What Happened To Giant Ekranoplans?

Mati Medar
Mati Medar
07 Feb 2021

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In the 1960s, the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev bragged that his nation had ships that could jump right over bridges. His cryptic words confused Western leaders, but he was alluding to a secret project deep within the Soviet Union.

The Soviets were developing a new class of vehicle that could move as fast as an aircraft, but lift far more payload than a conventional airplane. These machines would fly metres from the surface using an aerodynamic principle called the ground effect. They were called Ekranoplan (roughly translating to mean for “screen plane” or “low flying plane”). Beginning with experiments in the early 1960s, and headed by a pioneering hydrofoil engineer Rostislav Alexeyev, the Soviets quickly developed a series of small-scale prototypes to refine the concept. In 1966 they completed the KM (Korabl Maket) Russian for “ship-prototype”. An enormous machine, larger and heavier than any aircraft in the world. The first large scale Ekranoplan could lift an astonishing 544,000 kg (1,199,315 lb) and reach speeds of over 600 km/h (373 mph).

The KM proved that the ground effect concept could be scaled up, but it also revealed series unresolved engineering issues as well as limits to Ekranoplan operational capabilities. Despite these setbacks, Alexeyev and his engineers continued their development efforts. However, by the time the KM was completed and ready for testing, the political climate in the Soviet Union had changed entirely. Khrushchev, an enthusiastic supporter of Ekranoplans, was replaced with Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev, adverse to risk and uninterested in bold projects to showcase Soviet superiority, was far less interested in Ekranoplan development.

Alexeyev and his engineers abandoned the KM’s development and moved on to develop more practical applications, including a smaller troop transport (A-90 Orlyonok) and later, a larger anti-surface warfare ship (MD-160 Lun-class). After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the few Ekranoplans that entered service were quickly retired from Russian Navy fleets.

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