There is a saying: “If it’s ugly, it’s British; if it’s weird, it’s French; and if it’s ugly and weird, it’s Russian.” On October 18, 1966, the KM Ekranoplan, Russian for Wing-In-Ground effect vehicle ( WIG) flew for the first time. Larger than any other flying craft at the time, the Ekranoplan was nicknamed the Caspian Sea Monster.
Developed by Rostislav Evgenievich Alexeev and built at the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau, the KM or “korabl-maket” is the largest WIG ever to be built. Alexeev revolutionized the ship-building industry by inventing crafts that use ground effect. Ground effect is a generic term describing any aerodynamic effects occurring due to a vehicle’s body or appendages moving in close proximity to the ground. A wing traveling close to the ground is provided with extra lift by the “cushion” of air compressed under it thus enabling a combination of greater aircraft weight for less power and enhanced fuel economy.
The Caspian Sea Monster was a later development of early Ekranoplan designs, such as the SM-2P that was built in 1962.
The KM project was launched in 1963 and was to lead to the KM-08, one of the heaviest vehicles ever to be flown. Nearly 100 times heavier than the previous model, the SM-2P, the 550 ton leviathan was powered by 8 Dobryin VD-7 turbojets on the front of the fuselage, and two on the tail for extra thrust during take-off. During its extensive test career, it was continually modified. The wingspan was altered to between 32m and 40m, and the length varied from 92m to 106m. he KM crashed in 1980, apparently due to the pilot ill-advisedly attempting to take off without giving it full throttle. An attempt to recover the leviathan from the depths was thwarted by its vast weight.
Research and development led to the creation of the 125 ton A.90.125 Orlyonok (Eaglet). First flight of the Orlyonok was in autumn 1972 over the Volga river, but soon it was transported to the Caspian Sea for trials. The Orlyonok incorporated many features that had been tested separately in earlier designs: it was amphibious, it had a huge turboprop engine for cruise thrust at the top of the fin and two turbofans in the nose for air injection. Only five Orlyonoks have been built and only three served in the Russian Navy between 1979 and 1993.
The most recent large Ekranoplan from the former Soviet Union is the 400 ton Lun-Class which was built in 1987 as a missile launcher. It carried six missiles on top of the hull. The sole vessel of her class, MD-160 entered service with the Black Sea Fleet 1987. Eight JSC Motorostroitel NK-37 turbojets were mounted on forward-located canards, each delivering 127.4 kN (28,600 lbf) of thrust. MD-160 had a flying boat-like hull with a large deflecting plate at the bottom of the hull to provide a “step” for takeoff. A development of the Lun was planned for use as a mobile field hospital, one which could be rapidly deployed to any ocean or coastal location. Work was begun on this model, the Spasatel, but budget cutbacks mean that it has never been completed.
Here are some incredible videos with the Ekranoplans in action