Bryan Phillips has come a long way from his middle school days in Medford, Ore., where he and a buddy built their first hovercraft, a wooden contraption that kept taking on water and sinking.
Today Phillips, 40, is the lead designer and builder of 14-foot-long and 22-foot-long air-cushion vehicles that he manufactures and sells from the headquarters of his company, Amphibious Marine Inc., in rural Mason County.
For the past 18 years, he’s been cranking out high-tech vehicles that scoot along, moving effortlessly from the beach and tideflats to any depth of water at speeds topping 20 miles per hour.
He’s become a hovercraft craftsman – one of four U.S. Coast Guard-certified companies in the country and the only one west of the Mississippi River – despite losing his left hand and three fingers on his right hand in a model rocket fuel explosion at age 19.
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“It slows me down a little bit, but it’s not a problem,” Phillips says matter-of-factly, showing a vice-grip-like tool where his left hand used to be.
On Monday, Phillips took his first completed 22-foot vehicle, which is powered by a Volkswagen turbo diesel car engine, for a spin in Little Skookum Inlet near his Kamilche Point Road base of operations.
As the engine revved up, fans and baffles mounted on the boat’s stern pushed compressed air under a flexible 16.5-inch-high, urethane-coated nylon skirt attached to the vehicle, lifting the hovercraft off the water and propelling it forward on a cushion of air for a not-too-bumpy, not-too-noisy ride.
The hovercraft skirt has about three-quarters of an inch of clearance from the water.
“But in reality, there is always some contact someplace,” said Phillips, whose background includes a bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University in a field called manufacturing engineering technology.
One minute Phillips is steering the hovercraft over the water, the next minute he’s motoring up onto a beach.
“The barnacles are kind of rough on the skirt, but the skirt should last 800 to 1,000 hours before it needs to be replaced,” he said.
Phillips, aided by his wife, Angela, and one employee, Tyler McDonald, has sold hovercraft to a variety of customers. They include the Fall City Fire Department, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, duck hunters, anglers and commercial shellfish harvesters.
He built his 22-foot model for a Wrangell, Alaska, resident who needs more than a boat to access his remote property.
“Alaska is our biggest market – there’s a lot of area up there not accessible by road,” Phillips said.
A 14-foot model that is currently in the shop for repairs is owned by a Nisqually River resident who’s navigated the entire length of the river upstream to LaGrande Dam, Phillips said.
Other applications for hovercraft include search and rescue on ice and in shallow rivers, tidal area research and monitoring, survey work, eco-tourism and oil spill cleanup.
The 14-footers, with a payload of 750 pounds, retail for just under $25,000. The larger hovercraft, with a payload of 1,600 pounds, sell for $93,500.
With annual sales of $250,000, Phillips is still trying to grow the company, which made its first commercial hovercraft and sale in 1993 and moved to Mason County from Anacortes in 2005.
“There’s a lot of practical applications for hovercraft,” Phillips said.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org.