When Ships Have Wings

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

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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."

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."

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