When Ships Have Wings
The bigger they are, the better they fly. And they're made in Russia.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, January 1996
(Page 2 of 6)
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."