Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Caspian Sea Monster

If you think the A380 is big and impressive read on. Try and imagine a flying machine powered by 10 jet engines (yes 10 jet engines) bigger than the A380, bigger than the Antonovs, bigger than every aircraft listed on my previous post flying at close to 350 mph just a few feet above water. Something out of a Flash Gordon comic book or an episode of the Thunderbirds perhaps?

This post is about one of the most awesome flying machines ever built and sadly one of the least known.

During the Cold War military analysts at the Pentagon were routinely tasked with studying various reconnaisance photographs taken over the Soviet Union by American spy satellites and Francis Gary Powers and his mates. One such set of photographs taken over the Caspian Sea stunned the Pentagon analysts. The photographs showed a giant high speed unidentified object over the Caspian Sea. The analysts were unable to immediately identify the UFO or call on the services of Mulder & Scully (little Mulder would probably have been searching for the truth in his school's playground and little Scully would probably have been conducting autopsies on Barbie dolls at the time).

The Americans aptly nicknamed the object The Caspian Sea Monster. In later years further details about this extraordinary machine began to emerge.

Designed and built in the 1960s under a veil of secrecy by the Alexeiev Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau in the Soviet Union the KM Ekranoplan was a flying machine like no other. Weighing in at 540 tons, 300 ft from nose to tail and powered by 10 turbo jets it was capable of flying at close to 350 mph just a few feet above the surface of the sea. Its unique design enabled it to fly low enough to avoid conventional radar detection and high enough to avoid submarine sonar detection making it ideal for the Soviet Navy.

The Ekranoplan made use of an aerodynamic principle known as Ground Effect. When an aircraft flies close to the ground the efficiency of the wing or the lift generated is greatly enhanced. This is due partly due to the creation of a cushion of air between the wing and the ground and also a reduction in the wing tip vortices which in turn reduces induced drag. A vehicle purely designed to fly in the ground effect regime is called a GEV or a WIG (wing in ground effect). The Ekranoplans in spite of their massive weight were able to fly in this regime due to the reduced lift requirements. Not quite a ship, not quite a hovercraft and not quite an aircraft either. Now you know why I did not mention this in my previous post :)

Several variants of this unique machine were developed including the fully armed LM Ekrnaoplan which was equipped with anti ship missile launchers. As the Cold War drew to an end and the funds dried up the project gradually wound down.


KM Ekranoplan (www.se-technology.com/wig)


KM Ekranoplan (www.se-technology.com/wig)


LUN Ekranoplan (www.se-technology.com/wig)

However WIG aircraft might be about to make a dramatic comeback. Few years ago Boeing announced that it was looking at building what would become the largest flying machine in the history of aviation. The Boeing "Pelican" transporter would utilise the ground effect principle flying at just 20 ft above the ocean and have a wingspan close to 500 ft. It would have a fuselage longer than a football pitch and be capable of carrying close to 1400 tonnes. According to Boeing the competitor in this case would not be Airbus but container ships. The far greater speed advantage coupled with a sensible load carrying capacity, range and fuel economy which is significantly higher in the GEV regime just might make this an attractive proposition to freight transport companies.

Certainly an interesting concept but whether it will become a reality in today's world remains to be seen.

Shreyan: The ugly cargo planes with funny noses you mentioned are probably the Super Guppy and the Airbus Super Transporter also known as the Beluga. I will write a short post on those two soon.

40 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi -

Nice post, yet again! Good topic. Sukhoi's done some work on WIG too, with the S-90 prototype - program started in the late eighties, but I'm guessing funding dried up after the Soviet break-up. They've done a lot of concept work on it, though, of late.

I've actually seen photographs of an Ekranoplan with an entire battery of great ugly missile launchers all along its spine. I wonder if you've seen these Russian warships - destroyers, and the like? You've probably noticed the missile pods stacked lengthways along either side (port and starboard) of the ship - each pod contains two cylindrical launchers, usually with the covers still on, and they'll each contain an SS-N-something-or-other inside them; they're primary armament for a good many Russian *warships*. These are the same missile pods I saw on the backs of those Ekranoplans - about six-eight launchers, same as most destroyers!

Brilliant concept, and it would really be interesting to speculate if they'll ever replace destroyers and cruisers and the like as fast-attack surface warfare platforms. They'd certainly be much, much faster. Speed, not cost, is the primary factor here (unlike in civilian transport), and Ekranoplans would fit the bill. The weapons load seems to be all right, here! And I don't think Ekranoplans would show up on passive sonar, which would keep them safe from submarines - the destroyer's great nemesis!

Rahul

PS I remember reading somewhere that Ekranoplans had severe problems with salt-water corrosion in the turboprops. Any ways that you know around that?

9:43 AM  
Blogger The Unknown Aviator said...

Thanks for your comments Rahul.

I believe the armed variant you mentioned is the LUN Ekranoplan (I mistakenly said LM instead of LUN on my post) equipped with 6 Soviet 3M80 Moskit Supersonic Anti Ship missles (NATO designation SS-N-22 Sunburn).

Some interesting pictures can be found at http://www.airbornegrafix.com/HistoricAircraft/Ekranoplans/ekrano1.htm

I am sure the Ekranoplans would have had severe salt water corrosion problems however it is very difficult to find much information on those planes.

I think considerable experience has been gained in the operation of marine vehicles (ships, sea planes, subs, hover crafts etc) since the days of the Ekranoplan and technology has moved on in this area. For any future WIG aircraft the key will lie in the selection of the right type of corrosion resistant alloys, protective coatings, strict maintenance schedules etc so i doubt it will be a show stopping issue in the future should anyone decide to build another one of these incredible machines.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dhonai,

So you are alive! Nice post abt the monster, the next thing ull be telling us that the Lochness monster is Irelands attempts at WIG. By the way who is Rahul? Another thing does the name Rick Hunter ring any bells? Mail me.
-Buds

2:41 AM  
Blogger The Unknown Aviator said...

B what did I tell you about using that silly name on my blog?? R I know what you are thinking but dont you dare!!

Thanks for the comments. However Lochness is in Scotland not Ireland. Rahul is Shankar's colleague. Rick Hunter sounds vaguely familiar dont know why. Real life character or fictional? sounds like an old Willard Price character.

12:17 PM  
Blogger jhgasuhvkjahklnsdlksnlknmlwvlckn said...

I've always been fascinated by the Ekranoplans...awesome beasts. Nice post!

Ther germans were also up to some ekranoplans some time back and they were pretty successful with them. I just googled and here's what I get:

http://www.vbd.uni-duisburg.de/projekte/projekte/hoverwing/hoverwing_eng.htm

Cheers!

4:55 AM  
Blogger jhgasuhvkjahklnsdlksnlknmlwvlckn said...

And btw the KM was designed for carrying 700 troops IIRC. 700 troops being something rather different from 700 passengers, given that they carry military and life support equipment for each and generally aboard.

I suppose the ekranoplan and the hydrofoil are copiously different from the other "seafaring" airplanes (for lack of a better term) and could be called sea-boats...what say?

4:58 AM  
Blogger The Unknown Aviator said...

Rajesh thank for your comments on both posts. I had a look at that German site and their hoverwing looks like it could be an early version of those Star Wars desert racers! :) interesting stuff.

just thinking about it but perhaps there could be a WIG Grand Prix out on the salt beds somewhere! :)

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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The forementioned Boeing 'Pelican'. Its body is almost square. It is powered by four 8-bladed props. After looking at the designs, I'm guessing they'd be at least 25 feet in diameter.

Does anbody know what happened to the remaining Orlenok planes? Three of them are still sitting at an airfield in Russia, apparently.

Thanks,
Ryan Thompson

10:28 AM  
Blogger The Unknown Aviator said...

Thank you for your comments Ryan. Check out http://www.se-technology.com/wig/index.php for some more info on the various models that were built and where some of them are currently located.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I checked out fuzzy picture of the Ekranoplan, and searched it and found your site. Really good info., it's amazing how impressed we are now with gigant "flying" machines when in reality such behemoths are old news. impressive.

2:25 PM  
Blogger James_Elsener's_Thoughts said...

Hi,

Great blog you got.

My son was held captive for hours browsing through your blog.

We had to do some research for a school paper of his. The Caspian Sea Monster was part of it.

I took the liberty to link my piece on my blog http://from-james.blogspot.com/ to your blog.

James from Switzerland

11:41 AM  
Blogger The Unknown Aviator said...

Thank you all for your comments. This post appears to have attracted the most number of hits to my blog :) Good to know that there is still much interest in these amazing machines.
I will try and write a follow up soon.

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