Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
The Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union produced an inventory of grotesque and somewhat devastating weapons. Their attempts to put on the scarier face prompted them to come up with technologies that would make Ian Fleming’s character proud. We have seen it all, from armed space stations, Mach 3 jets, nuclear subs, and even man-made UFO. Nuclear weapons were not the only concern here, but the emergence of this apocalyptic machines of malice coming from both sides. Most of the technologies developed during the Cold War have lasting impacts on modern-day weapons. But there are those curious inventions that were destined to stay in the confines of hangars, warehouse or any forms of storage that captured the imaginations of many.
And one of them is the strange maritime vehicle that rattled the U.S. upon its discovery—the ekranoplan.
At first glance, people are not sure what it is. The thing has wings that seem too short for its massive frame. It could fly, or at least that’s what people call it even though it could only do so at a few meters from the water's surface. And judging the overall shape and outside appearance, it’s an aircraft, but used as a ship. A terrifying ship!
Meet the ekranoplan: arguably the strangest vehicle that came out from the Soviet assembly line.
There is this thing called “ground effect”, and pilots already knew it since the 1920s when they observed their aircrafts becoming more efficient when they fly low to the ground. When a fixed-wing plane skims over a fixed surface, the lift increases and drag decreases. But it was during the 1960s when the technology started to mature, when Rostislav Alexeyev of the Soviet Union pioneered the work on a vehicle that uses the ground effect to attain lift. This was when the ekranoplans were born. Now, the rest of the world never took notice, yet the Soviet Union became interested and the development took place.
Technically, ground effect vehicles, or ekranoplans as they are now called (meaning “ground effect plane” in Russian) are aircraft, but they were classified as ships by the Soviet government, as they operate on bodies of water. The Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau became the center of development, headed by Alexeyev. They plan to build a massive ekranoplan, with funding coming from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. And after several manned and unmanned prototypes, a 550-ton military ekranoplan was built, known as the Korabi Maket.
The Caspian Sea Monster
Those developments saw the birth of the KM, or the Korabl Maket (Russian for Ship Prototype). It’s a massive vehicle, and it became the world’s biggest aircraft when it was completed in June 22, 1966. The KM had a wingspan of 123 feet and the length of 302 feet. Since it uses the ground effect, it only flew at the height of 16 to 33 feet.
After being secretly transported, the KM first flew on October 16, 1966. It was piloted by Alexeyev himself together with V. Loginov. Testing showed that when cruising, it attained the speed of 430 km/h, or 232 knots. Faster than any surface ships. Its maximum speed was 650 km/h though there were reports that indicate that it could hit 740 km/hr. It was powered by ten turbojet engines.
The KM was unknown to the West, until 1967 when U.S. spy satellites showed the humongous aircraft taxiing during testing. The stubby wings and the large size puzzled intelligence agencies, and the CIA tagged the aircraft as “Kaspian Monster” due to its KM markings. Later, it would be known as the “Caspian Sea Monster.” Due to concerns brought by its discovery, drones were invented under the Project AQUILINE just to know more about the machine.
With the KM as the basis, another ground effect vehicle came out in 1975. The Lun-class (Lun is “Harrier” in Russian) came into service in 1975, and it was an attack and transport type ekranoplan. Unlike the KM, the Lun-class is powered by eight turbofan engines, smaller in length (242 feet) and with relatively larger wings (144 feet wingspan). It could cruise at 550 kilometers per hours.
But what really sets it apart is what it carries. On its back are six guided P-270 Moskit missiles, making it the first fully armed ekranoplan.
The Lun-class was not the only other ekranoplan model out there in the Soviet Union. The program continued with the support of Dmitriy Ustinove, the Minister of Defence. The result was the most successful model, the A-90 Orlyonok (“Eaglet), a medium-sized, high-speed military transport. Then there was the ambulance version of the Lun-class, the Spasatel. Originally an armed ekranoplan, it was repurposed into a high-speed search and rescue vehicle (but was never completed). Then there was the odd Bartini Beriev VVA-14, a VTOL type ekranoplan.
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A low flying aircraft-ship thingy sounds like a novel idea, but it offers many advantages. For one thing, an ekranoplan is faster than any sea-going vessel. Going back to the KM, this monster was clocked at a maximum speed of more than 700 km/hr. And since these sea-going vehicles are essentially flying over water, they don’t have drafts that sonars could pick up. Skimming over the surface also made them immune to mines and torpedoes.
Large and medium-sized ekranoplans were the ultimate transport vehicle. Their vast fuselage could accommodate larger payload, from men to vehicles, even weapons as in the case of the Lun-class.
These low flying beasts are also giant stealth planes. They don’t need awkward angles or special coatings to make themselves undetectable. Simply flying low enabled them to evade radar.
A fast, undetectable sea-going vessel with large carrying capacity means the Soviet military could quickly transport cargoes over long distances undetected. In an event of war, an ekranoplan could surprise the enemy by its rapid and inconspicuous movements before unloading an amphibious attack. Warships like aircraft carriers and land-based targets were also vulnerable to the quick Lun-class missile attacks.
Ekranoplans are a potent addition to military assets, but that doesn’t mean they are invincible.
You might be wondering why ekranoplans worked best at sea. Because the bodies of water provide an even surface for any ground effect vehicles to skim. Ekranoplans aren’t ideal for land operation as the ground could have lumps and bumps. And now that we talk about sea operations, ekranoplans could only “fly” during fair weather. This made them restricted to specific seasons, and yes, one must be careful when you use them in open seas. These monsters are also gas guzzlers. As it turns out, flying in the stratosphere takes less fuel than maintaining a low altitude. Because of fuel concerns, range are limited for the ekranoplans.
Flying these monsters are no joke either. The KM, the ekranoplan that alarmed the West was lost in an uneventful pilot error (thankfully, no one died there).
In combat, they are fast, but not fast enough to fight off warplanes. Their low altitude and poor maneuverability made them a good target for fighter jets.
Like some of the Soviet wondrous technologies like the space shuttle Buran, the ekranoplan program in the military came to a halt. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the remaining ekranoplans ended up in several locations. The Lun-class monster now sits in Kaspiysk. The Orlyonok can still be seen in a Russian Navy museum.
However, there are plans to resurrect the program, as other countries also explored the idea for civil transport. In fact, in Russia, non-military ekranoplans are under development.
1. Liang Yun; Alan Bliault; Johnny Doo (3 December 2009) "WIG Craft and Ekranoplan: Ground Effect Craft Technology". Springer Science & Business Media
2. Komissarov, Sergey (2002). "Russia's Ekranoplans:The Caspian Sea Monster and other WiG Craft". Hinkley: Midland Publishing
3. Komissarov, Sergey and Yefim Gordon (2010)."Soviet and Russian Ekranoplans. Hersham, UK: Ian Allan Publishing".
Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on April 10, 2020:
Well suny, that's probably their battle doctrine. Bigger is better, but that proved to be their undoing also.
Suny Ag from Australia/India on April 09, 2020:
I have visited Russia back in 80s. The only drawback I found in their work was that they make bigger than necessary and too heavy. Probably they used pig-iron in place of iron/steel.