Back in the 1960s, Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev claimed there was a secret project going on deep in the country. It had a ship—this half-plane, half-boat contraption—that was capable of breaking the land speed records of the era while carrying an unprecedented amount of cargo. These projects were called Ekranoplans, and here’s why this technology just never caught on.
We’ve written about Ekranoplan before if you’re unfamiliar with the history here. In short, this thing was a massive, terrifying beast of a machine. But it never actually entered production. Mustard on YouTube lets us know what happened next:
Ekranoplans as a general idea weren’t originally intended for military use, but in the Soviet Union, the best way to gain funding was to demonstrate a new technology’s use in battle. Aside from being able to potentially carry nuclear missiles, Ekranoplans had other benefits. Because they don’t actually touch the water, it’s not detectable by active sonar and they don’t set off naval mines, but they didn’t fly high enough to be detected by radar at the time. It was the perfect middle group for covert transportation.
But Ekranoplans weren’t perfect. Their problems could likely have been solved with some more tinkering, but by that point, Khrushchev had been replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, and Brezhnev wasn’t as interested in risky, bold projects. Ekranoplans were one of them.
As resources dwindled and project leaders grew more frustrated, Ekranoplan plans were abandoned. It just didn’t make sense to keep building these things. Only a few Ekranoplans were ever built, some of which were used in the military. In fact, you can still find one today on Google Maps in Kaspiysk, a city on the Caspian Sea in Russia. When the government decided to quit using Ekranoplan technology in 1991, it simply parked one in a harbour and left it:
But the promise of the technology is still there. The larger the Ekranoplan, the better it became, with improved handling and expanded capabilities. There’s too many billionaires in this world. Rather than build dumb rockets, why not an Ekranoplan?
Just as frivolous, but way more fun.
This article was originally published in December 2019.