A revolutionary type of marine transportation vessel could be flying up Lynn Canal as early as next summer, Pacific Seaflight President Linus Romey said Thursday.
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The Juneau Docks and Harbors Board approved an amendment to the city's marine speed limit regulations Thursday night, providing an exemption for wing-in-ground-effect crafts, or wingships. The amendment must go before the Juneau Assembly for final approval.
Wingships look like a futuristic hybrid of an airplane and a speedboat, and they use airfoils that support the vessels approximately 9 feet above the water at speeds up to 110 mph.
Romey said Pacific Seaflight is hoping to homeport three wingships in downtown Juneau beginning this summer to provide quick and affordable transportation to Hoonah, Haines and Skagway. If ultimately approved, Pacific Seaflight would offer the first commercial wingships to operate in the United States.
What is a wingship?
Wingships are able to travel efficiently over water at high speeds by flying close to the water's surface. This creates a condensed pocket of air below the wing that provides better lift than free-flying planes.
Top speed: up to 110 mph.
Capacity: Two crew plus 12 passengers or two crew and 3,300 pounds.
Clearance: Up to nine feet over the crest of 12-foot waves. Short segments of free-flight are possible only in emergencies.
Thursday's meeting was a minor hurdle to clear in a row of many before the first wingship can fly above the waters of Lynn Canal.
Board member Eric Kueffner said during Thursday's meeting that the body's role was clear, in that it was only deciding on the speed limit exemption, not on the business' flight plans or operating conditions.
"To me it's not that significant because to me it seems like they have a lot more loops to jump through than the speed limit in the harbors," he said.
"There's a lot of hoops that we have to go through yet," Romey said.
Before the company can begin operating in Alaska, the vessel must go through a rigorous approval process by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard must first approve the design, manufacturing process, and operation before passenger service begins. And because of its speed capability there must be a certified training program in place.
Pacific Seaflight must also finalize its funding sources before construction of the wingships can begin, Romey said. Prices for the 12-passenger vessels are estimated to cost between $1.2 and $1.5 million, he added.
Questions regarding safety were asked during Thursday's meeting. Romey said because the wingship is a rare marine transportation vessel there are not a lot of statistics regarding safety.
"Safety is our primary concern with it," he said.
If the vessel lost all engine power while cruising at top speed lifted on an airfoil nearly 9 feet off the water, the wingship would simply lose the air cushion and be set back down on the surface of the water, Romey said.
The vessels would also be equipped with state-of-the-art collision avoidance systems, he said.
The benefit of the wingships in Southeast Alaska would be a speedy, affordable and reliable alternative of transportation, Romey said.
"You're talking about the same speed as an air carrier but you're talking about saving 30 percent on the cost of the ticket," he said.
Initial projections put a Juneau-to-Haines trip at 50 minutes for a cost of $60. Juneau to Hoonah is expected to take 30 minutes and cost $38 each way.
And while schedules may limit ferry travelers and the weather may halt air passengers, Romey said the wingships would be able to operate more consistently.
"They're not going to operate in all conditions, but we can operate them in 12-foot seas," he said.
The vessels are also environmentally suitable for the region, Romey said. Wingships have lower fuel consumption than planes, don't create wakes and would have little chance of striking marine mammals when in operation, he said.
"They are extremely environmentally compatible," Romey said.
Contact Eric Morrison at 523-2269 at email@example.com.
courtesy of Pacific Seaflight