(CNN) – Located on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, it looks like a colossal aquatic animal – a bizarre creation that is more at home in the depths than above the waves. It certainly doesn’t look like something that could ever fly.
But flying did it – albeit a long time ago.
After the Caspian sea monster rested for more than three decades, it was on the move again. As one of the most eye-catching flying machines ever built, it completes its final voyage.
In July of this year, a flotilla of three tugs and two escort ships maneuvered slowly along the shores of the Caspian Sea after 14 hours at sea to deliver their bulky special cargo to its destination, a stretch of coast near the southernmost point of Russia.
Here, next to the ancient city of Derbent in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, the 380-tonne Ekranoplan of the “Lun class” has found its new and most likely permanent home.
“Lun”, the last of its kind to sail the waters of the Caspian Sea, was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and sentenced to rust at the Kaspiysk naval base, about 100 kilometers off the coast of Derbent.
But before it could be forgotten, it was saved thanks to plans to make it a tourist attraction, right at a time when this unusual travel concept may be on the verge of a comeback.
Speed and stealth
The 380-ton “Lun-class Eunonoplan” has moved for the first time in 30 years.
Musa Salgereyev / TASS / Getty Images
Ground-effect vehicles, also known as “Ekranoplans”, are a kind of hybrid between aircraft and ships. You move across water without actually touching it.
The International Maritime Organization classifies them as ships, but in fact they derive their unique high-speed capabilities from the fact that they soar over the surface of the water at between one and five meters (three to 16 feet).
They use an aerodynamic principle known as the “ground effect”.
This combination of speed and stealth – its proximity to the surface in flight makes it difficult to spot on radar – caught the attention of the Soviet military, who experimented with different variations of the concept during the Cold War.
Their use on the huge inland waters between the Soviet Union and Iran resulted in them being nicknamed “Caspian Sea Monster”.
The “Lun” -Ekranoplan was one of the last designs to emerge from the Soviet ground-effect vehicle program. The Lun was longer than an Airbus A380 superjumbo and, despite its size and weight, almost as big. Thanks to eight powerful turbo fans on its blunt wings, it was able to reach speeds of up to 550 kilometers per hour.
This impressive machine could take off and land even in stormy conditions with waves of up to two and a half meters. His intended mission was to carry out lightning strikes at sea using the six anti-ship missiles he carried in launch tubes located on top of his hull.
I love it when an Ekranoplan comes together.
Musa Salgereyev / TASS / Getty Images
The Ekranoplan, which was relocated to Derbent, is the only one in its class to be completed and put into service in 1987.
A second Lun, unarmed and used for rescue and supply missions, was at an advanced stage of completion when the entire program was canceled in the early 1990s and the existing Lun was taken out of service.
After more than 30 years of inactivity, getting this sea creature moving again was no easy task, as it required rubber pontoons and carefully coordinated choreography involving multiple ships.
“Lun” will be the star of Derbent’s planned Patriot Park, a military museum and theme park that will display various types of Soviet and Russian military equipment.
Construction of the park is expected to begin during 2020. For now, Lun will be sitting alone on the beach.
It should be a new highlight for Derbent visitors. The city claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement on Russian territory. The citadel and the historic center have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The sea creature was powered by eight powerful turbofans.
Denis Abramov / Sputnik / AP
“Lun” will add to the attractions of a region that, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, took a number of initiatives to open up to tourism, including the introduction of cruise routes in the Caspian Sea.
Derbent’s Patriot Park isn’t the only Russian museum to display an Ekranoplan. A much smaller Orlyonok-class Ekranoplan is in the Russian Navy Museum in Moscow.
While ground effect vehicles have fallen out of favor in the past few decades, the concept has seen a revival recently
Developers in Singapore, the US, China and Russia are working on various projects aimed at bringing Ekranoplan back to life, albeit with more peaceful goals.
Singapore-based Wigetworks hopes to develop a modern version of Ekranoplan.
Courtesy of Wiget Works
One of them is Wigetworks, based in Singapore, whose AirFish 8 prototype is based on the foundations of the German engineers Hanno Fischer and Alexander Lippisch during the Cold War.
Wigetworks acquired the patents and intellectual property rights and tried to improve and update these earlier designs to create a modern ground effect vehicle.
The Chinese Ekranoplan Xiangzhou 1 also flew in Asia for the first time in 2017, although little is known about this project.
The Flying Ship Company is developing an unmanned ground effect vehicle.
Courtesy of the Flying Ship Company
In the US, The Flying Ship Company, a startup supported by private investors, is working on an unmanned ground-effect vehicle to move cargo at high speed. Think unmanned delivery drones, but above water.
The project is in its early stages, although founder and CEO Bill Peterson tells CNN that his team plans to deliver this project within seven years.
And Russia, home of Ekranoplan, has not given up on the concept.
Several projects have been touted in recent years, although none have yet managed to get past the design phase.
Beriev, a manufacturer of jet-powered amphibious aircraft, developed the Be-2500 concept. More recently, it has been reported by Russian media that a new generation military Ekranoplan, tentatively named “Orlan”, is being considered.
Another privately financed project emerged from Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial city on the banks of the Volga that is closely linked to the origins of Ekranoplan technology. RDC Aqualines, which also has offices in Singapore, is developing its own line of commercial ekranoplaners that can carry three, eight and twelve passengers and possibly expand to include more.
His designs have caught the attention of a group of entrepreneurs who want to create a fast link across the Gulf of Finland and connect Helsinki to the Estonian capital, Tallinn, in around 30 minutes.
You may soon not have to visit a museum to discover an Ekranoplan.