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"It's just like a magic carpet'

George Cipko certainly doesn't look like Aladdin. He doesn't wear a jeweled vest or baggy pants, and his shoes are the typical sneakers you can buy in Kmart, not the pointed gold kind.

He wears something on his head, but it is of the baseball variety and not a turban.

Still, Cipko feels just like the story-book character as he zooms along in his airboat on the Withlacoochee River, which serves as his kingdom.

"This is just like a magic carpet ride," Cipko said. "It's a little noisy, but it's just like a magic carpet. I feel like I can go anywhere."

If it is indeed a magical vehicle to ride, it is one made of a wacky combination of modern-day devices.

First and foremost are the propellors, much like an airplane's props, that sit in a cage that takes up the entire back of the boat. They push the craft along the water and, sometimes, over bits of land.

Cranking the propellors and creating the airflow through the cage is a 500-cubic-inch Cadillac engine, big enough to sound like a turbine when it gets revved up.

All this sits on top of a flat-bottomed hull with five bench seats. At the back, against the cage and on top of the engine, is a small seat with a rod sticking up from the floor. This is where Aladdin sits and guides his carpet.

The rod controls two rudders that direct airflow from the propellors and can steer the boat among the cypress trees and gators that inhabit the Withlacoochee.

"It's a crazy combination," Cipko tells his tour group, which today consists of a family from Pennsylvania. "We have part airplane, part car, part boat. I mean, I have a Cadillac engine back here."

Cipko, who for about five months has been driving airboats part-time for Wild Bill's Airboat Rides just east of Inverness, takes vacationers and others through the Withlacoochee's waters, stopping frequently to give a short nature lesson.

An osprey nest sits precariously at the top of a tree while water hens play in the algae and weeds below _ waiting, as Cipko says, to become "alligator hors d'oeuvres." Anhingas and slider turtles sun themselves on a log, and a limpkin and an ibis wade around looking for food in the penny grass.

"If you look over to the right you'll see the rookery," Cipko said. "That's where the herons and egrets go to nest. Right now there are probably 25 nests in those trees. If you look carefully, you might glimpse a bird or two."

While Cipko uses this half-hour jaunt through the backwaters of the Withlacoochee to talk about nature, there are some people who feel that is hypocritical.

Nature groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth are opposed to airboats, saying they harm the environment and are detrimental to the marsh grasses and some of the animals that frequent the river banks and water edges.

Other concerns include noise from the props, which, environmentalists say, can scare the endangered animals and interrupt feeding and mating cycles.

If you look behind an airboat as it moves through water, you see a small wake. When the boat goes across a bed of penny grass, it leaves a trail that looks more windblown than destructive.

"These don't hurt anything," Cipko said. "You can run over an alligator and it doesn't hurt it. The bottom is smooth as a baby's bottom. If you go through some weeds, it doesn't cut them. They might look a little flat, but they pop back up in a hour or so. These boats are safe."

The fact that the propellors don't extend into the water is another plus. With nothing to break the surface, an airboat will simply slide over the top of a manatee rather than permanently damage or even kill as a regular boat motor would.

Tour done, alligators seen and his tourists clearly impressed by the beauty of Florida's wild side, Cipko heads back to the dock. As he nears the parking spot, he has one simple warning:

"Sit back and hold on tight," he says into the radio for all to hear. "This thing has no neutral and no reverse. Every landing is a crash landing."