Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL did more than patent the first practical telephone in 1876 (not to say later giving actor Don Ameche such an iconic movie role that the device was called an ameche for a while). Bell also helped invent the airboat.


Alexander Graham Bell, 1847 – 1922, Scottish-born American scientist, inventor and engineer.

Bell experimented with powered heavier-than-air craft as early as 1891. In 1907, at the urging of his wife (and with her financial support), he established a joint Canadian-American Aerial Experiment Association. Its other founding members were Glenn Curtiss, U.S. Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge (destined a year later to be the first person to die in the crash of a powered aircraft), plus Frederick Baldwin and J.A.D. McCurdy (these last two, recent engineering graduates from the University of Toronto).

AEA’s cooperative research lasted only two years, its demise in part precipitated by Curtiss’s commercial activities straining AEA relationships. However, the researchers developed several important aeronautical features, though not necessarily being the first to contribute the idea: tricycle landing gear, wingtip ailerons and the seaplane configuration.

Another of the group’s innovations was the Ugly Duckling, a watercraft driven by a propeller generating thrust in the air, not beneath the surface of the water.


The Ugly Duckling, an airboat as research tool of the Aerial Experiment Association. Image from The National Geographic Magazine, January 1907/

In fact, the craft’s purpose was AEA propulsion research, evaluating different engines and propeller designs. Yet, it was also the world’s first airboat.

After going his separate way, Curtiss enhanced the concept with a cabin watercraft driven by aft propeller. The Curtiss Scooter was registered in Florida in 1920, used as transport in his hobby of bow-and-arrow hunting in the Florida backwoods. It’s claimed the craft could scoot over grassy wetlands at 50 mph.


The 1920 Curtiss Scooter airboat. Image from

The idea of a wind wagon running on land or water became a popular one in the 1920s. However, not everyone applied exemplary levels of instruction. A DIY craft in Popular Mechanics, September 1922, concluded with “The engine is started by turning the propeller in the same manner as an airplane engine is started.”


Image from Popular Mechanics, September 1922/

Europeans got into airboats as well. French aircraft manufacturer Farman built a Hydro Glisseur, a water glider that was said to be capable of 60 mph.


The Farman Hydro Glisseur, c. 1924. Image from

René Couzinet, another French aircraft manufacturer, dipped into airboats with a hydrofoil design patented in 1928. It came to reality in post-World War II Brazil as the RC 125, powered by no less than a Hispano-Suiza V-12.


Couzinet RC 125 skimming the bay of Rio de Janeiro, 1946. Image from

The modern airboat evolved from those developed in the 1930s, flat-bottomed open craft with propeller drive from a rear-mounted automotive or aircraft engine. They’re especially popular in the swamps and marshes of Florida and Louisiana, though an early example originated in Utah: In 1940, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service patrolling the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, near Brigham City, added an airboat to its fleet. Hitherto, its biologists had to wade through backwaters or pole flat-bottom boats.


An airboat at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, near Brigham City, Utah, c. 1943.

Airboats have served in flood, shallow water and ice rescue operations as well as in tourism. During the flooding of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 30 airboats evacuated more than 3000 patients and staff from four New Orleans hospitals in less than 36 hours.


My airboat, built with GMax for Microsoft Flight Simulator, seen in the Florida Everglades.

My own Microsoft Flight Simulator airboat was good fun to build, especially in optimizing its dynamics while avoiding its going airborne. It is, after all, a flight simulation.

I’ve also added some virtual goofiness in the operator’s thirst quenching. His Abita beer, New Awlins’ finest, is quaffed by means of the flt sim animation intended for actuating aircraft spoilers. Also, what’s ordinarily an aircraft’s door actuation opens the airboat’s cooler chest to display other icy Abitas. (Don’t try this at home, kids. We’re professionals.)


Above, 52.2022N, 0.1150E puts my virtual airboat on the River Cam in Cambridge, England. Below, the real thing.


Wouldn’t an airboat be the cat’s meow of punting in Cambridge or Oxford? At least until the complaints came flooding in.

It would bring new meaning to the term, “on the Cam.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

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