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 3 of 6)
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.