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  • his episode of Real Engineering is brought to you by Brilliant, a problem solving website

  • that teaches you to think like an engineer.

  • At the height of the Cold War, with nuclear anxiety at a fever pitch, the United States

  • launched their first spy satellites, the Corona. Tasked with photographing deep inside the

  • Soviet Union. US Intelligence was focused on searching for signs of nuclear weapon development

  • and testing, but found a lot more than they bargained for. These early satellites were

  • launched with rolls of film with no-way of transmitting the data contained within them

  • to earth through electronic means, and thus the films had to recovered and developed here

  • on earth. Once the film was filled the satellite would eject a re-entry vehicle, containing

  • the precious undeveloped photos, back to earth where they were caught by a passing plane

  • as they drifted down.

  • On one such mission a strange object began to emerge from the Caspian Sea as the film

  • developed. A gigantic aircraft, nearly 100 metres long with short stubby wings, much

  • too short to fly like a conventional aircraft. US Intelligence had never seen anything like

  • it.

  • As they received more pictures, it was clear that the craft was moving at the same speed

  • as a traditional aircraft, while outsizing even the largest of modern day American military

  • planes like the Lockheed C-5M. It was even emblazoned with the flag of the Soviet Navy,

  • not the Soviet Air Force.

  • This discovery set alarm bells off within US intelligence. Had the Soviets developed

  • a breakthrough in propulsion which would give them the upper hand in naval combat?

  • Confused on what they were seeing the US dubbed the machine theCaspian Sea Monster”,

  • but the Soviets weren't developing a gigantic hydrofoil or seaplane. This giant aircraft

  • secretly being developed was actually an 'ekranoplan', a gigantic vessel capable of skimming across

  • the ocean's surface at high speeds.

  • In 1962, the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau assigned chief designer Rostislav Alexeyev

  • to begin working on a prototype plane. Alexeyv had cut his teeth developing hydrofoil planes,

  • like the Raketa. These craft could easily be defined as a boat. They used a hydrofoil,

  • essentially a wing designed to act in water, to lift the boats hull out of the water as

  • it gained speed, allowing it to reduce drag and increase top speeds, but the Soviets wanted

  • to take it a step further. The Ekranoplan would make use of something calledground

  • effectto fly at a very low altitude above the ocean's surface.

  • Ground effect occurs when a fixed winged aircraft flies at an altitude less than the length

  • of it's wingspan. As the large masses of air come into contact with the aircraft, the

  • profile of the wing deflects the air downwards, compressing the air between the wing and the

  • ground. This trapped air causes an area of higher than normal pressure underneath the

  • wing resulting in a boost to lift. This happens with all aircraft during take off and landing,

  • and is something all pilots have to learn to deal with. For example, some planes can

  • get off the ground when overloaded, but won't be able to climb past the altitude where ground

  • effect is in play. Ekranoplans are designed in such a way to maximise this effect, and

  • never leave the ground effect zone. Just as our plane can get off the ground when overloaded,

  • the Ekranoplan can be heavier without the need for extra power.

  • An aircraft with this ability would be a powerful tool in open-sea combat. It would fly under

  • enemy radar for much longer [1], due to radar shadow under the earth's curvature.

  • It would be capable of transporting tonnes of equipment and personnel quickly, while

  • avoiding enemy mines and torpedoes, or it could be fitted with weapons of its own to

  • quickly attack enemy ships before escaping. Imagine if a vehicle like this was available

  • for the D-Day landings, the largest amphibious assault in history. The allies would have

  • been able to transport tonnes of equipment and troops across the channel in a 15 minute

  • trip.

  • The appeal of the technology was enormous, and the first prototype named the 'KM'

  • was built and secretly transported to the Caspian Sea to begin testing[2].

  • This enormous vehicle instantly became the largest aircraft ever built with a wingspan

  • of 37.6 metres and a length of 92 metres. It weighed a massive 240 tonnes but it could

  • take-off with almost double that. Powered by eight Dobrynin VD-7 turbojets mounted at

  • the front and two on the tail which provided a total of 1,275 kilonewtons of thrust, about

  • 30% more than a Boeing 747.[3].

  • The first test flight of the KM took place on the 16th October 1966 with Chief Designer

  • Alexeyv on board. At the time, it was forbidden for Soviet aircraft designers to be on board

  • test vehicles like this, in case they were involved in an accident[4]. But Test Pilot

  • Vladimir Loginov lobbied for Alexeyev to be on board to allow him to experience and refine

  • his designs.

  • The first tests were successful, showing that the KM could fly with optimum fuel efficiency

  • at 430km/h and with a maximum operational speed of 500km/h. During some high speed tests,

  • it's claimed that it achieved a speed of 650 km/h. [13]

  • The KM was a valuable proof of concept and laid the groundwork for all future Ekranoplans.

  • Alexeyv took the les sons learned and began to develop a new transport version design

  • specifically for the transport of military equipment and troops, called the Orlyonok.

  • This was a much smaller variant, 58 metres long with a 31.5 metre wingspan, and a maximum

  • takeoff weight of 140 metric tonnes. It's engine layout was fascinating, with a massive

  • NK-12 turboprop engines mounted on the tail as far away from the salt water as possible.

  • These massive 6 metre diameter counter rotating turbo-propellers developed 11 thousand kiloWatts

  • of power, making it the most powerful turboprop engine to ever enter service. [10]

  • It also featured two nose mounted turbofan engines with air intakes on top of the nose

  • to minimise water intake. The exhaust of these engines were pointed under the wings to enhance

  • the ground-effect phenomenon by bolstering the air cushion with the high pressure output

  • of the jet engine. These engines were only needed on take-off before the plane could

  • gain the speed needed to develop enough lift through the wing in ground effect. Once this

  • was achieved they were shut down to decrease fuel consumption.

  • The Orlinok featured a nose mounted cargo-door and wheels to allow the plane to drive onto

  • land and unload. This was a fully functional Ekranoplan and actually entered and remained

  • in service until 1993, although only 4 were ever built. [11]

  • Details from here vary, and I found it difficult to find any authoritative source of information

  • on what happened to Alexeyev after the development of the Orlinok was complete. Some say he crashed

  • in the KM, others in the Orlinok, and others say he crashed in a Volga 2, a small passenger

  • transport Ekranoplan, but they all seem to point towards Alexeyev being fired as chief

  • designer as a result and dying a short time later. Whether that was from injuries from

  • the crash or natural causes I have no idea.

  • With Alexeyev out of the picture and the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, development

  • of Ekranoplans in the Soviet Union slowly began to fissile out.

  • They managed to develop a slightly smaller version of the KM, designed to launch anti-ship

  • missiles while out at sea. In 1987, the first version of this vehicle was built and named

  • 'Lun'. This vehicle weighed 286 tonnes, had a length of 74m and wingspan of 44m. The

  • tail mounted engines were removed completely. It was instead powered by eight NK-87 turbofans

  • mounted at the front of the craft, each producing 127 kilonewtons of thrust[6].

  • The Lun entered the Soviet Navy in 1987[7].However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,

  • only one model was ever completed and it remains in its dry dock on the shores of Caspian Sea

  • to this day.

  • The idea of a wing in ground effect plane has its merits, but it simply never found

  • its niche in any military.

  • The Germans made a much smaller ekranoplan in the 70's called the X-114, but it never

  • made it into service[8]. The Chinese also experimented with an ekranoplan called the

  • XTW-4 which was built in 1999 and went through multiple tests a year later[1]. The vehicle

  • was once spotted in a Chinese shipping port on Google Maps but has since vanished.

  • While in 2002, Boeing presented their plans to build the largest ekranoplan ever, dubbed

  • the Pelican. They claimed the craft would be longer than a football field and capable

  • of hauling 17 M1 Abram tanks across an ocean. But the US congress rejected the plans in

  • 2005. There just wasn't a need for such a plane. [9]

  • Wing in ground effect planes may yet find their niche, but for now safety and reliability

  • concerns are it's primary road block. Flying at such a low altitude provides very little

  • time for corrective maneuvers, and poor weather with high waves or wind prevents any ekranoplan

  • from operating.

  • Some have sought to develop smaller passenger versions, like the A-050 which the Russian

  • embassy of South Africa, your definitive Russian news source, claimed it would be ready for

  • service in the next 3 years. [12]

  • Vehicles like this could find a valuable niche in archipelago regions, like South East Asia,

  • where increasing wealth and populations combined with relatively short distances between islands

  • could provide a market for these temperamental craft.

  • However traditional planes will always remain a much more efficient and reliable form of

  • transport over long distances, as flying in the lower density air of the upper atmosphere

  • drastically decreases drag. So these passenger versions would have to operate extremely short

  • haul distances where airliners waste time during climbing and ascent.

  • This technology is perfectly viable for the right application, and we may yet see someone

  • solve the problem and build a successful business from it. That could be you, but you will first

  • have to learn how to solve problems. A good place to start is through Brilliants daily

  • challenges. Each day Brilliant presents with you with interesting scientific and mathematical

  • problems to test your brain

  • Each Daily challenge provides you with the context and framework that you need to tackle

  • it, so that you learn the concepts by applying them. If you like the problem and want to

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his episode of Real Engineering is brought to you by Brilliant, a problem solving website

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B1 US aircraft soviet km ground wing effect

The Soviet Superplane That Rattled America

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    joey joey posted on 2021/06/01
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