Mantiques: The Ekranoplan, the forgotten future of air travel

The other day while reading the newspaper I noticed something about an airline company planning about 30 years ahead with regards to their investment in new aircraft. It made me stop to think whether there will even be air travel in 30 years time, what with the accelerating depletion of the natural resources necessary to fuel flight.

Let’s face facts, it’s not as if we’re going to see workable electric or coal-burning aircraft. We need something very much more efficient, or maybe something entirely different? Maybe it’s worth taking a look back to what the Russians were up to in the cold-war era?

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Mysterious aircraft somewhere in Russia

I was also recently reading about super-yachts and it had me thinking about how incredibly boring and traditionally minded the mega-rich of the world are. If you have more money than you can employ people to shake sticks at, what can you possibly spend it on? A huge boat, with swimming pools, bars, helipads, underwater bars, submarine docking and whatnot, of course, if you have no imagination at all. The more money you have, the longer the boat and the more pools you need. And if someone has a bigger boat than yours built, why, you must order an even larger one immediately.

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Why not think really differently?

In his 2010 book “Zero history”, William Gibson describes one of the advertising magnate Hubertus Bigend owning an Ekranoplan. At which point you’ll be thinking “an ekrano-what?”, and you would be far from alone in doing so.

During the cold-war era the Russians came up with a fantastic idea. By using the principle of “wing in ground” or ground effects, whereby the wings compress air between them and the ground, they constructed huge airplane-ship hybrids that could skim across the water or level ground. This is the same principle as used by many birds when they skim across the surface of water, or when stark bonkers humans throw themselves off mountains wearing wingsuits.

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The ground effect forms a cushion of air under the wide stubby wings and means the vehicle becomes a very energy efficient way of transporting a huge weight at relatively high speed. Plus the Ekranoplan look incredibly cool, in a hardcore retro industrial-techno way.

The largest of the Ekranoplans was the KM-class variant. 540 metric tonnes, travelling at around 500km an hour, at height up to 12 metres above ground. That is 300 metric tonnes of load capacity. So we’re talking a fuel-efficient boat-like transporter capable of huge load capacity and speeds more than half of a what a typical passenger plan can carry. And it can park up on water without issues. What, no more huge airports as well?

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While I’m obviously not a Russian aircraft engineer in the 1980’s, it’s hard not to see there are a lot of advantages to this way of thinking. The only downside that comes to mind is that it might not work very well over the big seas where waves will cause an uneven surface.

So what became of the Ekranoplans? Most likely the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Berlin wall and the general lessening of war-mongering led to a lack of obvious purpose and therefor funding drying up. Does anyone really need a fleet of rapid, load-carrying aircraft that can carry troops and armoured vehicles, and stay under the radar?

“Ekranoplan”. Taste the word, feel the awesomeness of the images. Will it’s time come? If I was one of the super-rich I’d be restoring that poor, derelict Ekranoplan already. Can you imagine pulling up among the poverty-class super-yachts in Monaco and exiting your Ekranoplan? Priceless indeed.

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Many of the photos shown here are from an incredible documentation of the Ekranoplan shown on the Google Maps image (actual live link). To see more of this fantastic series of photos, look here.

Here is also a Youtube video for further studies. And a website with a great deal of further information.

I’ll get back to more usual topics in my next post, no worries, ok?

2 Responses to “Mantiques: The Ekranoplan, the forgotten future of air travel”

  1. Brian S

    I remember sitting in on a briefing in the early ’80s that included some intel on these. Very cool. There was some chatter about their use in the Arctic. One scenario had waves of them coming over the pole to land in the Territories. However no one good come up with a good reason for the Soviets to do that so that worry was shelved.

    Reply
    • Well Dressed Dad

      They are incredibly interesting devices. I am totally fascinated by the series of photos of the dormant specimen. I can only imagine the feeling of speed when travelling that low over water!

      Reply

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