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Hastings man builds flying hovercrafts

Terry Tousignant's hovercraft kicks up a considerable amount of dirt and debris when it lifts off the ground.

Terry Tousignant of Hastings chose a quiet Saturday morning to visit Long Lake for a test flight of his newest homemade creation.

It looks like a boat, it's registered as a boat, but unlike a boat, it doesn't need open water. In fact, it doesn't need water at all. The Black Knight, as Tousignant calls it, is a hovercraft.

Tousignant first got the idea to build a hovercraft from watching an episode of Junkyard Wars in which a team built one from junkyard parts. He started looking online and found plans for various hovercrafts he could build at home in his own garage.

"That was it," he said. He had to build one.

He put about three years of research in before he started working on the first hovercraft, which took 13 months to build.

How they work

Hovercrafts work because of the air that's directed under them.

"Basically it's a pressurized air system that keeps you up," Tousignant explained.

Around the outside edge of the hovercraft is a rubber bag similar to an inner tube. A fan on the nose pushes air to fill the bag. The bag creates a seal that keeps air under the craft, and more pressure in the bag than under the craft allows the whole thing to stay stable.

The bag is important, but that's not what lifts a hovercraft off the ground.

"What's under the craft keeps you up," Tousignant said.

The fan in the nose also pushes air under the craft, inside the perimeter formed by the bag. It's that air that lifts a hovercraft.

Many people might see a hovercraft and think it's an airboat.

"There's a huge difference between an airboat and a hovercraft," Tousignant's friend, Dave LaCombe, said.

Airboats are pushed through the water by an out-of-water fan or propeller. Hovercrafts operate above the surface and only disturb the water when moving at slow speeds.

"We don't throw a wake when we're at speed. We do when we're going slow," Tousignant said.

Because there's no contact with the surface, a hovercraft can operate over land, water, or ice.

"Unlike a boat, you can use this 12 months out of the year," LaCombe said.

LaCombe also builds hovercrafts, and was on hand for safety, in case anything were to go wrong with Tousignant's test flight.

Hovercrafts can transition from land to water to ice without any trouble, and spectators are often amazed when they see one glide up to a boat ramp and right up onto the shore.

"They can be doing anything, and they'll (people) stop and look," LaCombe said.

LaCombe has been interested in hovercrafts since he was a kid, and after finding plans online, he decided to start designing and building his own.

Taking flight

Normally hovercrafts float about eight inches above a surface, but most don't go any higher.

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of hovercraft don't fly," Tousignant said.

But the model he's built is designed with that goal in mind, with a set of wide wings to lift the whole craft 10 to 20 feet in the air. Once in the air, the fan that pushes air into the bag and under the craft doesn't do much, Tousignant said.

Bringing a hovercraft back down from a flight can be a little unnerving.

"You think you're going to land like a ton of bricks," Tousignant said. But because of the air pressure under the craft, landings are usually pretty soft.

The Black Knight is the second flying hovercraft Tousignant has built, and while it hasn't passed all its test flights yet, the first hovercraft has. That craft was one of only 10 flying hovercrafts in the world at the time, Tousignant thought. When the Black Knight can fly consistently, Tousignant said he might become the first person in the world to build two flying hovercrafts at home.

In March, Tousignant was able to get the Black Knight in the air over an iced Lake Pepin, but couldn't keep it flying. After making some adjustments, he hoped to successfully fly over water this month, but was unable to lift the craft. So it's back to the garage for more adjustments.

"The design is sound. It's just the fine-tuning," he said.

Tousignant won't stop working on it until it does fly.

"I'll get it to fly," he said. "You just don't give up on this sort of thing."

Once it does fly, Tousignant will put it up for sale and start building another.

"It's hobby I can actually make money on," he said.

Tousignant's first hovercraft sold for about $22,000, and a similar one was sold for $49,000 on eBay, he said.