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2014 5 14 A Wing and a Prayer - Forbes

http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2001/1001/110.html 1/2
10/01/2001 @ 12:00AM
A Wing and a Prayer
Would you be willing to commute in a flying ferryboat?
William Russell thought his dream of a hybrid boat-plane was finally taking
off as he saw his Flarecraft rise above Long Island Sound one recent morning.
Within seconds the five-seat winged craft was zipping 5 feet over the water at
60mph. It was a proud moment for Russell, who watched along with an
executive from Lockheed Martin, which had agreed to buy two of the unlikely
vessels.
Less than a minute into the demo, the Flarecraft pitched up into the air,
crashing on its side in a shower of water and plane parts. The pilot wasnt hurt,
but it was another setback for Russell, 53, who has spent 14 years and $10
million trying to revolutionize water travel.
With a 225hp Continental aircraft engine, 21-foot wingspan and an airplane-
shaped body, the Flarecraft can travel 350 miles in three and a half hours on
47 gallons of fuel. Before taking off it floats like a seaplane on pontoons
attached to its wingtips. At 20mph it begins to lift the pontoons, and at 60mph
its airborne, skirting the water by 1 to 10 feet. It works by using wing-in-
ground effect. The shape of the Flarecrafts wings slow down air under the
wing, lifting the craft while decreasing dragsimilar to the way a bird uses the
air when it swoops near water.
A former investment banker, Russell dreamed of a newfangled commuter
craft while schlepping to Wall Street on the subway in 1987. A sailboat racer
and radio-controlled-plane junkie, he fantasized about a small, Jetsonesque
vessel that could travel by air but take off and land in water like a seaplane.
Then a friend mentioned the late Alexander Lippisch, a German who
discovered wing-in-ground effect. Russell licensed the patents from Lippischs
widow for an undisclosed royalty.
He had German firm Messerschmitt Bolkow Blohm develop ultralight planes,
but scrapped them when he discovered the bodies were too heavy. Russell
then worked with boatmaker Merrifield-Roberts. In 1994 the four-seat
Trainer, with a Lycoming 160hp engine, was featured as a $250,000 pleasure
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Monte Burke, Contributor
I'm a feature-writer at Forbes and a senior editor at ForbesLife
2014 5 14 A Wing and a Prayer - Forbes
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craft in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog. Despite 400 inquiries from
well-to-do thrill seekers, Russell backed out of selling the Trainer, fearing
liability. Merrifield bowed out, too. We didnt feel it was a viable vessel, says
John Merrifield, cofounder of the boatmaker. It wasnt properly engineered.
Russell refocused on slightly larger craft that companies could use as ferries
assuming the risks themselves. He coaxed $5 million from investors and
manufacturers, including Ticom, a former Northrop Grumman unit, to
develop the current model, which adds a seat and boosts the payload to 1,200
pounds.
But as Lockheed learned, the latest version is still far from perfect. Surface
tension in the water can sling the craft out of control or cause it to bounce
violently. Theres also a tendency for the craft to pitch nose up. Such problems
have led to five wrecks. In April a customer wiped out spectacularly in Rhode
Islands Narragansett Bay after altering the design of the plane. The pilot was
injured and the plane destroyed. The same month the Coast Guard banned
civilians from the craft and restricted the times and areas in which it can fly.
Russell is trying to drum up another $10 million to develop a 12-seater. The
idea is to compete with island ferryboats in places like Greece and the
Bahamas. By his math, some 300 Flarecrafts could generate $1 billion in sales
charging $1 a mile per seat. It might be easier to put a pig into self-propelled
orbit.