The Soviet Superplane That Rattled America
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The Soviet Superplane That Rattled America

September 14, 2019

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 the “Caspian 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 called “ground effect” to 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
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  1. To clear confusion: As a vehicle type it has a name and is classified as Ground Effect Vehicle or GEV
    "Flying boat" is a type of amphibian plane that has boat shaped lower fuselage that lands on water, unlike the seaplanes that have pontoons underneath their fuselage.
    Interestingly Russians kept the "know how" of this technology as they both have civilian prototypes of GEV and famous firefighting flying boat like Beriev A-40 and Be-200.

  2. in soviet system 9-1-1 phones YOU to see if everything ok, anything on fire, temperature of baby bathwater is ok, anyone dead or not responding. Is nice.

  3. Thanks for the amazing video, as always! I've been reading online about these things cause of this, but I have one question that I haven't been able to find an answer for. Why the giant set of jet engines on the front? Why not put those in the back, or on the wing, or just, like, anywhere else?

  4. Soviets wasted so much money on everything challenging the USA. That's what sunk their empire. The new more effective way is to install a US president into the White House. So much cheaper & much more effective!

  5. This fake information should be thrown out. This is all fabricated lies. I can edit video way better with the right payment amount.

  6. Fuel efficient?It's a vehicle with their main trick making use of maximum drag? I refuse to swallow it's about fuel conservation.

  7. I noticed that all of the footage showed that the flights were on calm seas.
    Everyone knows that seas are more likely to be choppy and would not allow such craft to be of any use.

  8. Almost every technical advancement is directed to the military. So sad. It seems we can't think differently.

  9. I used to have a Caspian Monster. She was from the Town of Rasht in northern Iran, but she weight slightly less than 240.000 Kilo.

  10. *Bernie Sanders 2020
    ******Bernei Sanders 2020
    ***********Bernie Sanders 2020
    *****************Bernie Sanders 2020

  11. Anyone else thinking about hovering cars at 3:25, or is that just me? They can make them small and fly over ground right?

  12. Yeah it rattled America, you could hear it rattle miles away. The water pounded the planes into nuts and bolts very fast. Hence why it's avoided now.

  13. These are some unbelievably awesome looking planes!! I love scale models but I mostly build tanks and AFV'S. There MUST be some plastic model kits available of some of these designs, especially the earlier ones. I'd like to build one, or a few!!

  14. It wasnt an Airplane. It relied on ground effect. It couldnt bank or climb like an airplane. It was effectively a high speed surface vehicle.

  15. The maximum takeoff weight isn’t almost double the net weight, it’s well over that, it’s almost two and a half times.

  16. Love it. It needs work. Deadly weapon. Concept works. Large ai drones. Hover tanks. Can have heavy armour. Equipped with lasers. Super fast assault vehicles. Racing tanks. Good vehicles for
    area 51.Try different permutations. See what works.

  17. “I want a ship!”
    “Make it fly”
    “So a plane then?”
    “No, it’ll be on water”
    “A seaplane?”
    “No, a ship that’s on top of water at all times”

  18. Think of it as a substitute of ferry boats…operating transporting cargo at big rivers or bays. Alaska, Amazon, US/Canada great lakes…

  19. I think it could find its niche as a type of high-speed PT boat. Super-fast, able to be heavily-laden…kind of an A-10 Warthog of the Sea. The problem, I think, is trying to make the thing into an oceanic Battleship-plane.

  20. If India wasn't divided by british and Soviet Union didn't broke, world's political geography would be very much different. America could've not been a superpower interfering in other's countries stuffs

  21. I have neve seen how it turns. In such low level of flight, any turn is difficult, and probably needs large free area. And it may cause accidens. How to avoid any obstackle?

  22. Russian show their Experimental things

    But U.S shows nothing they will be shown sooner ot later if it needed

  23. Old engineering works admire me more than modern engineering….
    Am talking the stuff which dated from BC. ⚒️

  24. 4:08 "It weighted a massive 240 tons, but it could take off with almost double that."
    'Almost' makes it sound less than double. 544 is more than double. (240×2=480 for all the smartasses)

  25. Big deal they make ONE or TWO prototypes and everyone gets up in arms! The Su-57 they made "12" PLANES….. 12 !

  26. Seems useless. Would get taken out by enemy planes and can't handle sea states or cross oceans like proper ships. Unreliable in bad weather. The use would be so restrictive – probably a specific body of water that is always calm. Expensive waste. Might as well use hover crafts.

  27. Следует различать термины "экраноплан" и "экранолет". Например, "Лунь" – это экраноплан, а "Orlyonok" – экранолет, т.е. он может отрываться от области, в которой работает ground effect и летать как самолет.

  28. These are so amazing, but it really is a bummer that what lead to make these is the stupidity of human beings nit being able to coexist peacefully

  29. I think I missed something, but why can’t you use this over solid ground (or can you)?

    And from there… hOVeRtanKS!

  30. So, what if we could combine this concept with the idea of mag-lev trains? The magnetics could focus on propulsion and leave the lift to aerodynamics. Mag-lev planes, anyone?

  31. I found the story how and why Alekseev died. In the 1980 he was testing a new passenger flyboat that was supposed to be ready for the Soviet Olympics. When they were putting it on water, he didn’t hear it and the boat went right on him. He got up, even continued working for a few more hours, but then he felt sick and was rushed into a hospital. He had two surgeries, but they couldn’t save him, so he died a few weeks after. Source:

  32. W.I.G ( wing in groud craft) a multi model air craft which in its main operational mode flies to close proximity by utilizing surface effect action.

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