Written By Bill Kinnison; 2005
Recently Mike Murphy showed me some of the items that he had saved over the course of the development the personal hydrofoil. These items show a progression of ideas that he and several other men developed through trial and error to assemble the sitdown hydrofoils we ride today. The sitdown hydrofoil was developed through a partnership between Mike Murphy and Bob Woolley. Mike was the initial designer and the pro skier, and Bob's initial role was to run the business and develop the product.
Mike and his friends skied on the standup hydrofoil skis developed and patented by Lucas Emmanual in the early 1960s. Mike owned and operated a ski shop on the Parker Strip in Arizona and throughout the '70s and 80s sold and taught many enthusiasts, including Bob, to foil ski. The picture was a world record for the most foils behind a boat and included (from left to right) Buck Buxton, Mike Mack, Donnie Armstrong, John Clemens, Banana George Blair, Ingrid Buxton, Rich Ferber and Mike. Foil skis were difficult to ski on, very dangerous and tended to be too weak. Buck Buxton redesigned the standup foil skis in the 1970s to make them stronger and Mike first learned to get big air on a foil.
Kneeboarding was one of Mike's first passions and he was co-inventor in at least 3 companies that manufactured and sold them, including the "Knee Ski" and then the "Tunnelboard". A problem arose with a kneeboard because a rider could not take advantage of their natural shock absorbers, your knees, to soak up the rough water conditions. Since the kneeboard rode so poorly, Mike attempted to design a hybrid kneeboard with a second deck on a Knee Ski and valve springs between them. The project was unsuccessful. Mike's vision was to create a hydrofoil kneeboard to make the kneeboard ride smooth and make a hydrofoil easier to learn by having the rider in a kneeling rather than a standing position. Mike did not have the finances, the craftsmanship or the time to develop this vision so he looked for a business partner. It was at this time that Bob Woolley entered the picture and his and Mike's relationship in the development of the personal hydrofoil began. Together they combined Mike's Tunnel Board and Emmanual's foil and created the "Aqua-lift Hydro-foil". It worked and that is the beginning of today's Air Chair/Sky Ski. Later Mike's idea to design a foil with a single strut was developed by Bob and then mounted to a kneeboard. They sold the idea to a major kneeboard manufacturer, but it never ran with the idea.
Over the course of the summer of '83, the river rats at Mike's ski shop tried mounting foils to just about anything they had in the shop, shoe skis, trick skis, and kneeboards. Bob was the first to take one of their single strut, dual wing foils and mount it to his own version of a "Sit Ski", a product that had been around for years. Bob's idea of sitting down on the personal hydrofoil revolutionized the sport. This milestone prompted a number major changes, including Mike's suggestion to Bob to push the skis together to design the first wooden, single ski, sit down hydrofoil.
At this point, the relationship between Mike and Bob began to deteriorate so, with the help of Eliminator Boats, Mike began designing and developing the board in fiberglass. The board was too wide, too flat and not strong enough. Although the next generation, also developed at Eliminator Boats by Mike, worked great as far as performance was concerned, it lacked strength and was not easy to mass produce.
Before long a safety issue arose. For about a year, the first original prototypes were ridden without a seatbelt by Bob, Mike and just a few other daredevil riders. Roger Crocker and Mike were hit by the foil at which time Mike refused to ride a hydrofoil without a seatbelt. Mike, by himself, mounted a seatbelt to his personal hydrofoil and made the product safer and marketable.
At about this same time, Mike Mack was developing the "Mackstrap", a heel strap used on a hot dog ski that never made it to the market. This concept lead to the heel strap on the Air Chair, making the sport even safer.
The next generation board shape was improved and redesigned by Bob. At this point it was turned over to Herb O'Brien, who's team at HO Skis came up with the manufacturing processes, materials, and the method of compression molding the board. HO's ski press operator, Jake Kinnison prototyped and pressed the first Air Chair boards which actually predate the first compression molded wakeboards ever. Using HO's expertise of manufacturing processes, cost analysis, ability to eliminate breakage and reduce weight made this a marketable, sellable product and it went on the market in 1989.
In the mid '90s, tuning the foil became commonplace. Riders were looking for ways to make their foils ride smoother, jump higher and land softer than the powdercoated foils would allow. Another person involved in the evolution of the hydrofoil was the late Don Gramacki, who first added winglets to the front wing of his Air Chair. Today tuned foils with winglets are standard issue on all production hydrofoils.
In 1995, while working with the molds used for the Air Chair, Jake Kinnison began pressing skis with metal tops in them. This was similar technology used in waterskis and wakeboards made at the time. The graphics were bright and colorful, and the strength of the ski itself was increased. Many riders of the time were modifying their Air Chairs with tuned foils, tailbone cutouts in the seat, softer and non-skid seat pads, padded foot beds from wakeboard bindings, ankle straps and double locking velcro kneeboard belts. In Sept. 1997, Jake won the award for the Best Custom Air Chair at the Parker Fly-in. Many of these mods have been implemented in foils made today. Air Junky, the first hydrofoil related aftermarket company, was started later that year.
In 1997, the sport acquired it's own publication. Flight, The Hydrofoiling Newsletter was started by one of the sports oldest ambassadors and repeated champ, Tony Klarich. Today Flight spreads the word about new foils, tricks, riders and events across the globe.
1997 also was the year that Mike Murphy left Air Chair and then started Sky Ski in 1998. Today the two companies enjoy large, passionate followings and the sport is enjoying more innovative equipment than ever.
The patents for the sit down hydrofoil waterski are currently held by both Mike and Bob with the United States Patent Office as patents 5,100,354 and 5,249,998. They have been unchanged since October of 1991. It is interesting to see that Emmanual's patent, which dates back to 1965, is acknowledged in their patents.