The aeroplane that never quite
got off the ground-- literally and intentionally.
In the 1960s, American spy satellites photographed
a peculiar object floating about in the Caspian Sea within the borders
of the then Soviet Union. First, it was aeroplane-shaped-- sort
of. Second, it was gigantic-- something on the order for 310
feet long and weighing up to 540 tons. Third, its wings were
much too short to get it into the air. The Americans
scratched their heads, dubbed the thing the "Caspian Sea
Monster," and puzzled over what the heck the Soviets were doing for
the next twenty years.
they were doing is testing what was then the world's heaviest flying
machine, but which was not an aeroplane: the KM Ekranoplan.
Though it looked something like
a seaplane, it was what is known as a Ground Effect Vehicle, or Wing
in Ground by those who wish to be contrary. A GEV exploits an
interesting trait of winged aircraft; when one flies very close to the
ground its lift increases remarkably. This is because an
aircraft flying very low traps air between the wings and the ground
and if the machine has wings with a very large surface area, it can
lift incredible loads with very little effort.
The Soviets had in common with
pulp sci-fi editors and popular science magazines a love of gigantism
that the GEV's lifting power fit right into and from the late '50s to
the early '80s they strove to develop various versions of GEVs that
could be used as monster troop transports or cruise missile launchers.
They tooled about the Caspian, trying various wing designs, jet
engines, and the like, but a disastrous crash in 1980 and
general slow programme progress caused the Kremlin to turn its
attention to the more urgent task of losing the Cold War.
the problem with the KM Ekranoplan was that it was too small.
It may have been a monster, but the Ekranplan actually wasn't big
enough for the ground effect to really work. For that you need a
machine that isn't just monstrous, you need one that is downright
At least, that is the reasoning
of the Boeing Company, which has been developing what it calls the
Pelican. This is a turboprop-driven military transport with a
500 ft wingspan and is designed to carry 1300 tons of cargo over a
distance of up to 10,000 nautical miles.
At an altitude of 20 ft.
Windsurfers are advised to be
prepared to duck.