You can always rely on the Russians to take engineering projects to their logical extreme, especially if the Russians in question happened to live under the yolk of the USSR. The need to maintain parity, and if possible eek out an advantage, in the Cold War arms race saw the soviets design and build some truly incredible creations, including their own versions of Concorde and the space shuttle – the TU-144 (‘Concordski’) and The Buran.
Today’s Retropower Hero is nowhere near as well-known and is also a uniquely soviet creation, a machine borne from the USSR’s unique geography in general and the Caspian Sea in particular. Fittingly given its intended environment, the machine was an ekranoplan called Korabl Maket, better known as ‘The Caspian Sea Monster.’ It was perhaps the most menacing thing to emerge from behind the iron curtain since the T34, and caused the Western powers no end of worry when it was first discovered in the late 1960s.
The Soviet Union didn’t come up with the idea of the ekranoplan or indeed the ground effect theory that gave rise to it, but it certainly took the idea far father than any western power. You need only look at the sheer size of the USSR at its height in the post-war era to work out why: 22.4 million km² of land, much of its interspaced with massive bodies of landlocked water like Caspian and the Black Sea.
The concept of the ekranoplan was therefore deeply appealing to the ever paranoid Pollitt bureau of the mid ’60s, and while actually producing a vehicle large enough to be of any tactical use would doubtless be a challenging undertaking, the concept of ground effect was well understood. Indeed, pre-war pilots had noted that they experienced greater lift when travelling low across expanses of water, a result of the “cushion” of air trapped between the surface below and the wing itself.
This, combined with the proven performance of hydrofoil-shod boats, convinced the Soviets of the worth in going a stage further – of actually lifting the foils out of the water and into the air and making full use of the volume of low pressure generated beneath. It was hoped that a suitably designed craft, now called the KM (Russian for experimental vehicle), would be able to fly approximately 8m above the surface a body of water and at great speed.
Flying just above the water and therefore free from its drag would enable the KM to be incredibly fast, very fast indeed: it was hoped that the KM would be able to cruise at 232 knots, while subsequent testing revealed it capable of topping out at 400 knots.
Achieving the performance mandated by the brief would require immense amounts of thrust to break free from the water and to get up to speed, so it’s just as well that the Soviets had just the engine, the Dobryin VD-7 turbojet. Ten of them would eventually be used, each producing 28,000lbs of thrust. The vast majority of this was to get the KM off the water and into the air, and it was thought possible that most of the engines could be shut down once this had been achieved in order to save fuel.
Having a vehicle able to ‘fly’ so low also came with a host of other, less obvious benefits, namely the perceived ability of such a craft to be undetectable to all but the most advanced of radar systems of the time, plus increased fuel efficiency now that the entity of the craft was free from the water.
The concept and its mooted performance envelope were both incredibly ambitious for the time, and actually turning the KM from a drawing board doodle to a functioning prototype was to test the best minds of the soviet military. It was complicated by the sheer scale of the KM: it had a wingspan of 37.6m, a length of 92m and a take-off weight of 544 tons. This made it comfortably the largest ‘aircraft’ yet designed and this would remain the case until the launch of the Antanov AN225 in the late ‘80s.
It might have been nothing more than a test bed at the time of its launch but the KM was fearsomely armed, fitted with a battery of short-range nuclear weapons designed to vaporize Western coastal defenses and shipping. If the Cold War had turned hot, then this beast was intended to obliterate NATO targets in or around the Black and Caspian Seas.
This being the height of the Cold War, mere years after the Cuban Missile Crises, the KM’s discovery in 1967 sent the CIA into a real flap. The Soviets had tried their best to disguise the vehicle and its voyage down the Volga River to the Caspian Sea, employing elaborate camouflage and only moving it at night. Such a large and distinctive machine was never going to remain hidden for long though, and the strange looking machine was eventually clocked by Corona, an early US satellite.
NATO, and the USA in particular, set about working out what the strange looking craft was for right away, and such was their paranoia that the KM became the subject of an intensive, top secret intelligence gathering mission. The knowledge that it was designed to terrorise both shipping and coastal defences doubtless did little to calm Washington’s nerves!
Not that its discovery caused the Soviets to shelve the KM, in fact if anything they doubled down on its development. The KM therefore lived out the remainder of its life as a test bed, which effectively meant it spent a decade and a half blatting across the surface of the Caspian Sea until, in 1980, it crashed and sank due to pilot error.
The KM, indeed pretty much every soviet ekranoplan, was the brainchild of one man, Rostislav Alexeyev. He’d cut his teeth making conventional hydrofoil boats could see the clear potential of the concept, though striving to get the likes of the KM into Soviet service ruined both his career and, in time, his health. He passed away in 1980, the same year as his most ambitious creation sank to the bottom of the sea which gave its name.
The data gleaned from the KM programme wasn’t entirely wasted though, and the Soviets pressed ahead with a pair of smaller but no less impressive creations. These were the Orlyonok, a massive troop carrier now rotting outside a military museum in central Russia, and the Lun, a rocket-equipped craft intended to hunt aircraft carriers and other capital ships.
So ekranoplans: terrifying to behold and sinister in the extreme, but easily some of the coolest creations to ever emerge from the USSR and the Cold War in general.