SAR team members gather around the hovercraft before a rescue mission, Thanksgiving, 1990 (Jeff Thompson)
After the 1986-87 season, the program made a decision to purchase a hovercraft. Approved by NSF of course, but championed by ITT/ANS engineering manager (and my supervisor at the time), Mickey Finn, with a bit of help from Army engineer Steve Dibbern. Later in 1987, several people went to Philadelphia for operator training on the mud flats of the Delaware River... perhaps the closest nearby approximation to the McMurdo sea ice.
The two original operators that went to that training were Sarah Krall and Lou Czarniecki (now Albershardt). Sarah had been a field processing assistant in 1986-87, her second season on the ice, and Lou had been a night janitor in her first season. The hovercraft was named Maxine after Lou's mother.
The hovercraft was shipped to McMurdo on the vessel that arrived in January 1988 and was placed in service the following season. It was about 35 feet long, with an aluminum hull and a two-section cabin--the aft section could be removed to permit more cargo capacity. The maximum payload was 2000 pounds, theoretically 10 passengers, this was roughly comparable to the payload of one of VXE-6's Bell 212 helicopters. It was powered by a six-cylinder Deutz diesel engine, which drove two fans, one for lift and one for forward propulsion. To retain the air under the vehicle, there was a rubber skirt in a louvered chevron design that proved excellent for maneuvering.
Hovercraft are designed to operate over water or reasonably smooth surfaces such as ice. The USAP vehicle was never intended for normal use on open water, although a few of the cruise ships have brought them to McMurdo Sound for that purpose in the past. This model of hovercraft had a normal operating height ("loft") of 18", but Maxine had been modified with the addition of two braces running the length of the hull, to strengthen it against impact from a hard surface. These struts reduced the clearance to 14", so navigation through areas of pressure ridges or sastrugi was difficult. And the hovercraft could not navigate across open crevasses of the type found on glaciers, since crevasses are basically slots in the ice, all of the loft would be quickly lost, and a crane would probably be required to recover the vehicle. Still, with experienced operators, Maxine saw a lot of use taking out scientists, supporting dive iperations, setting out fuel caches, and showing Distinguished Visitors around, among other things.
Maxine only saw three or four seasons of use...for various reasons which, well, I really don't know. One possible factor may have been the support contract changeover from ITT to ASA in 1990 and the accompanying loss of continuity. But it is of interest to note that the concept has been reconsidered more recently. In 2010 RPSC did some research; more recently, at the July 2011 National Science Board meeting, NSF OPP director Karl Erb and staff mentioned the possible use of hovercraft in the future to facilitate cargo and fuel movement from the ice edge to McMurdo if an icebreaker were unavailable.
It must be noted here that this was not the first such craft used in the Antarctic program. VXE-6 brought an airboat to McMurdo in the 1974-75 season (left). This 20-foot long vehicle was powered by a 250 hp aircraft engine, and had a maximum theoretical speed of 60 mph. It was fitted with an enclosed insulated cabin to seat 12 passengers, and was initially intended for crew transport between McMurdo and Williams field. It was around for several seasons, but the reason for its demise is unknown. Here is the news article with the photo--these were from a DF-75 VXE-6 press release.
The manufacturer of the airboat, the American Airboat Corporation (then located in Florida), offered to provide the vehicle to VXE-6 for testing purposes. The company, now located in Orange, TX, is still offering these airboats. their FAQ carefully defines the difference between an "airboat" and a "hovercraft." Their airboat engines use only a small percentage of their power to provide loft--perhaps a few inches, compared to those of a hovercraft which might use 50% of its power to provide significant loft.
Then as now, one had to be properly trained and licensed to operate vehicles and equipment. Here's Dick Spaulding's airboat license from 1974. I first met Dick a couple of years later at Pole when he dropped in for a visit (literally, via parachute).
Credits--much of the information here is from Sarah Krall. The JT photos are courtesy of Jeff Thompson. The PB photos were taken by New Zealand field mountaineer Peter Braddock and were furnished by Sarah and Billy-Ace Baker. Billy-Ace also provided the information about the VXE-6 vehicle.