The Ekranoplans Showcase, Part 1

"QUANTUM SHOT" #174(rev)
Link - article by Avi Abrams

A bizarre cross between a hovercraft and an airplane, developed during the Cold War

They hover and skim above the water at speeds of up to 250 miles an hour, while carrying heavier loads of cargo and troops than any airplane could - the Ekranoplans, or "Wing-in-Ground" (WIG) vehicles are possibly the most exciting and strange-looking transportation technology ever invented by men.

Developed mostly by the Soviets during the Cold War (by the Rostislav Alexeev design firm), some ekranoplans were over 500 feet in length and had the estimated weight of over 500 tons! And yet they skimmed over the waves with grace, at high speeds, able to negotiate stormy conditions, and unseen by the radar - all thanks to the aerodynamic principle known as the "ground effect".

(derelict Lun-class Soviet ekranoplan at Kaspiysk Naval Base, Russia - images via)

Most pilots will be familiar with this effect: when an airplane is about to land, sometimes it almost wants to "float" on air, moments before touchdown. The compressed air between the airplane's wing and the ground becomes a sort of "cushion" that gives the plane the ability to glide smoothly. This effect will be even more noticeable if repeated over the sea surface.

1. KM - the Russian "Caspian Sea Monster" Ekranoplan

"KM" was the biggest ground-effect vehicle ever designed (100 meters long, weight: 544 tons, powered by ten Dobryin VD-7 turbojet engines). It still holds the record for lifting the heaviest load off the ground (which is even more than what the largest modern cargo plane Antonov An 225 "Mriya" can handle). For a long time, it was surrounded by an air of mystery, being developed and tested in secrecy on the Caspian Sea in 1966, and only later discovered by a US spy satellite.

Although only one "KM" prototype ship has been built, there were several variations differing in length and weight. All were intimidating in size and pretty weird-looking, designed to specifically use the "wing-in-ground effect" to skim the waves at highest possible speeds, undetected by radar. According to military sources, the Soviet government had plans to built one hundred of these monsters at the height of the Cold War, but then this number fell to twenty four projected machines.

(images credit: The WIG Page and Samolet)

After an accidental crash (due mostly to poor visibility in fog conditions), KM was abandoned in a shallow expanse of water, thwarting all the efforts to recover it (mostly due to its significant weight); and its high tail has been sticking out of the water (like a ghastly funeral cross) for decades after that.

The next model to take its place was "Orlenok" - a medium-sized ekranoplan suitable for military transportation duties. This is the SM-8, a smaller version of KM:

2. The Impressive A-90 "Orlyonok" ("Eaglet")

"The 140 tonne, 58 meter long aircraft had its maiden flight in 1972. The A-90 boasted two turbojets and one turboprop engine which propelled it to a speed of 400 km/h for 1,500 km at an cruise altitude of 5-10 meters" (info)

And yes, it could travel over the dry land (if need be) in rather spectacular fashion:

(images credit: A. Belyaev, The WIG Page)

Its cargo capacity was 150 troops and 2 tanks (or rather, smaller-size BTR-60 military vehicles), as evidenced by this picture:

(images via)

The ekranoplans-hungry Soviet military planned to built twenty of such vehicles, creating a whole new NAVY division in the Baltic Sea. One aircraft has been supplied to the military in 1979, and a total of three A-90s were reportedly still operational in the 1990s, with most sightings in 1993. However, it seems that a couple of crashes (again) stopped the plans for the full deployment of these machines; with one crash being especially spectacular.

The craft lost a whole tail section after striking a wave, which nevertheless did not prevent it from "gliding" to the shore using the "ground effect". This amazing feat of air-worthiness still failed to impress Soviet generals and government officials, and the program has been mothballed.

UPDATE: "Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the plant responsible for building the Orlyonoks has been entirely privatized. Now called the Volga Shipyard, the Orlyonok is apparently still being developed as a commercial "search and rescue" craft. In fact, it appears that the Orlyonok can be ordered in either cargo-carrying (50 tons with a 1500km range) or in passenger-carrying (30 people and a 3000km range) versions - what's more, the yard lists it as a production model!" (source)

3. Strange intermediate designs: the VVA-14M

The "VVA-14M" ekranoplan was essentially a conversion from the similarly strange-looking plane "VVA-14". Here's how it looked before the conversion:

...and after the conversion, in cruising mode:

(images credit: Ronald Wong, The WIG Page)

4. The "Lun (Spasatel)" (1987) was bigger than the KM "Sea Monster" - and way more dangerous!

The 280 tonne, 74 meter long M-160 Lun was another ekranoplan developed from Alexeev designs, built in 1987-1989:

(images courtesy: Paul McDonell)

It was actually bigger than the Boeing-747 Jumbo jet! -

(top image credit: Peter C Losi - United States Air Force)

What's more, it was equipped with unparalleled to this day ZM-80 "Moskit" (SS-N-22 Sunburn) supersonic rockets, capable of sinking any enemy ship at a ridiculous distance. This machine would've ended up to be a formidable threat to NATO, if not for the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. Insufficient funds prevented further research, and the overall decline of the Soviet Union had sunk this project altogether - although some efforts have been made to convert the "Lun / Spasatel" into a sea rescue vessel.

(images via)

Here is the civilian version of the "Spasatel":

(image source)

Also check out this interesting concept, which almost made it into production:

All these, and other variations of the Russian ekranoplans can be seen in this long video (10 minutes of great, rare footage):


In this video you can also see the presently sad condition of the only remaining Russian giant "Lun" craft, stored at the Kaspiysk Naval Base... Maybe some "crazy scientist", or perhaps an investor, see it on eBay, decide to pay the minimum bid and put this thing into action again??

Here is the "swan song" of Rostislav Alexeev, a final concept for the "Rocket-2" river cruise ship:

(art credit: A. Sukhov, via)

Similarly designed American concepts: The Legendary "Wingships" Plan

American aeronautical engineer Steven Hooker first observed the Caspian Monster in 1967 and went on to establish the "Aerocon" company - with a dream to manufacture giant American-made "wingships" - ten times bigger and truly trans-oceanic in range. Here is the proposed "Aerocon Wingship" concept from 1984 - note, that it is bigger than twelve Boeing 747's put together!

"Atlantis - 1":

(image credit: Popular Science)

It remains to be seen whether this gargantuan ship can be built in the distant future; for years, the US NAVY has been (sort-of) considering another prototype:

The "Boeing Ultra Pelican" - American (belated) answer to the "Caspian Sea Monster"

Look at the size of this conceptual boat! It can truly be called the "Large Transport Aircraft": with its capacity to carry 1,400 tons (as many as 17 tanks plus a few hundred soldiers) to a distance of over 16,000 km. This spectacular machine boasts a wingspan of 106 meters (about 350 feet) and a length of 152 meters (longer than a standard football field). In addition, this craft would be 10 times faster than any modern container ship.

(sources: 1, 2, 3)

"The vessel will be able to travel in ground-effect at a height of about 20 feet above the water surface for its most economical mode of operation, but will also be capable of entering free-flight and flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet."

If this craft's development proceeds unimpeded, then the military dream of the "deployment of one division in five days anywhere in the world" has a chance to be realized. You could run from this ship, but you would not be able to hide. The Wingship's potential for strategic lift will be almost unlimited. What's more, its operating efficiency (the amount of cargo divided by the consumed fuel) will be 44 per cent better than modern cargo airplanes!

The Wingship seems to be an achievable technology, and if a successful prototype will ever get to be built (perhaps smaller in size, or as a Russian-American joint effort) - it could potentially open the new era in transportation: the exciting blend of sea and air travel, both efficient and unutterably cool. At this point in time, though, we only see plans for building larger and larger cruise ships and bigger airliners, without much consideration for operating efficiency.

Article by Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.




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Anonymous John Silver said...

You do not mention the noise these things produce. Just remember how sound travels over water.
Also, there is a reason that you don't find counter rotating propellers in the west, only on Russian bomber, the "Bear". It was so noisy that it was tracked by the American submarine microphones on the bottom of the Atlantic.


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