopping. Airboats don’t have brakes and can’t go in reverse. Maneuvering an airboat in open water is a skill — let alone navigating the perilous and tight quarters of marshes and swamps.

Most airboats today are made from fiberglass and powered by air-cooled, four- or six-cylinder aircraft engines or water-cooled, large displacement, V8 automotive engines that run on high-octane automotive gas.

It should be noted that airboats have some real get-up-and-go. One of the most awesome things you can do on an airboat is something called “planing.” It’s not only the fastest way to travel on an airboat — it’s also the most fuel-efficient. To “plane” an airboat, the pilot gradually increases its speed while traveling across flat water. Eventually, there comes a point when you feel the boat slightly lift off the water as a small pocket of air passes between the boat and the water. That’s how you obtain maximum airboat speed — and wherever there’s speed, you’ll find competition. So it should come as no surprise that there’s a serious and sanctioned airboat drag race scene.

For all the things that make you go — and for all the destinations you seek — all you need is a full tank.

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