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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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(Continued from page 3)

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.

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