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Wednesday, March 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Marysville

Carangifoil's movements more graceful than its name

Times Snohomish County bureau

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Additional information is available at 360-474-8991, at www.windcrafterinc.com and from Mike Landa at Landa & Associates, 24728 47th Ave. N.E., Arlington, WA 98223.

The first image that comes to mind is a blimp. Yet it has more in common with a sailboat — a sailboat that flies.

One of its backers compares it to a feather that can be precisely guided.

But the aircraft being developed and marketed by a team of men, including Arlington resident Mike Landa, almost defies description because of its uniqueness. It's a helium-filled, propeller-driven craft that resembles a large airplane wing floating perpendicular to the ground.

It's called a Carangifoil, and it has to be seen to be believed.

Aaron Shell, the project manager and pilot, recently took a 10-foot model for a spin in a hangar in Silverdale, Kitsap County, to demonstrate its capabilities.

The Carangifoil model is powered by two tiny, battery-powered electric motors at the bottom of the craft. The motors turn small propellers mounted on swivels, which control the direction of the Carangifoil.

Shell controls the model with an inexpensive radio-control panel commonly sold in hobby shops. There's a quiet humming as the propellers spin. The craft rises.

The Carangifoil moves across the hangar. It stops. Then it moves sideways. Then it moves straight up or straight down.

Shell starts playing around. He lands the Carangifoil on a beam. Then he lands it on a vertical two-by-four.

Then he lands it on his nose.

"It's a feather in the wind. When you can control a feather, you've done something," said Steve Swearingen, an owner and founder of Windcrafter, which is developing and marketing the aircraft.

Two other men are involved along with Landa, Shell and Swearingen: Therin Laney, who lives on the same road as Swearingen in Shelton, Mason County, and Rick Marecle of Olympia, the secretary-treasurer. Landa is handling marketing for Windcrafter.

The idea for the aircraft came from fish.

About 10 years ago, Swearingen and Laney were watching salmon in a creek near their homes when they noticed the fish had to move their fins to stay still in the current.

If the salmon didn't move their fins, they would move forward in the flowing water. In fact, the name Carangifoil is derived from the word "carangiform," used to describe the swimming of fish that are primarily propelled by their tail fins while much of their bodies remain rigid.

Swearingen, 45, has been flying radio-controlled model aircraft since he was about 7. He wondered if what the salmon did could be adapted to his hobby.

Ten years of work followed, with the men paying for the development out of their pockets.

So far, they've built two models, one that stands 10 feet and another at 20 feet. Even though the Carangifoil looks somewhat like an airplane wing, it is not an airfoil.

They're not pressurized, although there's helium inside. Hitting one with your fist is like hitting a pillow. When a Carangifoil is sitting on the ground, it can be lifted with one finger.

Besides that, many of the drawbacks of usual flying machines don't exist. It can't stall. It can't explode because it's filled with helium. Because it's not pressurized, punctures in the skin of the craft would cause it to gently descend.

About the only drawback the men have visualized is that a Carangifoil probably could not reach supersonic speeds. Calculations show speeds up to about 300 mph seem possible.

What makes the control possible, Swearingen said, are the motors, which act like the keel on a sailboat.

In strong winds — the bane of lighter-than-air craft — the Carangifoil simply turns into the wind, like a sailboat sail. Speed up the motors, and it moves against the wind, and the wind itself helps movement, as the salmon showed in the creek.

"The more headwind, the faster it goes," Landa said.

The 10-foot version carries about 1 pound, but the group has calculated that a 200-foot-high version would carry 46,000 pounds, enough to move trees or people.

The Windcrafter crew members are in the final stages of obtaining patents. They say they'd like to start with fairly small expectations, perhaps using the craft for advertising or remote-controlled logging operations.

They've certainly thought beyond that but try to speak cautiously.

The inventors are looking for a launch customer, perhaps someone willing to try the craft in advertising. Later in the spring, they want to try to set an aviation record by sending one of the craft to 26,000 feet.

A 20-foot Carangifoil suitable for advertising would cost about $22,000. A 10-foot version with full radio gear and instruction would be about $16,000.

The company's slogan is "Think outside the blimp."

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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