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The world's oldest profession paid for Natrona County's newest emergency equipment.

With the turn of a key, Natrona County Sheriff's Office Sgt. John Harlin on Wednesday fired up the unmufflered 600-horsepower aluminum Chevy small block V-8 powering the fan at the back of the 20-foot-long rescue airboat.

The boat was partially parked on the ramp at the Government Bridge access to the North Platte River, but Harlin dislodged it with a turn of the wheel for the three above-water rudders and a shot of fuel.

"The only way to turn it is to use the throttle," Harlin said. "It has to do with how much air you're forcing through [the rudders]."

Fully loaded, the Midwest Rescue airboat has a draft of only 6 inches to 8 inches while stationary.

Harlin had no use for stationary and pushed the craft to more than 30 mph to reduce the draft to only an inch or two.

He gunned the engine, turned the steering wheel hard to point the rudders to the right, and did a hard-left pivot.

"The thing we just did would have swamped a regular boat," Harlin said. "It's surprisingly stable with the wide hull."

The sheriff's office didn't buy the airboat to do doughnuts, though.

It needed a craft that could navigate the 66 miles of the North Platte that snake through the county in all weather, in all seasons, at all times of day, and at all river depths or even no river depths.

"It's designed to operate across dry land, gravel, sandbars," he said. "Grass is no problem.

To do that, the hull is covered with a polymer skin similar to that installed in dump truck beds, Harlin said.

To prove his point, he found a gravel bar a couple of inches below the surface and gently bounced the craft over it. He then approached an above-surface gravel bar and rode over it smoothly.

The hull itself is 8 feet wide, but tapers inward at the bow, Harlin said. "It's manufactured to break ice."

With no keel, no rudders in the water and minimal draft, sheriff's deputies can guide the airboat to look for missing persons in places no v-hull boat could approach, he said. "You can get right up to the bank."

Unlike the fishing airboats popular in the Florida Everglades or the Louisiana bayous, this rescue boat has an enclosed cabin.

Equipment includes three 5-million-candlepower search lights operated remotely inside the cabin, two radios, a depth gauge, a global positioning system and radio headsets for communication with others in the cabin over the roar of the engine and with dispatch.

Emergency gear is basic: boat hooks, oars, a backboard and personal floatation devices.

Because the airboat has no keel, underwater rudder, reverse or brakes, Harlin said its mastery requires some new skills -- in part because of the power of the fan. "You've got to be cognizant of the air wash."

Before now, Harlin said the sheriff's office sometimes borrowed the Casper Fire Department's jet drive boat, which had a problem with moss clogging the intakes, he said.

The county needed a year-round, multipurpose craft but didn't have the money for it.

This time, crime paid.

The flat-bottomed craft that are the basis of the airboats are known as jon boats, a rather ironic name considering how the Sheriff's Office afforded the bulk of the $152,655.54 price tag, Lt. Mark Sellers said.

Of that, $144,465.54 came from an asset forfeiture of the criminal enterprise known as Tokyo Massage, which was busted in January 2009, Sellers said. Yes, Seller's heard all the brothel-boat jokes and no, he wouldn't repeat them.

A grant from the Wyoming Department of Homeland Security funded the remaining $8,190 for the radio equipment, he said.

Once the funding was secured, the Sheriff's Office contacted Midwest Rescue Airboats of Lawrence, Kan., to custom-build an airboat for Natrona County, Harlin said. "This boat was designed for our rivers and our reservoirs."

Reach Tom Morton at 307-266-0592, or at tom.morton@trib.com. You can read his blog at trib.com and follow him on Twitter @GTMorton.

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