“Ekranoplan,” said Gareth. “A ground effect vehicle. He’s mad.” … The ekranoplans reminded Milgrim of the Spruce Goose, which he’d toured in Long Beach as a high school student, but with its wings largely amputated. Weird Soviet hybrids, the ekranoplans; they flew, at tremendous speeds, about fifteen feet above the water, incapable of greater altitude. They had been designed to haul a hundred tons of troops or cargo, very quickly, over the Black or Baltic Sea. This one, an A-90 Orlyonok, had, like all the others, been built in the Volga Shipyard, at Nizhni Novgorod.
-Zero History, William Gibson
Indeed, behind the curtain of the USSR, the Soviet Navy planned a fleet of boat-plane hybrids, among the biggest and fastest transport vehicles in history, designed for carrying massive cargo of missiles, troops and vehicles for invasion by sea. As Hubertus Bigend makes his final ascent to “Bond villain” status in Zero History, he and his entourage take to the seas on one of the all but defunct ekranoplans. The vehicle seems far too strange, and massive, to have actually existed without breaking through to the rest of the world. But it did, and it was just as massive as Milgrim notes, with one model rivaling the largest aircraft in history.
But to be clear, it’s not an aircraft, not exactly. An ekranoplan is a ground effect vehicle, sort of a cross between a plane and a boat, but not quite a hovercraft either. It uses forward thrust and short, low wings to elevate the vehicle just a small distance above the surface of the water. There were a few different classes, which could achieve varying altitudes and speeds, but they were generally powered by one huge engine mounted atop of the vehicle and a set of jet engines toward the nose. All engines would fire, and the wings, being lower to the surface, were able to create enough lift to achieve “ground effect,” a dynamic in the air between the wing and the surface, reducing drag and achieving tremendous speeds along the water.
During the Cold War, starting in the late 1960s, Soviet engineers developed the ekranoplans to transport tons of cargo, troops and weapons across the sea, primarily for beach invasions. When American reconnaissance satellites spotted one of the first odd behemoths, it was dubbed the Caspian Sea Monster.
The benefits are clear, by riding on a cushion of air across the water, it can travel twice as fast as a boat, transport twice as much as a plane, and use half as much fuel. At ground effect, the nose engines are able to completely shut down. Since it’s out of the water, it’s safe from torpedoes and mines. So basically, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the perfect option for bringing Big War to neighboring European countries. So why don’t ekranoplans patrol the coasts of Soviet France today? Well, various geopolitical reasons that I don’t really understand enough to explain here, but short version, the Cold War ended. But also, the thing couldn’t turn very well. If it banked too sharply, one of the wings would cut into the water, causing it to spin out and crash. It also couldn’t maneuver to avoid obstacles and was vulnerable to attacks from the air. Good for a fast, big surprise but not a whole lot else. And commercially, it was a regulatory nightmare with narrow demand and huge overhead.
Still the Soviets developed and deployed Ekranoplans in limited numbers, mostly designed by famed (and somewhat disgraced) engineer Rostislav Alexeyev. An early model was the KM, the largest ekranoplan ever built, which first flew in 1966 and was Alexeyev’s first successful GEV. But in 1980, the KM crashed; the engineer was removed from his post and soon after died. After the KM came the vehicle class that Bigend and Blue Ant commissioned—the Orlyonok, or Eaglet. The Orlyonok was a medium-sized vehicle, actually capable of achieving low flight, as well as having wheels that made it amphibious. The Eaglet was much smaller than the KM, but still nearly 200 feet long, with a crew of six and capacity for 150 passengers. With one giant propeller and two turbofan engines, it could reach 285 mph. This was the most successful ekranoplan, with five units built and active until 1993.
Then there was the Lun Class. Completed in 1987, it was larger than the A-90, with capacity for six cruise missiles and a top speed of 340 mph. Only one was completed before military funding ran out, and then came the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Lun is a strange beast, with all the mad hubris and broken utilitarianism you’d associate with the USSR. A fevered vision of space-age technology in service of the motherland—a big idea bigger payload, it just never quite got off the ground.
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