No wonder the West dubbed it the Caspian Sea Monster, the Soviet Ekranoplan was a gigantic threat that never was...

Nicknamed the 'Caspian Sea Monster' by NATO, the other-worldly Erkanoplan was a ground effect vehicle designed in the Cold War as a high speed Soviet troop transporter. The idea was to fly at extremely low levels across the Caspian or Black Seas, entirely under the radar, and surprise the enemy by disgorging hundreds of troops onto their shores.

It was designed to capitalise on the 'ground effect' whereby keeping an object airborne requires a lot less energy if it flies close to a flat surface. Flick a sheet of paper across a polished table and you'll see the force at work - allowing to sheet to skim across the table with just a modest push.

It can travel far quicker than say a hydrofoil and more fuel efficiently than a conventional aircraft, but it can't actually fly at any greater altitude than a 10 metre high skim. The Ekranoplan took the concept to its extreme - using the ground effect principle, but weighing 380 tons, with a wingspan of 44 metres, and using eight weirdly mounted jet engines for it's propulsion.

Thanks to the machine's proximity to water, on which it can obviously float, the Ekranoplan was a safe enough concept, in the sense that engine failure would simply lead to impacting the water like a seaplane. However, as ground effect vehicles are unable to climb above potential hazards, the problem of keeping out of the way of shipping is a real one.

The idea was for the ground effect vehicle (GEV) - technically not an aircraft - to use the better lift-to-drag ratio of skimming close to the sea, to fly across the sea at an altitude of about four metres full of troops. Khruschchev Only a couple of these Ekranoplan machines were ever made. It first flew in 1987 and was retired sometime in the late 90s.

The original Ekranoplan is thought to have 'crashed' in the 1980s, but a smaller spin-off machine called the LUN survives, though only just, and is now rotting and neglected in a small harbour at Kaspiysk on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.

The forerunner of the Caspian Sea Monster was the A-90 Orlyonok, a somewhat less sinister machine that mainly used ground effect, but that could actually fly higher to, in this case up to about 3,000 metres. It first flew in 1972 and five of them were made, before being retired in 1993.

One is displayed on pylons in the Moscow Canal to the northwest of the city, outside the Russian Naval Museum (Russian language only).

A marooned A-90 Orlyonok on display by the Moscow Canal

Although the Soviet programme wasn't a great success, the concept lives on, and several ground effect vehicles are in stuttering development. See Wing Ship Technology in South Korea, Universal Hovercraft in the US, and Wigetworks in Singapore. 

And just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the Russian news agency Sputnik provided a 21st century Erkanoplan scoop. On July 10th 2017, Sputnik stated that 'Russia to build new ground effect vehicle'.

The article went on to state that a new ground effect vehicle capable of transporting a 15-tonne payload was under development and scheduled to appear 2019-2020. Dubbed the Chaika-050, it seems that the machine will act primarily as a search and rescue, and reconnaissance craft.

A model of the proposed new Ekranoplan, the Chaika-A050

Commenting on the GEV's export potential Ivan Antsev (General Manager of Scientific and Production Enterprise) floated the following - "For instance" Antsev said, "India has BrahMos cruise missiles, and our GEV can be equipped with them".

And there is even a mock-up of an old style 'Sea Monster' in field hospital/medivac mode too. 'Spasatel' is Russian for 'rescue', and as you can see, there is a Russian flag under the tailplane, rather than a Soviet one. The model was actually on display at a 2016 Gidroaviasalon international hydroaviation exhibition. The 2018 exhibition takes place between the 13th and the 16th of September, so watch this space for further Ekranoplan developments.

One more thing...

Owing to the strict sanctions regime that were in force against Iran for many years, the country was forced concoct some unconventional home-grown projects for its armed forces. 

The 'Bavar 2' is a ground effect vehicle unveiled by Iran in 2010. It's though to be for avoiding radar detection while on offshore patrol missions, and could be used offensively in the Straits of Hormuz to confuse an enemy. Each carries one or two members of the Revolutionary Guard, an inbuilt camera and machine gun.