Everglades Airboat Tours
An airboat (also known as a planeboat, swamp boat, bayou boat, or fanboat) is a flat-bottomed watercraft propelled by an aircraft-type propeller and powered by either an aircraft or automotive engine. They are commonly used for fishing, recreation, and ecotourism.
Airboats are a common means of transportation in marshy and/or shallow areas where a standard inboard or outboard engine with a submerged propeller would be impractical, most notably in the Florida Everglades but also in the Kissimmee and St. Johns rivers, and the Mekong River and Delta, as well as the Louisiana bayous.
The characteristic flat-bottomed design of the airboat, in conjunction with the fact that there are no operating parts below the waterline, allows for easy navigation through shallow swamps and marshes; in canals, rivers, and lakes; and on ice and frozen lakes. This design also makes it ideal for flood and ice rescue operations.
The airboat is pushed forward by the propeller, which produces a rearward column of air behind it. The resulting prop wash averages 150 miles per hour (241 km/h). Steering is accomplished by diverting that column of air left or right as it passes across the rudders, which the pilot controls via a “stick” located on the operator’s left side. Overall steering and control is a function of water current, wind, water depth, and propeller thrust. Airboats are very fast compared to comparably-sized motorboats: commercial airboats generally sail at speeds of around 35 miles per hour (30 kn) and modified airboats can go as fast as 135 miles per hour (117 kn)
Stopping and reversing direction are dependent upon high operator skill, since airboats, like most boats, do not have brakes. They are incapable of traveling in reverse, unless equipped with a reversible propeller. Some designs use a clam shell reversing device intended for braking or backing up very short distances but these systems are not commonly used.
The operator and passengers, are typically seated in elevated seats that allow visibility over swamp vegetation. High visibility lets the operator and passengers see floating objects, stumps and other submerged obstacles, and animals in the boat’s path.
Glenn Curtiss is credited with building an early type of airboat in 1920 to help facilitate his hobby of bow and arrow hunting in the Florida backwoods. The millionaire, who later went on to develop the cities of Hialeah and Miami, combined his talents in the fields of aviation and design to facilitate his hobby, and the end result was Scooter, a 6-passenger, closed-cabin, propeller-driven boat powered by an aircraft engine that allowed it to slip through wetlands at 50 miles per hour (43 kn).
Airboats began to become popular in the United States in the 1930s, when they were independently invented and used by a number of Floridians, most living in or around the Everglades. Some Floridians who invented their own airboats include frog hunter Johnny Lamb, who built a 75-horsepower airboat in 1933 he called the “whooshmobile” and Chokoloskee Gladesmen Ernest and Willard Yates, who built an airboat in 1935 they steered via reins attached to a crude wooden rudder. Yates holds the ignominious honor of being the first person to die in an airboating accident, when the engine dislodged and sent the spinning propeller into him.
An improved airboat was invented in Utah in 1943 by Cecil Williams, Leo Young, and G. Hortin Jensen. Their airboat, developed and used near Brigham City, Utah, is sometimes erroneously called the first airboat. At the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in northern Utah, Cecil S. Williams and G. Hortin Jensen sought a solution to the problem of conducting avian botulism studies in the shallow, marshy hinterlands. By installing a 40-horsepower Continental aircraft engine, purchased for $99.50, on a flat-bottomed 12-foot long aluminum boat, they built one of the first modern airboats. Their airboat had no seat, so the skipper was forced to kneel in the boat. They dubbed it the Alligator I as a response to a joking comment from US Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters that they should “get an alligator from Louisiana, saddle up and ride the critter during their botulism studies.” Their airboat was the first to use an air rudder (a rudder directing the propeller exhaust rather than the water), a major improvement in modern airboat design.
The purpose of Williams, Young, and Jensen’s airboat was to help preserve and protect bird populations and animal life at the world’s largest migratory game bird refuge. The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Brigham City, Utah is a wetlands oasis amid the Great Basin Desert and an essential stopping point for birds migrating across North America. The need for a practical way to navigate a challenging environment of wetlands, shallow water, and thick mud helped inspire Williams, Young, and Jensen to create the flat-bottom airboat, which they initially called an “air thrust boat.” Designs and subsequent improvements and practical use of the air thrust boats appears to have been a collaborative effort. LeeRue Allen, who worked at the Refuge since 1936 appears to have also been involved and helped to document a history of the events.
Many of the early airboats built at the refuge in Utah were shipped to Florida. Early records show it cost roughly $1,600 to build a boat, including the engine.
Over the years, the standard design evolved through trial-and-error: an open, flat bottom boat with an engine mounted on the back, the driver sitting in an elevated position, and a cage to protect the propeller from objects flying into them.