Airboats are iconic flat-bottomed watercraft that are like no other boat on the water. The gigantic fan at the rear of the boat makes it look, sound and handle differently from any other boat out there. But what is an airboat used for?
Airboats are used to access shallow areas of water such as swamps and shallow rivers. Unlike most other flat-bottomed, shallow draft boats, airboats do not need to rely on manual propulsion in extreme shallows. They can reach speeds of up to 40 mph in just a few inches of water. Airboats can also be used on ice. This makes them great transportation, recreational, touring and rescue vessels in shallow water areas and in ice-covered regions.
Just like a raft can be used in some very shallow water areas, so too can an airboat. Due to its shallow draft an airboat can access the same type of shallow waters as a Jon boat but with one major advantage.
Where a Jon boat must switch from motor power to manual power, when it enters extreme shallows, an airboat can keep motoring along.
The way an airboat works is to displace water in the same way a raft does, or any other flat bottom boat does for that matter, in order to stay buoyant. But, instead of using manual propulsion, or even a standard outboard or trolling motor, like other flat bottom boats an airboat uses a huge fan at its rear to both propel and maneuver the boat.
The fan is fitted with an airplane style propeller and an automotive engine that generates such force and thrust that it can propel a racing airboat at speeds of up to 135 mph and standard airboats up to 45 mph. Airboats can reach these speeds even when they are in areas with just a few inches of water depth.
This makes an airboat a one-of-a-kind vessel that can be used in some very interesting ways.
Airboat rides and tours
Probably the most well-known use for an airboat is as a tour vessel.
Airboat rides exist all across America from the swamps of the Mississippi to the bio-diverse estuaries in Texas and you can even find tours on Seattle’s Lake Washington. But, arguably the best known airboat rides in the world are the ones offered in South Florida’s Everglades.
Airboat rides are not just about sight-seeing and experiencing the amazing and diverse waterways of the USA though. Airboat rides offer a bit of an adrenaline rush too.
Racing about on shallow water, with sharp turns and tight bends, at 30+ mph is an exhilarating experience.
As there are airboat rides throughout the USA you really have no excuse not to try one.
Fishing & recreational use
Airboats are not just used for commercial tours and fast rides.
In some states airboats are the preferred mode of water transport and for fishing. Even in Florida, that is famous for airboat tours, these amazing boats are used for fishing.
Of course these boats are also great for recreational use. Some people use a small personal airboat for racing about in local waters, though this is an expensive past-time.
An ice warrior
Not many people know it but an airboat is just as comfortable on the ice as it is in the water.
An airboat has a completely flat bottom hull and it has no working parts that lie under the boat and that would therefore be in the water. With the motor and fan located at the rear of the boat, inside the boat and well above the water line, there is no moving part below the boat to impeded its progress on a solid foundation such as ice.
The only thing that touches the ice-covered ground is the bottom of the flat hull. This gives a large flat surface that is perfect for effortlessly gliding across the ice. Combine this with its powerful fan and you have one hell of an ice warrior.
An airboat can reach the same speeds on ice as it can in calm water, meaning a normal standard airboat can peek at about 45 mph while boats with more powerful engines and customized propeller/fan units can reach speeds up to 135 mph.
First responder vessel
The unique characteristics of an airboat mean that it is an excellent first responder vessel that can be used to respond to emergencies in areas that other vessels would find difficult to reach.
In shallow water areas, that most boats cannot access, an airboat can easily operate. Although there are other flat bottom boats that can navigate the same shallow waters they would not be able to reach their destination in the same time an airboat could.
Although a flat bottom skiff, a Jon boat, sled boat or similar shallow draft vessel can be used in shallow water areas as a first responder vessel (and they sometimes are) they could never match the speed of an airboat in extreme shallows. This is because a boat powered by an outboard motor must trim the motor completely and lift the prop out of the water in areas of extremely shallow water. An airboat has no such restrictions.
As no working part of an airboat is below the water line an airboat does not need to adjust speed or trim a motor when it reaches areas with only a few inches of water. As the entire propulsion unit, the fan and motor, are located at the back of the boat, well above the water line, an airboat can speed along even in the shallowest of water.
This ability for speed as well as shallow water access makes an airboat an excellent emergency vessel on inland waterways that have extreme shallows.
Likewise, an airboat’s ability to glide across ice at high speed also makes it the preference as a first responder vehicle in ice-covered areas such as some Northern states and Canada. For example, in 2019 first responders in Idaho were trained on an ice-covered Lake Pend Oreille, near Sandpoint, in the use of ice rescue techniques using an airboat as transportation.
Lastly, airboats are also used in races.
Airboat racing is a fast growing water-based sport that is gaining momentum all across the US.
Airboat racing started off more as a subculture for airboat owners who wanted to test their boats, and their skills, against one and other in one-off race events.
However, it is such an exciting sport, and involves such a fun day out with an almost carnival-like atmosphere, that airboat racing started attracting crowds and is now one of the fastest growing sports in America.
There are drag races where airboats compete against each other head-to-head and heats where the fastest times win. As the sport continues to grow so the races continue to evolve. Different races have now been created for different categories of airboat.
If you want to know more about airboat racing and where you can see a race read this article.