Ekranoplan was a seaplane designed by Rostislav Evgenievich Alexeev and used by the Soviet and Russian navies from 1987 to sometime in the late 1990s. This ground effect aircraft used the extra lift generated by its large wings when close to the surface of the water (about four meters or less). Lun was one of the largest seaplanes ever built, with a length of 73 m (240 ft), rivaling the Hughes H-4 Hercules (“The Spruce Goose”) and many jumbo jets.
The only aircraft of this type ever built, the MD-160, entered service with the Black Sea Fleet in 1987. Eight Kuznetsov NK-87 turbofans were mounted on forward canards, and each produced 127.4 kN (28,600 lbf) thrust. She had a flying boat hull with a large deflecting plate at the bottom to provide a “step” for takeoff.
In the 1960s, American spy satellites photographed a peculiar object floating about in the Caspian Sea within the borders of the then Soviet Union. First, it was aeroplane-shaped– sort of. Second, it was gigantic– something on the order for 310 feet long and weighing up to 540 tons. Third, its wings were much too short to get it into the air. The Americans scratched their heads, dubbed the thing the “Caspian Sea Monster,” and puzzled over what the heck the Soviets were doing for the next twenty years.
What they were doing is testing what was then the world’s heaviest flying machine, but which was not an aeroplane: the KM Ekranoplan.
Though it looked something like a seaplane, it was what is known as a Ground Effect Vehicle, or Wing in Ground by those who wish to be contrary. A GEV exploits an interesting trait of winged aircraft; when one flies very close to the ground its lift increases remarkably. This is because an aircraft flying very low traps air between the wings and the ground and if the machine has wings with a very large surface area, it can lift incredible loads with very little effort.
The Soviets had in common with pulp sci-fi editors and popular science magazines a love of gigantism that the GEV’s lifting power fit right into and from the late ’50s to the early ’80s they strove to develop various versions of GEVs that could be used as monster troop transports or cruise missile launchers. They tooled about the Caspian, trying various wing designs, jet engines, and the like, but a disastrous crash in 1980 and general slow programme progress caused the Kremlin to turn its attention to the more urgent task of losing the Cold War.
Amazingly, the problem with the KM Ekranoplan was that it was too small. It may have been a monster, but the Ekranplan actually wasn’t big enough for the ground effect to really work. For that you need a machine that isn’t just monstrous, you need one that is downright humongous.
At least, that is the reasoning of the Boeing Company, which has been developing what it calls the Pelican. This is a turboprop-driven military transport with a 500 ft wingspan and is designed to carry 1300 tons of cargo over a distance of up to 10,000 nautical miles.
The aircraft was equipped for anti-surface warfare, and it carried the P-270 Moskit (Mosquito) guided missile. It was equipped with six missile launchers, mounted in pairs on the dorsal surface of its fuselage, and its advanced tracking systems mounted in its nose and tail.
Another version of Lun was planned for use as a mobile field hospital for rapid deployment to any ocean or coastal location. Work was about 90% complete on this model, the Spasatel, but its military funding ended, and it was never completed. The only MD-160 completed is now sitting unused at a naval station in the town of Kaspiysk.
In 2007 the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation decided to resume its production after a detailed examination of this ekranoplan. This is planned to happen in 2012. Until then upgrades will be made. At present, relevant government order has been received by Alexeyev Design Bureau.
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