When Ships Have Wings

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

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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.

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.

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