This Soviet-era sky monster is called an ekranoplan.
Robert Johnson over at Business Insider found these photos on the blog site Igor 113 and pulled together some research to bring you back to a time when the Soviets were really thought a transport ship laden with nuclear missiles was a good idea.
Below are the highlights, though you can see the full photo array here.
The one you see in photos here is the Lun-class Ekranoplan. The most unique aspect of the “part plane, part boat, and part hovercraft” ekranoplan was its propulsion method, which is why it was also called a Ground Effect Vehicle (GEV) or “Sea Skimmer.”
As Johnson puts it, the GEV’s aerodynamic feat:
“takes advantage of an aeronautical effect that allows it to lift off with an immense amount of weight, but limits its flight to 16 feet above the waves. Its altitude can never be greater than the length of the wings. Think of a large seabird, like a pelican, cruising inches from the water and not needing to flap its wings.”
This allowed Ground Effect Vehicles like the ekranoplan to be twice as efficient as regular airplanes. The “wing in ground” effect let the Soviet war-bird swoop low over the water and even get decent fuel economy while maxing out at a weight of around 2 million pounds.
But these aren’t just low-flying rip-offs of the American C-5 cargo plane. Ekranoplans were designed to be absolutely stacked with weaponry as well, including nuclear missiles.
The plane was capable of carrying six P-270 Moskit guided missiles armed with nuclear warheads which were mounted in dual configurations on top of the hull. An anti-submarine variant fitted with six anti-ship missile launchers was also planned for production, as was a field hospital cabin variation.
At about 240 feet long, the Lun-class Ekranoplan can carry 15 officers, flying 340 mph for about 1,240 miles, but always remained stuck with a ceiling altitude of 16 feet above the ocean’s surface.
The Soviet Navy’s Lun-class Ekranoplan was in limited use from 1987 to the late 1990s. The only finished model now rusts away on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Some Russian military brass have discussed refitting GEVs or building new ones for their modern fleet.
In fact, the Russian Defense Minister in 2007 said production of this particular model Ekranoplan would be resumed at some point in the future.
The ekranoplans were conceptualized at the start of the 1970s, though not deployed until decades later. The first ekranoplans were built in the mid-1980′s, and the Lun operated in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean before being spotted by NATO forces.
Had it ever faced combat, the ekranoplan would have likely needed a fighter escort, as its size and lack of maneuverability would have made it a tempting and easy target for U.S. and NATO forces. Above, you can see where a tailgunner would have tried to fend off incoming fighter planes.
You can see more photos of the ekranoplan, courtesy of Business Insider, here.