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Hovercraft Passes Catalina Test

Emergencies: County Fire Department, Navy demonstrate vessel's potential use in the event of fire on the island.


It was only 26 miles off the coast of Long Beach, on the familiar shores of Santa Catalina Island, but for Fire Battalion Chief Gordon Pearson, "It was kind of like MacArthur landing in the Philippines."

Except in this case, the assault was for peaceful purposes.

On Tuesday the Navy and the Los Angeles County Fire Department demonstrated that a state-of-the-art, military Hovercraft can have an important civilian role in hauling fire engines and other emergency equipment from Long Beach to Avalon in less than one hour.

Before introduction of the Hovercraft, Pearson said, it would have taken the Fire Department up to 12 hours to send heavy reinforcements to Catalina if a brush fire or other blaze requiring more than two fire engines had ignited.

Tuesday's spectacle concluded testing for an operation that now defines procedures for bridging the channel between Catalina and the mainland in such emergencies.

In so doing, Pearson said, it creates a new sense of security for the island residents.

"If we had [a fire] roaring over there," he said, "the Navy guarantees me they can get there in 35 minutes." Pearson added that the operation would cost the department nothing because the Navy views the exercise as a training opportunity.

Although fire officials could not recall when an emergency crossing was last needed, they said it would have required loading a barge with firefighting equipment and, depending on delays because of choppy waters, could have taken up to half a day to complete.

But the Hovercraft demonstrated Tuesday can carry 60 tons of cargo at speeds of more than 40 knots. About a third the size of a football field, the vessels are the same as those used to move cargo during Operation Desert Storm. And there are 10 on call less than an hour away at Camp Pendleton.

"It could be used for a plane down in the ocean, too," said Fire Department spokesman Henry Rodriguez.

The department's main concern Tuesday, however, was Catalina and the growing population at Avalon. The island has just one fire station with two full-time firefighters, two engines and about a dozen part-time volunteers.

But for more than 100 people who watched the massive Hovercraft depart and arrive at Belmont Shore on Tuesday, the exercise provided an entertaining scene at the beach.

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