Two years ago, Russian authorities pulled a “sea monster” from a remote military pier on the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water. But the 302-foot Lun-class ekranoplan was no legendary Nessie swimming the depths of Loch Ness. It was a hybrid boat-aircraft built during the Cold War, weighing 380 tons, with a 148-foot wingspan and 340-mph top speed.
The military aircraft, designed to attack NATO nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, first entered service in 1987. It was decommissioned when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. The Lun-class craft spent three decades hidden away at a naval base on the Caspian Sea before being transported to a beach for eventual placement in a local maritime museum.
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This was not the first of the gigantic ekranoplans devised by the Soviets. KM was developed in the 1960s and went into service in 1966. The largest aircraft at the time, the 340-footer had a reported top speed of 311 mph. Some sources said it was closer 460 mph. Because it flew so low, it could not be detected by radar. Despite its speed and stealth powers, it was never used as a weapon of war. KM crashed in 1980 because of an inexperienced pilot at the throttles. It remains at the bottom of the Caspian Sea.
While the two failed ekranoplans sealed the fate of the giant Caspian Sea Monsters, the Russians recently announced a smaller 12-person version—nicknamed the “Little Sea Monster”—for civilian use. Other militaries and private companies in the US, Russia, China and Singapore, are also experimenting with the ground-effect design.
Positioned somewhere between a boat and aircraft, the ekranoplan does not fly like a conventional aircraft. It is a ground-effect vehicle that travels between 6 and 20 feet off the water. Ground effect is a phenomenon in which an aircraft’s lift increases and its drag decreases as the wings come in close contact with the ground. The air and pressure distortions can be a bane to airplane pilots, who sometimes feel their planes gliding along farther than intended during landing.
But the Soviets figured out a way to harness this natural cushion of air to create something practical, or so they thought. As tactical equipment, at least on paper, the giant ekranoplans are brilliant. They can take off vertically like a helicopter, hold as many troops as a ship, and fly as fast as an airplane. But the Sea Monsters never really achieved the objective of being fast, undetectable craft that could sink NATO warships. Rough weather and big seas prevented safe flights.
The market for ekranoplans is being revived—sort of. Last year, Russia announced it was selling six smaller ekranoplans to Iran for unspecified purposes, while a second Russian manufacturer recently said it had designed a 12-person ground-effect craft for civilian use.
Could there be a jump into the luxury market? That’s certainly what Singapore’s Wigetworks is planning with its Airfish 8. The craft is designed to carry 8 passengers while soaring above water at 120 mph.
Regent also sees potential in the ekranoplan market, but in a much smaller envelope than the hulking Soviet warship. The US firm recently launched an unmanned, quarter-scale version of its Seaglider, the world’s first electric ekranoplan, that it is touting as a new means of coastal transportation.
Eventually, Regent plans to launch the 12-person Viceroy, with a 180-nautical mile range and top speed of 170 mph. The company says it plans to begin testing the full-scale craft later this year.
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