After being abandoned for decades, the Lun-Class Ekranoplan faces a new life as museum.
The history of the “Caspian Sea Monster” as CIA called it, or KM (Korabl Maket, which in Russian means Ship-prototype, the original name), starts in the 1960’s when the Soviet Union experimented with ground effect vehicles, basically, airplane-like vehicles that fly only a few meters above surfaces, mainly water. These vehicles are also known as “ekranoplans” are a sort of hybrid between airplanes and ships. The International Maritime Organization classifies them as ships, but, actually, these vehicles skim the surface of the water at a height of between one and five meters because of their unique high-speed capabilities.
This ekranoplan was designed at the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau in Nizhny Novgorod by the chief designer Rostislav Alexeyev and the lead engineer V. Efimov. Between 1966 and 1988 was the largest and heaviest aircraft in the world. The “Lun” ekranoplan was one of the last designs to come out of the Soviet ground effect vehicle program and it was longer than an Airbus A380 and almost as tall, despite its size and weight this ekranoplan was capable of reaching speeds of up to 550 km/h.
On June 22, 1966, the completed Russians moved the KM along Volga River to the testing grounds on the Caspian Sea, near the town of Kaspiysk. It was transported from the factory along the river covered in camouflage and was moved only at night so it couldn’t be discovered by Western espionage services like CIA and MI6. Because the KM was documented as a boat even if technically was an aircraft the soviet authorities assigned it as a vessel in the Soviet Navy but was operated by Soviet Air Force pilots and inaugurated with a bottle of champagne that was broken against its nose. The first flight took place on October 16, 1966, and the pilots were V. Loginov and Rostislav Alexeyev himself, an unusual situation as most aircraft designers in the USSR never piloted their own piece of engineering. Testing was conducted under the patronage of the Ministry of Shipbuilding Industry and showed that KM had a cruising speed of 430 km/h.
At a first glance, this project was seen as a promising vehicle specialized for use by military and rescue workers, but its design caused many difficulties. This formidable machine was able to take off and land in stormy conditions with waves up to two and a half meters.
An objetive for spies.
In the Cold War period, both the United States of America and the Soviet Union were taking a look into each other through their spying services CIA and KGB and in 1957 some photographs taken by western spy satellites showed the KM taxiing during testing near Kaspiysk. The CIA was intrigued by this odd-looking thing because of the small stubby wings despite their size and noticed the flag of the Soviet Navy and the “KM” markings so this ekranoplan became known as the “Kaspian Monster” when KM stood for prototype ship in Russian.
This discovery worried CIA officials who set up a dedicated task force and developed a purpose-built unmanned drone under Project AQUILINE just to determine what the secret behind the vehicle was. Initially, the CIA assumed that KM was an unfinished conventional aircraft, but it was quickly determined that the vehicle could not fly high.
After KM’s destruction, the United States discovered it was a large ekranoplan. The development of ground effect vehicles was not as widespread in the West as in the Soviet Union.
Great specs for a great project
Testing showed the KM to have an optimum (fuel-efficient) cruising speed of 430 km/h (267 mph, 232 knots), and a maximum operational speed of 500 km/h (311 mph, 270 knots). The maximum speed achieved was 650 km/h (404 mph, 350 knots), although some sources claim up to 740 km/h (460 mph, 400 knots). The KM had a wingspan of 37.6 meters, a length of 92 m, a maximum take-off weight of 494 tons and was designed to fly at an altitude of 5-10 meters. The tail stabilizer span was 37m and the height of the “Monster” was 21.8 m. KM had a wing area of 662.5 m2 , an empty weight of 240000kg, an MTOW of 544000 kg and 10 Dobrynin VD-7 turbojet engines, each giving 127.53 kN of thrust. KM also had a crew of 5 and a capacity of 50 people and a range of 1500 km. Its intended mission was to conduct lightning sea-born attacks with the six anti-ship missiles it carried in launching tubes placed at the top of its hull.
While the KM was a big piece of machinery it was hard for radar systems to detect it because of its capabilities of flying just above the water and still below the radar level of detection.
The KM as a movie star
This airplane had multiple apparitions:
- In some James Bond related content like video games and novels.
- In the episode 1 of the 2008 series “James May’s Big Ideas” entitled “Come fly with me”.
- in 2006 it was a part of the video game Microsoft Flight Simulator X.
- In the 2016 PC game “Soviet Monsters: Ekranoplans” featured several ekranoplans, includinf the KM.
The end of an era
After it was tested for 15 years the „Caspian Sea Monster”, was destroyed in 1980 by a crash caused by a pilot error. Nobody was hurt but the KM was damaged and despite it was the only one there weren’t made any attempts to try to save it and was left to float until sunk. Later the KM became the basis for Lun-class ekranoplan and it was produced in a single exemplary, MD-160, before decommissioned after the collapse of the USSR and abandoned in the Caspian Sea.
In October 2020 this Lun Class Ekranoplan was moved from the seashore to Derbent to be in the center of the Patriot Park, a military museum and theme park that will show different sorts of Soviet and Russian military equipment. A second Lun, unarmed and assigned to rescue and supply missions were at an advanced state of completion when, in the early 1990s, the whole program was canceled.
The Russian military has considered making a new-generation military ekranoplan, Be-2500 but it didn’t manage to become anything but a design.
In the US, The Flying Ship Company, a startup backed by private investors, is working on an unmanned ground effect vehicle to move cargo at high speed. Also, another start-up based in Nizhny Novgorod but with offices also in Singapore is developing its own line of commercial ekranoplans able to carry three, eight, and twelve passengers and maybe more. Its designs have caught the eye of a group of entrepreneurs who wants to establish a fast link between the capital of Finland, Helsinki and the Estonian capital, Tallinn in about 30 minutes.
The ekranoplan at its begginings was as huge as the advances he made, sadly it ended in nothing ready to operate.
But there is hope in future, not as big as the KM, not as military crafts, but in small civillian vehicles that we may get familiar with in a future, life is surprising but engineering is more.