Kevin Koenig from Robb Report – Reports
The hulking 380-ton Soviet aircraft, neglected for decades, signals the end of an era. But the next generation of ekranoplans could be used for luxury civilian transport.
Two years ago, Russian authorities pulled a “sea monster” from a remote military pier on the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water. But this was no legendary Nessie swimming the depths of Loch Ness, but a 302-foot Lun-class ekranoplan. This hybrid boat-aircraft, built during the Cold War, weighed 380 tons, with a 148-foot wingspan and 340-mph top speed.
The military aircraft, designed to attack NATO nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, entered service in 1987 and was decommissioned when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. Since then, the Lun-class craft has spent three decades hidden away at a naval base on the Caspian Sea before being transported to a beach for eventual placement in a local maritime museum.
This was not the first of the gigantic ekranoplans devised by the Soviets. KM was developed in the 1960s and went into service in 1966. The largest aircraft at the time, the 340-footer had a reported top speed of 311 mph; some said it was closer 460 mph. Because it flew so low, it could not be detected by radar. Despite its speed and stealth powers, it was never used as a weapon of war. KM crashed in 1980 because of an inexperienced pilot at the throttles. It remains at the bottom of the Caspian Sea.
While the two failed ekranoplans sealed the fate of the giant Caspian Sea Monsters, the Russians recently announced a smaller 12-person version—nicknamed the “Little Sea Monster”—for civilian use. Other militaries and private companies in the US, Russia, China and Singapore are also experimenting with the ground-effect design.
The only model of the Soviet-made Lun-class ekranoplan is pictured on the shore of the Caspian sea near Derbent, in the Republic of Dagestan, Russia. This is the only rocket ekranoplane in the world, and it is planned to be the main exhibit of the branch of the Patriot Park in the southern military district. The ekranoplan was designed to fight aircraft carriers-unnoticed by radar, it could approach the ship at a distance of precise launch of the anti-ship missile “Mosquito”.
Positioned somewhere between a boat and aircraft, the ekranoplan does not fly like a conventional aircraft. It is a ground-effect vehicle that travels between six and 20 feet off the water. Ground effect is a phenomenon in which an aircraft’s lift increases and its drag decreases as the wings come in close contact with the ground. The air and pressure distortions can be a bane to airplane pilots, who sometimes feel their planes gliding along farther than intended during landing.
But the Soviets figured out a way to harness this natural cushion of air to create something practical, or so they thought. As tactical equipment, at least on paper, the giant ekranoplans are brilliant. They can take off vertically like a helicopter, hold as many troops as a ship, and fly as fast as an aeroplane. But the Sea Monsters never really achieved the objective of being fast, undetectable craft that could sink NATO warships. Rough weather and big seas prevented safe flights.
The market for ekranoplans is being revived—sort of. Last year, Russia announced it was selling six smaller ekranoplans to Iran for unspecified purposes, while a second Russian manufacturer recently said it had designed a 12-person ground-effect craft for civilian use.
Could there be a jump into the luxury market? That’s certainly what Singapore’s Wigetworks is planning with its Airfish 8. The craft is designed to carry eight passengers while soaring above water at 120 mph.
Regent also sees potential in the ekranoplan market, but in a much smaller envelope than the hulking Soviet warship. The US firm recently launched an unmanned, quarter-scale version of its Seaglider, the world’s first electric ekranoplan, which it is touting as a new means of coastal transportation.
Eventually, Regent plans to launch the 12-person Viceroy, with a 180-nautical mile range and top speed of 170 mph. The company says it plans to begin testing the full-scale craft later this year.
Image: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images