When Ships Have Wings

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

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(Continued from page 4)

"The materials exist to hold a 5,000-ton skeleton together," Igor Vasilievsky noted circumspectly. "But it's hard to imagine the engines you would need to power it." Dimitri Sinitsyn added, "A thousand tons is realistic. Five thousand tons is not so realistic."

Given these reactions at the fountainhead, it is not surprising that ARPA itself ended up lukewarm. "This technology is too early in its infancy to throw cold water on it," Francis concludes. "There is certainly value in the craft's ability to sit in the water when it needs to. But whether it can ever justify itself on a range-payload basis, I don't know."

In hungry Russia, meanwhile, the high-powered, big-talking American delegation raised hopes that turned to resentment--and worse. "Three years ago we were oriented toward the U.S.," Sinitsyn says. "But then nothing happened." Although Sinitsyn never met the ARPA delegation, he felt the brunt of a limited national security reaction that followed their visit. In the summer of 1994, T&T's offices were ransacked by Russia's Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, successor to the Soviet KGB, and Sinitsyn and others were threatened with prosecution. Fortunately, nothing has come of that either.

We are used to thinking of technology as an objective force, which, if truly useful, will chance upon a mind suited to develop it further. Building the ekranoplan is a bit different. High cost and tight secrecy made the technology of the wingship more like that of a pre-modern craft, something that must be lovingly passed down through generations of masters. Because of the blank years from 1975 to 1990, the younger generation is mostly absent. The heirs of Alekseev fear that if the world does not soon decide to save the ekranoplan, the idea will be lost and the flame doused. If that happens, Dimitri Sinitsyn concludes with classic Russian grandeur, "We will not have performed our duty to mankind."

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