The Navy Has A High-Tech Hovercraft, And It Is Spectacular [PHOTOS]

When the U.S. Navy wants to haul a few hundred tons of troops, material, or gear from ship to shore, sailors can use the Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) vehicle, an astonishing high-tech hovercraft.

The LCAC is an update on the Landing Craft Utility (LCU), an earlier amphibious transport system. The two systems are vastly different — but they’re both capable of serving as the backbone for missions ranging from humanitarian relief to a full-blown beach invasion.

Business Insider got up-close and personal with both crafts and the units that operate them.

The LCAC Hovercraft

LCAC Assault Craft Unit Four Above And Beyond Little Creek Norfolk 30Robert Johnson for Business InsiderCHECK OUT THE LCAC HOVERCRAFT >

The LCAC is a 90-foot hovercraft. It’s not easy to drive. The operator has to yoke all four limbs into place, while concentrating on two separate foot-operated rudders. The LCAF Craftsman has the same challenge as a helicopter pilot — the vessel effectively operates in six dimensions, careening across water and land like a giant air-hockey puck.

The LCU Landing Craft

Lcu2Robert Johnson for Business InsiderCHECK OUT THE LCU LANDING CRAFT >

The LCU is old-school in every sense, but its navigation and electronics gear are continually upgraded. These were the boats dropping off American soldiers on the shores on the Han River in Vietnam in the early 1970s.

LCUs can discharge 125 tons of cargo and hit the beach at about 14 miles per hour. The LCAC slides in at more than 46 miles per hour, and can carry up to 75 tons.

It’s no wonder the two units, which are right next door to each other at the Joint Expeditionary Base in Little Creek-Fort Story in Norfolk, VA, have a bit of a heated rivalry. One LCU Craftsman likened it to Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare.

Chief Petty Officer Bright of LCU Unit 2 told Business Insider, “It may take us a bit longer to get there compared to the LCACs, but you know what happened to the Hare. Slow and easy, is best.”

Business Insider visited both units in early July, 2013, and went out on the water with an LCAC team over Norfolk Bay. Here’s what the day was like and how the U.S. military delivers its troops and goods onto shores around the world.

Pulling up to the Navy's East Coast Hovercraft Unit in Little Creek, Virgina leaves quite an impression.

The hovercraft bursts in, carrying 60 tons of material or troops at speeds in excess of 40 miles per hour, straight from the water and onto the beach.

Assault Craft Unit Four calls itself the East Coast Hoppers.

There's a camaraderie and unit pride that's a lot like that of a Navy fighter wing. It's a pilot-and-aircraft type thing.

And this unit is a last bastion for enlisted sailors. Hovercraft pilots are all Non-Commissioned Officers and the mood in the garrison reflects that fully.

We head through one of the maintenance bays fronting the tarmac.

...and walk out onto the East Coast's 36 Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC).

When the LCACs aren't out with their flight crew practicing ...

... they sit here outside the air traffic control tower where their crews report daily to perform upkeep and maintenance.

The crews only have the time to paint the exhaust nozzles when they're deployed.

But today in Norfolk it's all business as we pile in behind the pilot on the right, who tells us to put on our headgear.

All the chatter between the navigator, co-pilot, and pilot starts coming through those green headphones.

The flight engineer sits silently in back, on the far left.

Everyone goes through their pre-flight checklist.

Waiting for gauges to properly display.

Then with a quick visual confirmation from the pilot ...

... our co-pilot flips the last couple switches ...

... the navigator confirms our heading is clear ...

... and just like that we rise about seven feet from the ground ...

... and move up and away our way to the ocean.

We move onto the water with a burst of spray from the huge fans pumping air into the craft's skirts to keep us afloat.

Within moments we're hundreds of yards from shore. The windshield wipers beat furiously as the crew swings the craft around.

Pulling a 180-degree turn throws up another blast of spray and we speed back toward shore.

Back on land, we get ready to watch the crew take off and land from the shore.

Just like that it's back in the air and gone again.

From outside looking in, it's amazing how fast the LCAC leaves the water for land ...

... and how quickly it settles down again.

The officer down here asks what else we'd like to see and we ask to watch the hovercraft pull back onto the tarmac.

The officer jokes that there is technology everywhere, but he still has to send a text to the pilot. That doesn't work either so he tells the crew directly what he wants.

And it's back onto the water again in a spray of dust and water from the twin gas turbine engines.

A couple small patrol craft speed past the LCA as it heads in.

It hits the cement tarmac at what must be a full 40+ miles-per-hour.

Then it slows to make its way under the fresh water rinse.

After spending a bit of time getting as much salt water off its hull as possible ...

... the pilot eases the LCAC out and lets it settle on one side over a separate drain to ensure no chemicals will flow out into the water.

A quick spin around the tarmac to dry off and LCAC 39 prepares to park. That ship in the distance is the USS Ashland on its way to Japan.

The Ashland is filled with a fresh crew and may have an LCAC inside.

The vessel has a full complement of fresh sailors preparing for the long journey.

The tugs pull back and the LCAC mothership heads off into the distance.

Back inside we say goodbye before heading to the LCAC's sister crews at the Assault Craft Unit across base.

The landing craft is a far different vessel.

And the Landing Craft Unit is far different as well.

This is the 'Brown Water' Navy where ships that don't often leave shores and rivers are docked. It's quite a different vibe than at the hovercraft unit.

The ships at Landing Craft Unit 2 are more than 40 years old and require extensive maintenance.

The mixed-gender crews are usually made up of about a dozen members. Here they report to the vessel for morning formation and a day of upkeep and training.

Recent budget cuts have crews shrinking, which means more work. Shrinking funding means less-frequent training.

Boarding a Landing Craft can be a tricky affair.

We step on the bow lines so if the vessel moves, the rope doesn't snap up and impede our roll.

Now we're aboard Landing Craft 1661 and we're given the 'Grand Tour.'

Like LCAC pilots, the captains of these 135-foot vessels are always enlisted, and are usually a senior non-commissioned officer like an E-7.

Chief Petty Officer Bright, like his peers, must be proficient in ratings from the engine room to the navigation system. They need to know it all.

Petty Officer Bright must understand the full electronics suite.

This is 40-year-old technology -- it's what sailors would use in an emergency, without power, to communicate below decks.

Combined with maintenance, LCU duty can be demanding.

There is an immense amount of record-keeping as the Navy tries to go paperless, with shrinking crews.

LCUs can haul either 125 tons of troops, cargo, or tanks, onto nearly any beach in the world -- but they get there slow and easy, moving at under 14 miles per hour.

There's a reason Landing Craft Unit 2 is the 'tortoise' ...

... to the hovercraft team's 'hare.'

LCU duty is cramped, and it can gets very hot below-decks.

Twelve sailors, both men and women, one toilet, two weeks.

Sleeping quarters are cramped and barely a couple feet high.

Entertainment is limited to what sailors bring aboard, along with a TV in this small common area.

While perhaps not as flashy as the hovercraft, life aboard an LCU is not all bad. Without officers, there's no saluting.

Life in port is comfortable, if not a bit quiet.

It may not be big and flashy like the LCAC, but the LCU is a backbone of support when landing ground forces.

This is the well-deck of the USS Whidbey Island, a ship that deploys the LCU.

Touring an amphibious assault ship is a different story entirely ...

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