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MHS freshman engineers hovercraft

by: Photo By Susan Matheny - Brad Bunnell glides around the tennis courts on a one-inch cushion of air produced by his homemade hovercraft.


   If you've driven by Madras High and swear you've seen someone floating around the tennis courts on a flying saucer -- you were not hallucinating.
   The "saucer" is the work of 14-year-old freshman Brad Bunnell, who amazed his science teacher by creating a functional hovercraft.
   It started out as a fairly routine school assignment. Enrolled in an integrated science class, which teaches chemistry the first half, and physics the second, Brad learned students were supposed to do an end of the trimester project, and they had one week to complete it.
   "When my teacher (Scott Coles) told us to do a science project, I remembered my dad telling me when he was in Hawaii he saw a hovercraft that went over water, and there was a five-foot wall and it went over it," Brad said, noting he thought it would be a pretty cool thing to make.
   "At first, I said it kind of as a joke," Brad said, of his outlandish hovercraft idea.
   "But Mr. Coles said if I wanted to try to make one, that some had been done using leaf blowers. So I Googled `hovercraft' and some plans came up," Brad said.
   Although the construction materials were fairly simple: plywood, heavy plastic, bolts and washers, there was the expense of buying a leaf blower. But that didn't stop the resourceful freshman.
   "I worked for a guy helping him repaint his kitchen to earn the $85 to buy a leaf blower for my project. I got a `featherlight,' gas-powered leaf blower, which blows air out at 150 mph," Brad said.
   The hovercraft plans he had found were just for a plywood disk without a chair. So Brad consulted his grandfather Don Bunnell, who lives at Crooked River Ranch.
   "He's a carpenter and draws blueprints, so I told him what I was trying to do and he helped me design a chair," Brad said.
   He thought they would just get the round platform and chair built, but since his grandfather had plastic and bolts and power tools on hand, they ended up constructing the whole thing in his garage.
   "I told him it would take the rest of the year to make one, but it only took them one day!" an amazed Coles said.
   To make the hovercraft, they drilled a small hole in the center of a round piece of plywood, and cut a hole for the leaf blower hose. A thick sheet of Visqueen plastic covers the bottom and folds up over the sides to be stapled on top of the plywood. A plastic coffee can lid is then bolted through the hole in the center to create a donut shaped plastic bottom.
   Six air vent holes are cut into the plastic around the coffee can lid to allow pressurized air trapped between the plastic and the plywood to escape slowly. In the process, a "film" or cushion of continuous air is created, which floats the disk.
   "We started it up in the garage and I sat on it and grandpa pushed me around," Brad said, noting they were excited that it worked the first time.
   His parents, Ray and Judy Bunnell, were just as excited when he brought the craft home. "We opened up all the doors and windows, then started it up in the living-room," Brad laughed.
   Since then, he's tried it on smooth asphalt, concrete and hardwood surfaces and found it would support up to 190 pounds.
   With the project deadline ticking away, Brad said, "I called up a couple of friends to help me carry it to school." The bulky hovercraft weighs about 35 pounds and has to be carried because it doesn't have a way to steer.
   When he turned in his project, Coles was speechless. "In my 15 years of teaching I've never seen a student take such a fantastic idea and turn it into a reality inside of two weeks," the science teacher stated.
   Measuring student progress with tests and lab reports is one thing, "but to engineer a hovercraft from a set of plans is a wonderful feat of engineering for a freshman," Coles said.
   "The project was made even more valuable by involving three generations. I only wish I could have seen his face the first time he actually hovered," Coles said.
   Asked if science was a special interest of his, Brad said not really.
   "Most of the awards I've gotten are science awards, which I always thought was kind of weird," he admitted. The Bunnells moved to Madras half a year ago, and before that Brad attended Terrebonne Community School.
   "He's just a curious young man who likes to find answers to questions," Coles said of Brad's natural ability for science.
   So far, the hovercraft has only been shown to a handful of students and teachers. Coles noted the craft is "very, very safe" and everyone wants to ride it.
   Climbing aboard the craft, the sensation is smooth and fun as Brad gets it moving with a push. But if someone gives you a spin, there's no way to stop spinning unless you put your foot out to touch the ground.
   They plan to keep experimenting on different surfaces with the hovercraft, and with modifications to it.
   "I'm hoping to build another one, but use two leaf blowers and make it direct air flow so you can steer it," Brad said, floating another idea by his teacher.