When Ships Have Wings

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

Air & Space Magazine

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.

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