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  • the description. In the 1960s the leader of the Soviet Union bragged about having

  • ships that could jump over bridges. His cryptic words confused Western leaders.

  • What he was talking about was a machine unlike anything the world had ever seen.

  • A ship that could move as fast as an aircraft by lifting right out of the

  • water. And for decades the Soviets developed a unique technology under a

  • shroud of secrecy. But these giant, otherworldly machines all but

  • disappeared along with the Soviet Union.

  • In the 1950s, the fastest boats in the world were hydrofoils. A type of boat

  • with wings attached to its hull. And they were an ingenious innovation. Because at

  • speed, the wings would lift the boat out of the water to reduce drag. Allowing for

  • much higher speeds. But even the fastest hydrofoils could reach no more than

  • 110 km/h. Held back by a phenomenon known as cavitation,

  • which disturbed the lift generated by a hydrofoil's wings. It was a problem that

  • engineers would never solve. But a pioneering Soviet hydrofoil designer by

  • the name of Rostislav Alexeyev had a radical idea. What if he moved the wings

  • out of the water entirely? Doing so would mean a shift from hydrodynamics to

  • aerodynamics. But it would allow for previously unimaginable speeds. Once

  • Alexeyev's ships were moving fast enough, they would lift right out of the water.

  • But they wouldn't fly like aircraft. Instead, they'd ride on a cushion of air

  • just above the surface. Pilots had long noticed when landing or flying very

  • close to the ground, their planes would seem to gain extra lift. Almost as if

  • they didn't want to land. This phenomenon was the ground effect. And Alexeyev would

  • use it to revolutionize ships. To prove his idea

  • Alexeyev built scale models and small prototypes. But he'd need access to a lot

  • more resources to fully develop the concept. And the only way that was going

  • to happen in 1960s Soviet Union, was if he could demonstrate the military

  • potential of his idea.

  • Alexeyev ships were called Ekranoplan. And they could fly at aircraft-like

  • speeds, low to the surface where they'd be virtually invisible to radar.

  • Being completely out of the water, they'd also be invisible to sonar. And pass

  • right over sea mines. With her small draft, Ekranoplans could access

  • shallow coastlines and beaches inaccessible to conventional ships. And

  • they promised to be relatively cheap and simple to build. Mixing aircraft and

  • shipbuilding construction. Alexeyev got the attention of top military brass

  • and even Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Easily swayed by big, bold

  • projects, Khrushchev immediately saw potential in

  • a technology that the Americans didn't have. So the floodgates of military

  • funding blew open. And Alexeyev and his team went to work scaling up the idea.

  • Over a period of just five years, they went from small prototypes weighing no

  • more than a few tons, to this. A 265 ton monster they called the KM.

  • It was a machine that looked straight out of another dimension. The KM could

  • travel at over 500 kilometers an hour and lift 600 tonnes. When it was

  • completed in 1966, it was by far the largest flying machine, and had an

  • impressive lift-to-drag ratio unmatched by any aircraft. To get this enormous

  • machine into ground effect, eight forward mounted jet engines directed thrust

  • underneath the wings, creating a temporary hovercraft .Once in ground

  • effect, the forward jet engines were shut off, and only two engines were enough to

  • keep 600 tons of machine moving at aircraft-like speeds. A giant tail, five

  • stories high, was used to counter the inherent instability of flying within

  • the ground effect and to provide control at higher speeds.

  • First tested in 1966, the KM proved that Ekranoplans

  • could be scaled way up. But it also revealed some serious flaws.

  • Far from robust, the KM demanded careful maintenance. It's ten jet engines were at

  • constant risk of damage from saltwater and foreign objects.

  • It was also notoriously difficult to operate. Flying safely within the ground

  • effect was an exhausting experience for pilots. And the KM needed enormous

  • distances to turn. Which meant that spotters up ahead had to give advanced

  • warning about other ships and obstacles. Another challenge was the weather.

  • Supposedly that KM could operate in waves of up to a meter and a half. Not

  • bad. But you'll never find a photo or video of it in anything but calm water.

  • And getting this enormous machine moving in high seas? Next to impossible.

  • So the KM could only operate when conditions were calm and on smaller

  • inland seas like the Caspian. Travelling on the open ocean was out of the question.

  • These were the kind of challenges facing

  • an engineering team developing an entirely new kind of vehicle, from the

  • ground up. With further development maybe Alexeyev and his engineers could

  • have resolved many, if not all of the KM's issues. But it was already too late.

  • By the time the KM made its first flight, the Soviet Union had a new leader. And

  • the entire mood had shifted. Brezhnev was neither patient nor a risk-taker. He saw

  • Ekranoplan development as an unnecessary gamble. Instead preferring

  • more conventional military projects. And it was bad news for Alexeyev. In 1968, he

  • was demoted from director of the Hydrofoil Bureau, to merely head of a

  • dwindling Ekranoplan program. With many technical hurdles and fewer resources,

  • Alexeyev and his engineers shifted their focus from the KM to developing a

  • smaller, more practical Ekranoplan. One that could transport about 150

  • troops, roll onto beaches, and even fly out of the ground effect. But these

  • added capabilities came with compromises. Like reduced lifting capacity largely in

  • line with a similarly sized seaplane. But with many in Soviet leadership skeptical

  • about Ekranoplans, only three entered service with the Soviet

  • Navy. Alexeyevs Ekranoplans were fast, but they couldn't outrun the Soviet

  • Union's economic failures. With dwindling resources

  • Alexeyev butted heads with Soviet leadership. And in 1975, his impatience

  • with Soviet bureaucracy finally caught up to him, He was demoted again. This time

  • down to the position of an ordinary employee. It was the beginning of the end,

  • but not before a final a Ekranoplan was developed for the 1980s. Not quite as

  • large as the KM, it carried six anti-ship cruise missiles and could strike targets

  • over 100 kilometers away. But only a single example was ever built. And Alexeyev

  • would never see it fly. In 1980, he passed away at the age of just 63, having never

  • fully realized his vision. Funding for Ekranoplan development wound down by

  • the mid-1980s. And after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the few Ekranoplans

  • built were quickly pulled from service, putting an end to nearly 40 years of

  • development. But a belief in the potential of Ekranoplans lives on

  • within the former Soviet Union and elsewhere in the world, with continued

  • development focused on smaller ground effect vehicles. And that leaves an

  • intriguing question still unanswered. With the KM, Alexeyev and his team

  • demonstrated that the more massive an Ekranoplan got, the better it flew.

  • Becoming more stable, flying higher, and operating with greater efficiency. Could

  • a machine much larger than even the KM be the key to unlocking the technology's

  • potential? A machine that would fly 10 or 20 meters above waves could transverse

  • oceans. And potentially carry passengers and cargo far more efficiently than any

  • aircraft. But thus far, efforts to build such a machine have failed to attract

  • the immense resources needed for development. And that means at least for

  • the time being, giant Ekranoplan will remain a relic of the Cold War.

  • I have a fascination with all things Soviet.

  • Not so much this.

  • But this.

  • Which is why I just finished watching The Spying Game. A fantastic three-part

  • series that chronicles the extraordinary lengths that the Soviet Union and the

  • West went to learn each other's Cold War secrets. And it's just one of thousands

  • of full-length documentaries you can enjoy now on CuriosityStream. At just

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  • Productions recent 45 minute special on St. Helena Airport. A fascinating look at

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What Happened To Giant Ekranoplans?

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    joey joey posted on 2021/05/31
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