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 4 of 6)
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."