Airboat Tour History

Navigating Shallow Waters

image of airboat with passengers

Airboats, occasionally known as fan boats, have long been used to explore marshy areas along the Gulf Coast. They are great for calm, shallow waterways like the Everglades, where it would be impossible to use other boats with propellers without disturbing the vegetation beneath the water’s surface.

But how do these boats manage to glide across the water’s surface without any mechanical parts in the water? Well, they are propelled by a massive fan situated at the back of the boat and steered with rudders.

The bottom of the boat is flat, giving it a large surface area to glide across the calm water’s surface easily. The fan situated on the back of the boat contains a large propeller, similar to that of an airplane, that is used to create thrust to move the boat forward.

The driver typically sits slightly raised up in the boat to have a proper view for steering through the winding marshy hinterlands. The driver manipulates the air stream that is being generated from behind the boat by a stick connected to rudders. When he moves the control stick left or right, it changes the airstream in the back according to the desired direction.

Although commercial airboats generally sail using a very simple method of steering and power, it is actually quite effective. This is a completely different method than propulsion that most other boats use with a submerged propeller or what a sailboat would use.

Depending on the size of the watercraft, commercial airboats, sometimes called air thrust boats, are typically powered by an airplane or car engine. In the past, the more common was by airplane fan. However, nowadays, people commonly use vehicle engines.

Contrary to popular belief, due to the power of the engine and the size of the propeller in the fan, airboats can actually move quite fast. However, like most other boats, airboats do not have breaks. Because of this, the airboat cannot stop abruptly. They need time to slow down, and the driver must reduce the speed well in advance. Also, an airport cannot go in reverse. Learning to stop the boat takes some practice and a bit of skill.

The Early Days of Airboats

Alexander Graham Bell and The Ugly Duckling

Airboats began in 1905 in Nova Scotia, Canada, with Alexander Graham Bell. Bell invented what he called “The Ugly Duckling” using an aircraft propeller while testing various engine and prop configurations. The Ugly Duckling became the world’s first airboat, even if nowadays it would be considered in the category of modified airboats.

It was a roughly constructed catamaran-type boat, balancing on the surface of the water via two long air-filled tubes on both sides. The engine was a heavy watercooler engine weighing around 2500 pounds. Due to the sheer weight of the boat, it was only able to travel at a speed of 4 miles per hour, much slower than we know airboats to travel today.

After Bell thought that if he could make his boat lighter, it would travel more efficiently. Later, when he designed his second airboat, he proved to be correct. However, The Ugly Duckling will always go down in the history of airboats as the notorious first airboat to ever hit the water.

Early British Airboats and The Mesopotamia Campaign

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the British were working on their own airboat prototypes. Charles de Lambert spent much time developing hydroplane boats driven by air propellers; however, he was more well-known as an airplane pilot, having been taught to flight by Wilbur Wright. 

In 1913, one of his airboats, driven by his business partner, set the world record of 98.6 km/h using a 160 hp engine. One year later, in 1914, one of his boats, which he deemed the de Lambert hydroplane, made a famous expedition down the Nile.

Later, the boats were used by the Suez Canal authority and by the French government in Indochina. Additionally, de Lambert sold his hydroplanes to the armed forces of France, Britain, and the United States, and they were used in the colonies.

The British Army went on to use these airboats in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War 1. Interestingly, they were constructed using the engine and propeller of a since-wrecked Australian Air Force jet. Known as “Hydro-Glisseurs,” these small boats could glide at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Most famously, they were used for reconnaissance on the Tigris River. Overall, Britain used seven of de Lambert’s airboats in their operations and later increased to nine.

After the war, de Lambert’s boats were used as ferries in the upper shallow waters of the Yangtze River and elsewhere, such as the Florida Everglades.

A Growing Legacy of Airboat Rides

Fast forward to today, and airboats are commonly used on the Florida Everglades for airboat tours. They can easily maneuver the shallow swamps, making them the ideal method of transportation.

However, not all airboats are created equal. Founder of the Everglades Holiday Park, George M. Bridges, created a patented airboat specialized for comfort, unlike anything else seen before in the airboat tour history. It all started one day in 1982 when Bridges left his tobacco farm behind to start a new venture. Using his background of construction knowledge, he risked everything to craft his first airboat from the ground up. Before long, it was obvious that he was on the path to something extraordinary.

Several decades and several models of airboats later, we have the modern-day Everglades Holiday Park, offering some of the most comfortable airboat tours available thanks to Bridges’ hard work and dedication.

Airboat vs. Swamp Boat

So, you may be wondering, what is the difference between an airboat and a swamp boat?

Well, perhaps, to your surprise, they are actually the same thing.

The reason that they get confused is that some places offer pontoon tours of swamps instead of airboat tours of swamps. They will market their pontoon boats as “Swamp Boats” when they are actually propeller-driven boat powered. While a pontoon boat is a gentle, slow ride through a swamp, it cannot access as many areas as an airboat can, nor can it go nearly as fast.

Furthermore, airboats are more environmentally friendly than these so-called swamp boats. Since airboats do not put a propeller in the water, they preserve the natural vegetation below the surface of the water and do not stir up sediments.

Take a dive in any grassland to view the trails of damaging effects that propellers have on the ecosystem. They leave distinct trails through the underwater grasslands, chopping the grass as they are propelled forward. Not to mention the countless manatees with scar marks across their bodies from propeller boats. Airboats, on the other hand, glide seamlessly across the top of the water.

Preserving Tradition and Nature with Florida Airboat Tours

When early airboats first came to Florida, they were primarily used as workboats for biologists and fishermen to gather specimens from shallow waters. It was not until later that it became popular to take an airboat tour. Just a few years later, in the 1930s, people began using them to travel and explore the marshlands of Florida, mostly in or around the Florida Everglades.

It is interesting to view the history of airboats and the airboat tour in Florida since some Floridians were inventing their own versions of airboats. Glenn Curtiss is credited for building one of the first early airboats to aid him in his bow hunting pursuits.

Later, frog hunter Johnny Lamb built a 75-horsepower boat he appropriately called the “whooshmobile” due to the distinct sound the fan makes as the boat glides across the water’s surface. Later, Chokoloskee Gladesmen Earnest and Willard Yates built an airboat steered using reins connected to crude wooden hulls. Yates later had the first airboat-related death when the engine dislodged and sent the propeller into him. Now, the fans are secured by cages to prevent this event from happening.

Modern airboats represent a timeless tradition for the Florida Everglades, and the airboat tour industry remains popular to this day. They were the first motorized vehicles to give people access to a rugged landscape otherwise unexplored by traditional motorboats. Not only do they represent a Florida legacy, but airboats help preserve Florida’s precious nature by gliding across the surface of the water, leaving animals and plant life below the surface undisturbed.

Ecotourism In The Everglades And Louisiana Bayous

Ecotourism in the Everglades and Louisiana Bayou is becoming quite common thanks to airboats and the popular airboat tour, or bayou boat tour as it would be called in Louisiana.

Airboats are considered eco-friendly because they are able to easily maneuver through the shallow grassy marshlands common along the Gulf Coast and Everglades without much disturbance. Since the propeller is over the waterline, it results in less damage to nature and animal life. Also, they do not redirect the natural water currents as regular boats and do not cause soil and organic matter to get stirred up in the water.

Florida Everglades Airboat Ride Tours At Everglades Holiday Park

If you want to experience the Florida Everglades, there is no better way to do so than with an airboat tour at Everglades Holiday Park. Everglades Holiday Park offers 60-minute narrated airboat rides through the Everglades on a state-of-the-art airboat. The airboats are specially designed with aerodynamic covers, providing guests with a comfortable experience, rain or shine, throughout their airboat tour.

Visitors experience the uniqueness of the Florida Everglades through a thrilling experience that also teaches about the naturally occurring flora, fauna, and animal life. An airboat tour at Florida Everglades Holiday Park provides visitors with an intimate look at one of the most unique ecosystems on the entire planet- the Florida Everglades.

Are Airboat Tours Safe?

Airboat tours are safe when done in the correct way. At Everglades Holiday Park, safety is our highest priority when taking guests on an airboat tour across the Florida Everglades.

Our expert airboat captains are well trained and equipped to operate the state-of-the-art vessels that are checked daily, contain first aid kids, life jackets for each person, and ear protection upon request. Guests are also educated on airboat safety practices upon arrival, like remaining seated for the tour and not feeding the wildlife.

Why are airboats so loud?

Airboats are loud because of the massive fan that propels them. In Florida, it is a legal requirement to add a noise reduction system to the airboat.

Skip to toolbar