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When Ships Have Wings

The bigger they are, the better they fly. And they're made in Russia.

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The heirs of Alekseev are keeping the flame alive in Nizhny Novgorod. It's been 30 years, yet they can still recall the thrill of seeing the master skid up to the testing center at nightfall on the big lake at Chkalovsk, driving 80 mph as he always did, his trunk full of the day's papier-mache models. Then the disciples would shoot them off the catapults all night to see if they'd skim, wobble, or crash.

At eight the next morning Rostislav Yevgenievich would be back demanding results. To this day, people in Russian aviation above a certain age don't need to hear the surname Alekseev. You say Rostislav Yevgenievich--full name and patronymic denoting maximum respect--and they know whom you mean. Instinctively, they offer a moment of silence.

From those thousands of models came a flying machine like no one has ever seen before or since: a gigantically audacious cross between ship and airplane, with fat stubs of wings that couldn't lift it 50 feet, a tail five stories high, and eight ungainly engines behind the cockpit. It is a colossus only the Soviet military could have loved, much less financed. U.S. intelligence officers who spotted the object in surveillance photos nicknamed it the Caspian Sea Monster. Much later this name got back to Russia and stuck.

Yet Alekseev's monster flew. It lifted 540 tons, or 150 tons more than a Boeing 747 can, and three years earlier. It cruised at 310 mph--half a jet's speed. But it also floated, landing and taking off from the sea, and held a steady altitude 10 feet above the surface.

Thirty years later, the question is: Why? Why build it? And having built it, why abandon it? The Soviet Union carried out all sorts of technically dazzling projects that were useless at best--turning around rivers, running railroads thousands of miles across the taiga. For many years the Soviet military itself seemed inclined to lump Alekseev's work in with others in this category. And a recent report from the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) concluded that these giant craft offered no immediate boon to America's arsenal either.

Yet the heirs of Alekseev--grouped around a surplus conference table in a design space they have sublet from a bankrupt factory--continue to preach the faith all the same. Devotees of Monster technology are quietly at work in Germany and Japan. In Nizhny Novgorod itself--a graceful ancient city on the high banks of the Volga River--a modest pile of East Asian money is backing heir-in-chief Dimitri Sinitsyn as he struggles to show the world what to him is as plain as morning: "This is the transport of the 21st century," he says.

From the early days of flight, aviators noticed that as they neared the ground on landing, the ground had a tendency to push back. The airplane's passage appeared to create a pillow of compressed air that buoyed the craft even as it descended. The phenomenon, dubbed "ground effect," was studied as a complicating factor in takeoff and landing. It took a shipbuilder to see this pillow as something more than an aerodynamic nuisance.

Born in 1916, Rostislav Alekseev became the Soviet Union's preeminent designer of hydrofoils, the Russian for which translates as "ships on underwater wings." By 1954 his inventions had won him a Stalin Prize, the Soviets' domestic version of the Nobel, and his own design bureau outside of Nizhny Novgorod (then called Gorky). The Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau (CHDB) remains one of Russia's most reliable industrial hard currency earners, with 70 of its boats working as ferries in the Mediterranean alone.

By 1960 Alekseev had pushed hydrofoils to their speed limit of about 60 mph, but he wanted to go faster. "You might say the driving force in his life was a desire for speed and risk in general," recalls Vladimir Pleshivtzev, a former Alekseev lieutenant. "You saw it in the way he drove, in his fanaticism about downhill skiing. He became an excellent pilot too, and insisted on testing all the designs himself."

To Alekseev, the way to go faster seemed plain enough: Get the ship out of the water. However, his flying ship would remain aloft by a principle rather different from that which lifts airplanes. Instead of striving for lightness, it would make use of its enormous mass to create an air cushion as firm as a great set of bedsprings. He would call his invention a surface plane, or ekranoplan.

Alekseev transformed his theory into reality in a remarkably short time. The ekranoplan program luckily coincided with the "Khrushchev thaw," during which Soviet Russia momentarily allowed the energy of youth and freedom a day in the sun. Nikita Khrushchev, a lover of risk if there ever was one, spotted a kindred spirit in Alekseev, and he personally gave CHDB's funding requests a green light. The Caspian Sea Monster was flying by 1966, two years after Khrushchev was deposed by Leonid Brezhnev.

Of the many technical dilemmas faced by the ekranoplan's designers, the most important is simply stated by Igor Vasilievsky, CHDB's current boss. "It's the wing," he noted during an interview in the design bureau's small museum (the bureau itself is still subject to state security). "If the wing is too fat, it won't fly. If it's too thin, it will break when you land."

The wing is also the part that produces the air pillow, so the more surface area the wing has, the better. The result is a set of stubby wings with a long chord (the distance from leading edge to trailing edge). They look wobbly but fly stably under conditions that would challenge an airplane.

Hard-core ekranoplan adherents claim the hybrid has another inborn, almost magical advantage over the airplane. The more massive an ekranoplan gets, they posit, the better it can hold itself aloft on its own air pillow, and the less (relatively) it has to rely on its engines. Stephan Hooker, who was converted to the ekranoplan while studying it for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, asserts that at 5,000 tons (about half the weight of a navy cruiser), an ekranoplan could fly with a lift-to-drag ratio (a measure of aerodynamic efficiency) of 30. The best airplanes today get 17 to 20.

To say the least, this theory remains unproven. The Soviets in fact steadily retreated from the Caspian Sea Monster's enormity as they cast about for some affordable application of Alekseev's breakthrough. The Monster's successor was dubbed "Lun," the Ring-Tailed Dove, a white bird that in Russian folklore symbolizes nature's purity. With lift capacity in the still-enormous 400-ton range, it was meant to be a flying destroyer, complete with heavy cannon and missiles.

After Lun came the much-reduced "Orlyonok," or Little Eagle. Maxing out at 140 tons, it was slated to be a troop transport and given an amphibious capability to crawl up onto a beach. With the veil of secrecy now largely lifted, it is clear that these machines had serious drawbacks. Their stability depended on an oversize tail, which, aside from its height, sported horizontal stabilizers with a span nearly as wide as the wings. Even with this heavy appendage, "stable" is a relative term. U.S. Air Force Colonel Mike Francis visited Russia as leader of an ARPA study group formed in 1993 and saw the sole surviving Orlyonok fly. He says the craft's tolerance for weight shifts forward and aft--its center-of-gravity range--is "terrible."

The ekranoplan also paid a price for its builders' knowing more about water than about air. "You kick the side of the thing and it's quarter-inch-thick ship aluminum," Francis observes. "Their view of structures and materials is still on a ship builder paradigm." Americans prefer to see more of the vehicles' weight as payload rather than structure.

The ekranoplan's mass did carry itself fairly well once it was airborne. CHDB's Vasilievsky claims the Lun achieved a lift-to-drag ratio of 17. But it needed enormous power to lift off. The eight forward engines on the Lun and the Monster had only one purpose: to blow enough air under the wings for takeoff. For cruising, two rear engines were sufficient.

But most damaging by far to the ekranoplan's development were Alekseev's mounting political problems. "I guess you could say he was an egotist in our collectivist society," ruefully recalls his daughter, Tatyana, an engineer who still works in CHDB's recently revived ekranoplan division. Alekseev had little patience with the hierarchy of Soviet science, which demanded that innovation flow from academic research institutes to design bureaus like CHDB and finally down to the factory floor. Still less could he be bothered with the bureaucratic pecking order. According to Tatyana's perhaps rosy account, her father also felt uncomfortable designing weapons, which put him at cross purposes with the ekranoplan's military paymasters.

In short, few men could be less suited to thrive under Brezhnev. In 1968, a mere two years after the Caspian Sea Monster's first flight, Alekseev was stripped of his CHDB directorship. The pretext may have been a crash that occurred during testing. Although the expensive machine was damaged beyond repair, the accident did demonstrate the ekranoplan's safety advantage over land-based airplanes: the crew was able to float peacefully until rescued. "It's very sad to say," recalls Aleksei Latyshenko, who left CHDB a few years ago to form the private design firm Trans-Al (the "Al" is from Alekseev), "but when the minister came and put all Alekseev's deputies around the table, they all said something bad about him."

Alekseev did remain in charge of a dwindling ekranoplan program until 1975. After that he became an ordinary employee. His daughter was forbidden to assist him, due to an obscure regulation against relatives working together. Yet Tatyana considers her father's last five years perhaps his most productive. He did indeed turn to peaceful ekranoplani, sketching a series of river-going vessels for anywhere from six to 250 passengers. Then he turned his attention to the "flying wing," a stealth-bomber-style ekranoplan that would be unhindered by a fuselage. With age, he increased his nightly sleep from four hours to five.

Rostislav Alekseev died in 1980 from a hemorrhage that occurred while he was dragging a new model onto a frozen lake for testing. He died penniless, in a three-room apartment inherited from his in-laws, which at times housed 11 people. Tatyana Alekseeva lives there now with her two sons, who play in a rock band called the Jolly Cannibals while they attend the shipbuilding institute.

A second front in the fight to develop the ekranoplan opened in the early 1970s under the aegis of a still more extravagant personality, Robert L. Bartini. Russia being a place where Communist materialism never quite drove out peasant superstition, many who knew Bartini quite seriously suspected he had come from outer space. The more credible story is that he was born a minor count in turn-of-the-century Northern Italy. He studied physics and Communism simultaneously in post-Hapsburg Vienna, and in the early 1920s foiled a plot by Italian Fascists to assassinate Lenin.

After a bit more derring-do in Berlin, Bartini moved to the Soviet Union and quickly made his mark as an aircraft designer, setting speed records and achieving breakthroughs in bomber design. In 1938 he was caught up in Stalin's mad purges of the military and spent the next 10 years in labor camps. While still a prisoner, he was brought to Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, to head a new design bureau staffed exclusively by fellow inmates. Finally freed after Khrushchev secured power in 1954, he stayed on to work on seaplanes at the Beriev Design Bureau, which specialized in large, water-based airplanes.

As Alekseev was the inveterate engineer, so Bartini was the born theoretician (though he never lost his Mediterranean impulsiveness, once diving from a battleship's mast to impress a woman). His craft having descended from the sky rather than risen from the sea, Bartini called his ground-effect vehicle ekranolet, from the Russian verb letat, to fly. Its central innovation was a wide, flat body in place of Alekseev's conventional tubular one. The body itself contributed to the surface effect, so in theory, the ekranolet could cruise at a much higher altitude relative to its mass.

"With a 35-ton plane, the VVA-14, we could feel the surface effect very strongly at eight to ten meters," explains Leonid Fortinov, a key Bartini assistant who is still deputy director at Beriev. "This means a plane the size of the Caspian Monster could fly at 50 to 100 meters, high enough to go over ships and most bridges."

Insufficient altitude was indeed the Alekseev ekranoplan's most obvious flaw. The Monster cruised at no more than 10 to 12 feet, not high enough to risk oceanic travel. The Orlyonok, with its smaller mass producing a smaller air pillow, could barely make six feet.

Bartini, as the Russians like to say, "worked out" the plans for ekranoleti of up to 2,500 tons gross weight. "Of course we could have built them," Fortinov loyally asserts. But life got in the way. Having sketched the physics of a revolutionary form of transport, Bartini was happy to let future generations fill in the details. Production of engines for a second generation was farmed out to an incompetent contractor. And the master himself, in the last years of his eventful life, had other things on his mind. The obsessions of his waning days were a theory of a six-dimensional universe that would facilitate time travel, and, a bit more modestly, the establishment of a world academy of transport. When he died in 1974, he left orders for his papers to be sealed for 300 years.

While Alekseev and Bartini respected each other personally, their bureaucratic masters ensured that their organizations achieved no synthesis. "We never heard of Bartini's work until 1975," says Igor Vasilievsky in Nizhny Novgorod. By then Bartini was dead and Alekseev had gotten his final demotion. It was too late.

The ekranoplan faithful spent the 1980s "sort of working underground," as Dimitri Sinitsyn puts it. A modest revival of the art began in 1988, when the Soviet nuclear submarine Komsomolets sank in the North Sea with all its crew. Government officials in Moscow speculated that an ekranoplan might have saved the sailors, and CHDB was commissioned to build a new Lun outfitted for ocean rescue. As described by Igor Vasilievsky, the new model will be a flying hospital ship, with room for 500 passengers. The rescue Lun will also be able to ascend to almost 10,000 feet, deemed the maximum altitude practical without a pressurized cabin. So an ekranoplan stationed in the Baltic could cover the Barents Sea too, easily traversing the slice of Finland that separates the two.

The Soviet Union's bankruptcy and disintegration have slowed CHDB's work to a snail's pace; Vasilievsky makes vague promises of a test flight sometime in 1995. But the new order also allowed scientific talent to break free from the Central Design Bureau monolith and search for support beyond Russia's borders.

The main CHDB "defector" firms are Sinitsyn's Technology and Transport (T&T) and Latyshenko's Trans-Al. While both men were close to Alekseev, Latyshenko has for the moment turned his back on the ekranoplan: "An ekranoplan has to be very big to realize its effectiveness," he says. "Whether to commit the resources is for politicians to decide. There is no commercial application yet."

To the T&T crowd, this kind of talk borders on treason. "Of the 100 people who work with Sinitsyn, at least half are fanatics," notes Kirill Rozhdestvensky, a physicist at St. Petersburg's Marine Technical University who was himself bitten by the ekranoplan bug while providing scientific backup for Alekseev. "I guess this was Rostislav Yevgenievich's greatest achievement--that he infected a large number of people with his ideas," Rozhdestvensky says.

T&T's "fanatical" position is that an ekranoplan can be produced profitably right now. The firm's strategy is to pick up where Alekseev left off, with small ekranoplanchiki (the Russian diminutive) for calm waters. They have found investors, Sinitsyn says, "in east Asia, where there is a lot of water."

In a garage adjoining T&T's offices, artists are doing work Alekseev would have applauded, patiently planing plywood and Styrofoam for the full-size mockup of the firm's six-seat cutter, supposedly set for a test flight on the Volga in 1995. Upstairs, rows of technicians draw circuits on big wooden drawing boards: There is no computer in sight. "Americans use so many computer models they lose the physical sense of what they're building," says Sinitsyn, raising a point most Russian scientists can expound upon at passionate length.

The cutter entirely rejects the heritage of Soviet gigantism. Its power source is a souped-up Subaru automobile engine, and anybody who can handle a motorboat can drive it. When you're finished flying, you can pop the wings off and throw the body on top of a car. Cruising speed a couple of feet above the surface is about 100 mph. The cost is estimated at between $200,000 and $250,000.

Aside from appealing to island-hopping executives, Sinitsyn hopes to grow a market among police and customs authorities in archipelago countries, such as Indonesia. He claims the cutter uses one-fourth the fuel a helicopter needs and is much quieter.

If the cutter flies in the market, T&T is ready with an Orlyonok-size follow-up. Through 20 years of persistent effort, Sinitsyn says, he has managed to enlarge the ekranoplan's wings and shrink its tail, giving it two and a half times the fuel efficiency of Alekseev's models while doubling its range to more than 2,400 miles . "The Lun, which the government is trying to sell, is a morally tired, 20-year-old plane," says Sinitsyn, taking a healthy bite from the back of his old comrades at CHDB. Vasilievsky returns the favor, calling Sinitsyn and company "theoretical types," whose departure "made some room for the younger generation."

The most obvious use of a nouveau Orlyonok would be as a ferry carrying about 250 passengers. But like all true lovers, Sinitsyn is forever finding new dimensions in the beloved. One of his favorite stories is of a chance meeting in Washington (where he testified on the ekranoplan before Congress in 1993) with dignitaries from the Mariana Islands. "They told me they couldn't go home without an ekranoplan to fly fresh sushi to Japan," he recalls. "There's a use I hadn't thought of before."

Ironically enough, humongous ekranoplani have gotten their most careful study of late in the United States, thanks in large part to the dogged devotion of Stephan Hooker, who managed to wedge into the 1992 defense appropriations bill a feasibility study for his dream, a 5,000-ton "wingship." When Mike Francis took the U.S. investigators (among them airplane designer Burt Rutan) to Nizhny Novgorod, the Russians for once found their own imaginations outmatched.

"The materials exist to hold a 5,000-ton skeleton together," Igor Vasilievsky noted circumspectly. "But it's hard to imagine the engines you would need to power it." Dimitri Sinitsyn added, "A thousand tons is realistic. Five thousand tons is not so realistic."

Given these reactions at the fountainhead, it is not surprising that ARPA itself ended up lukewarm. "This technology is too early in its infancy to throw cold water on it," Francis concludes. "There is certainly value in the craft's ability to sit in the water when it needs to. But whether it can ever justify itself on a range-payload basis, I don't know."

In hungry Russia, meanwhile, the high-powered, big-talking American delegation raised hopes that turned to resentment--and worse. "Three years ago we were oriented toward the U.S.," Sinitsyn says. "But then nothing happened." Although Sinitsyn never met the ARPA delegation, he felt the brunt of a limited national security reaction that followed their visit. In the summer of 1994, T&T's offices were ransacked by Russia's Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, successor to the Soviet KGB, and Sinitsyn and others were threatened with prosecution. Fortunately, nothing has come of that either.

We are used to thinking of technology as an objective force, which, if truly useful, will chance upon a mind suited to develop it further. Building the ekranoplan is a bit different. High cost and tight secrecy made the technology of the wingship more like that of a pre-modern craft, something that must be lovingly passed down through generations of masters. Because of the blank years from 1975 to 1990, the younger generation is mostly absent. The heirs of Alekseev fear that if the world does not soon decide to save the ekranoplan, the idea will be lost and the flame doused. If that happens, Dimitri Sinitsyn concludes with classic Russian grandeur, "We will not have performed our duty to mankind."

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